“Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
These words, spoken by Reverend Ernst Toller in the movie First Reformed could be considered a sort of thesis for the film itself. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) is a film that delves into one of the most pressing issues of our time, but does not forget how it is inseparable from one of the most timeless of human questions. Climate anxiety is the catalyst for the protagonist Reverend Toller’s confrontation with a more personal problem, his lack of faith. Reverend Toller finds himself falling further into despair as he grapples with God’s silence and the complete disregard for creation he sees from the faithful in a super church nearby, where another Reverend is unafraid to associate with one of the corporations responsible for pollution.
The way that Schrader ties the issues of climate change to the timeless issue of faith is mirrored by the film’s parallel structure with another film, Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 masterpiece Winter Light. Another film about a pastor struggling with faith, Winter Light also seeks to examine the relationship between faith and despair. In Winter Light, pastor Tomas Ericsson (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) attempts to console a parishioner who has lost the will to live due to a fear of nuclear war. Ericsson finds he cannot offer any consolation to the parishioner, as he himself has lost his faith due to the silence of God. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, imbued the film with his own personal struggles with religion.
Both First Reformed and Winter Light deal extensively with themes of isolation. As the protagonists in each film descend further into despair, they push the people around them away, rejecting those they see as naive. This self isolation is presented as selfish, but also as a very human reaction to doubt and uncertainty. Despite the philosophical nature of the films, the tight focus on the protagonist makes the films compelling character studies.
The main difference between the two films seems to be the amount of focus on the historical issues. Winter Light is ultimately not a film about nuclear war, but First Reformed is undeniably trying to address the issue of climate change. First Reformed succeeds spectacularly, pointing out the contradictions in thought that many people hold, and making the viewer think about this impending disaster. The differences in scope are reflected the conclusions of the two films as well. Both ultimately address the conflict between hope and despair and the idea that in the face of such a conflict, even just continuing on as normal could be seen as radical.
I highly recommend both films for people interested in these issues or just film in general. First Reformed is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, and Winter Light can be found on The Criterion Channel.