Thursday 3 December 2020

Believe it or not: "Faith"

Faith, a most peculiar doc from the late director Valentina Pedicini, opens with an inscription you'd more commonly expect to see in genre fare: "In 1998, a kung fu master devoted his body and soul to the fight against demons." Its opening sequence, which would appear to have nothing to do with the above, could easily be mistaken for a scene from any provincial nightclub, with men and women pulling serious shapes to pounding techno in a stroboscopic blur. But no: it's all linked, all connected, believe it or not. There apparently is a monastery deep in the Italian hills run by a bald-pated, softly spoken Buddhist who's vowed to train future generations to defend the world against the forces of evil, and the training - captured here by cinematographer Bastien Esser in an especially gorgeous monochrome - really does involve dancing it out at regular intervals. True, there are prayers, too, and meditation sessions, but what catches the eye are this church's more leftfield rituals: the complimentary massages, the way the gym gets converted each morning into a creche for devotees' kids, the row of crossbows we spy bolted to a monastery wall. How effective all this is in keeping demons at bay remains to be seen, but it looks a darn sight sexier than what's been going on with the Church of England these past few centuries.

Also striking: the access Pedicini obtained to this retreat's inner sanctum, which speaks to how the documentary as a form has changed in recent decades, and how society has changed in an era where individuals - documentary subjects - have proved more than willing to sign away their privacy in return for some form of exposure. For much of the running time, Pedicini holds to the unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall methods of a film like Into Great Silence, that unexpected arthouse hit about the lives of Carthusian monks living wordlessly in the French countryside. Yet her subjects are notably younger, more openly demonstrative (hence that dancing), and they don't appear to be denying themselves, or the filmmaker, all that much. The latest batch of recruits, male and female, are seen in the shower and on the toilet, undressing for bed and then redressing once they're "called" to their leader's bedroom in the middle of the night. (That techno gives way to alarm bells.) If it weren't for the uniformly shaved heads and general desire for self-improvement, we could be watching the latest intake of Big Brother contestants. It's possible this sect's leader saw Pedicini's film as an outreach program of sorts - that, like the new health minister in the recent Collective, he invited the cameras in to demonstrate there was nothing to hide here. Yet it soon becomes clear the monastery was under siege for a while, that non-demonic fingers were being pointed. One woman has left, and several more upset, as a result of the behaviour of a male recruit, Gabriele, caught presenting a "Who, me?" face to the camera. His story is only picked up in the seconds before the closing credits, and even then inconclusively. Was he the demon the monks needed to cast out?

Pedicini's film proves frustratingly sketchy on this: we surely need to know the exact nature of these complaints, not just sense a vague tension building within the camp. Throughout, the film is observational without being especially journalistic. We never get any sense of how the leader arrived here, geographically or spiritually; of what distinguishes his mission from any other; even, really, of what any of these recruits actually believe in. That initial inscription is about all the context Pedicini is willing to provide. Which raises questions, as questions will always spring up around any creed where female believers are called to the leader's bedroom in the early hours to endure a shirtless lecture on realising their potential. (One superficial question: is there some correlation between the falsity of a prophet and the density of their chest hair?) Faith mostly left me with doubts: I couldn't tell you how much Pedicini was actively interrogating this structure, and how much she was passively lending support - how much she'd been sweet-talked into providing a gleaming recruitment vid for whatever the hell kind of operation this is. Those images remain seductive up to a point, and maybe Pedicini was onto something in getting us to ask the questions the supplicants can't or won't, but way too much of this story is kept offscreen, left unexamined. Someone involved in this oddly non-committal, jus'-happy-to-be-here-folks project really needed pinning down at some point - if not with one of those crossbows (unexplained, natch), then with something from the filmmaker's own arsenal.

Faith is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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