The Prayer, Best Actor winner at Berlinale, is a worthy addition to the list of films about faith

Posted on February 26, 2018


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Winter Light (1963), directed by Ingmar Bergman, is one of the most wrenching depictions of faith on film — rather, the lack of faith, given that the person in crisis is a pastor named Tomas. Like Jesus, Tomas murmurs to himself: “God, why have you forsaken me?” Elsewhere, when his lover Märta asks what’s troubling him, Tomas replies, “God’s silence.” Again, the pastor is being likened to the Son of God. His words are echoed towards the end, when a parishioner narrates an episode from the life of Jesus. “He believed everything He’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before He died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

I was reminded of Winter Light while watching Cédric Kahn’s La prière (The Prayer), which won Anthony Bajon the Best Actor award at Berlinale 2018. Here, too, we encounter musings about a silent God. And here, too, the protagonist in a crisis of faith is named Thomas (Anthony Bajon). This doubting Thomas is in his early twenties, and he’s looking to recover from a heroin addiction. After an overdose, he comes to a remote retreat in the French Alps, run by Catholics, where he will have to follow strict rules. No cigarettes. No alcohol. No contact with the outside world. No girls. He will have to get by with friendship (there are other young men like him), hard work, prayer and — yes — faith.

The retreat, in other words, is like jail, and the film that springs to mind is Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009). There, too, a very young man is confined, given a number of tasks to carry out, surrounded by a kind of brotherhood, and elevated by a touch of divinity. But his innocence is slowly corrupted, while Thomas becomes purer, increasingly drawn to a higher purpose. It isn’t easy at first, as the homilies keep coming faster than he can duck. “You have two legs, two arms, one brain – just like the others. There’s no reason you can’t do [this work] too.” “God puts no more load on us than we can handle.” Thomas flees, saying, “I’ll shoot myself in that place.” We feel his pain.

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