In the end, Stations of the Cross succeeds where The Revenant fails
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
[Warning: SPOILER ALERT — The ending of the film The Revenant is discussed in the following article.]
Survival against all odds in the wilderness: it’s a powerful theme, and watching its depiction in The Revenant is an engrossing experience.
In a remarkable way, the camera places us immediately in the environment. We feel we are part of the journey. The cinematography is so stupendous that, in combination with the intensity of the acting performances, the audience is fully engaged, completely immersed in the struggle for survival.
Yet something is missing from this movie. When Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to the end of his quest, his refusal to take revenge doesn’t feel like the appropriate dramatic culmination of the film.
The proverb tells us that sometimes we must make a choice; we cannot have it both ways: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
The choice of Glass, however, still allows us to have it both ways. On the one hand, he chooses to “have the cake” of deferring to God’s higher justice: at the last moment, he chooses not to take revenge.
On the other hand, within minutes, he still gets to “eat the cake” of revenge, as someone else slaughters Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), giving the instant gratification of an apparently “divine” vengeance.
The Hollywood logic of this conclusion seems driven by one thing and one thing only: audience satisfaction. Even if Glass himself doesn’t deliver the final blow, the director (Alejandro González Iñárritu) still plays God and does the killing. The audience’s appetite for the defeat of the bad man is crudely satisfied.
The film is thus devoted above all to delivering spectacle. Its camerawork is truly stunning, but its dramatic conclusion fails, eagerly seeking likewise to please the audience’s visceral appetites.
As a result, the audience never experiences the spiritual purification that results from placing one’s desires unreservedly in God’s hands. Glass allegedly experiences this conversion, but the filmmaker’s relentless desire to serve up spectacle denies the audience its opportunity for a true catharsis.
The unwavering devotion of The Revenant to spectacle is both the film’s great virtue and, in the end, its curse.
Its single-minded pursuit of thrilling the audience, by deploying the most advanced camerawork technically possible, is completely opposite to the approach of Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, which was one of the very best films of the past year.
Stations of the Cross will never reach the level of popularity and acclaim as The Revenant. It is a German film with English subtitles. In the first 15-minute scene, of a young priest (Florian Stetter) teaching catechism to some young people, the camera does not move at all.
The movie has only 13 more scenes, in which the camera remains completely static and immobile. Actually, the camera does move twice later on, but only at two key moments during the story. It moves only in order to suggest what the audience has to meditate on in order to attain spiritual growth.
Its story doesn’t serve up vengeance, or pander to audience desires, in any spectacular way like The Revenant. Instead, the actors take us on a dramatic journey of the human spirit, leaving us to resolve things inwardly.
Stations of the Cross tells us about Maria (played by the very talented actress Lea van Acken), who is raised by her parents in a rigid religious environment. Her community defines itself by opposition to things like communion in the hand and Vatican II.
The camerawork provides a perfect formal parallel to Maria’s environment. Unmoving and unchanging, it helps the audience feel what it is like to be there and suffer her constraints along with her.
Maria’s odyssey is just as harrowing as Glass’s odyssey. Perhaps it is even more so, because the audience doesn’t get to experience the visceral satisfaction of a triumph against all odds.
Instead, Maria must trek through a wilderness of a spiritual kind, to find her way to God through her own experience of the Passion. As with The Revenant, audience empathy for the dramatic hero will arise from how the camera visually inserts the viewer into an extreme experience.
Yet, unlike The Revenant, the story of Stations of the Cross succeeds precisely where the Hollywood version of Glass’s story fails. Stations of the Cross does not give audiences the ending that they want.
For those who want to dwell on the level of spectacle and appetitive gratification, its ending will simply leave them upset over Maria’s fate. Yet the filmmakers offer something more satisfying than The Revenant: a convincing portrayal of human suffering, inviting us to a conversion of heart.
Ultimately, The Revenant’s artistic goals are undermined by its inflexible commitment to the sort of dazzling externals that define Hollywood success. However, where The Revenant fails, Stations of the Cross succeeds, by leaving room for deeply interior reflection by the audience.
True art succeeds by showing the path for spiritual growth. For this, wilderness survival can only be a metaphor. Cinema’s greatest promise, however, lies in its dramatic power to inspire empathy and heartfelt mercy.