The title of Stations of the Cross refers to the 14 stages of Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion and martyrdom at Golgotha. Here brother and sister writing team Anna and Dietrich Brüggemann use those 14 stages to reflect the coming of age story of 14 year old Maria (Lea Van Acken), the eldest daughter of a devoutly Catholic family, who is preparing for her confirmation. This, combined with Dietrich Brüggemann’s austere direction, may sound off putting but Stations of the Cross is well worth taking a chance on.
Many films that deal with coming of age stories within religious communities equate that coming of age with a rebellion against the restrictions that can come with being a part of those communities. This one is different. Not only is Maria devout, her only concern in the world, clearly influenced by her strictly fundamentalist mother (Franziska Weisz), seems to be becoming more devout. She wants to be closer to God, to give herself entirely to him.
When we first see Maria outside a Church context she is walking in the park with her family and their au pair Bernadette (Lucie Aron). Here, Maria suggests that she and Bernadette bow their heads in prayer and thank Jesus for the beautiful view. This moment, and the scene that follows, establishes Maria’s character beautifully; a sweet, considerate girl who would like to please both her parents and her God, but seems unable to do the former and unconvinced that she can do the latter.
The fact that Maria is so concerned with her relationship with God doesn’t mean that she is entirely immune to the typical concerns of being 14. In one beautifully written and played scene Christian (Moritz Knapp), a boy from her year, turns to Maria and using the excuse of his maths homework, tries to talk to her. It’s such a truthful moment, one most of us will have had at some level. Lea van Acken is brilliant in this scene, suggesting just the slightest excitement, but also Maria’s feeling that that excitement is wrong. Like much of her performance it has a quiet sadness behind it.
The device of capturing each scene in a single shot is remarkably invisible. For the most part, Dietrich Brüggemann’s minimalism draws us in, forcing us to look deeply into the detail of each frame, be it in Maria’s face, framed in close up in the confession booth or in the positions and dynamics at a fractious family dinner. Camera movement is rare, occurring only in the film’s third act, perhaps a metaphor for how things go out of balance in the story at this point. Brüggemann’s technique also gives the film an appropriately out of time feeling. But for one use of a digital camera, one mention of Facebook and a Roxette song in the background of one scene, this could take place any time in the past fifty years. This gives both the family and Maria a sense of isolation from the world without ever having to lay it out in dialogue.
Stations of the Cross fits into an interesting trend for coming of age films focused on religious characters, and it can stand easily alongside Love Like Poison and Corpo Celeste as another film that makes use of these ideas to tell a truthful, sensitively written and acted story. It’s one of 2014’s best and most moving films.
Stations of the Cross is released on Friday 28th November.