Despite an excellent Berlin Best Actor performance by Anthony Bajon, Cédric Kahn’s latest is rather rote in its treatment of rehab through religion.
Dir. Cédric Kahn
2018 | France| Drama | 107 mins | 1.85:1 | French
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scene
Cast: Anthony Bajon, Damien Chapelle, Alex Brendemühl, Hanna Schygulla
Plot: Thomas is a drug addict. In an effort to put an end to his habit, he joins a community of former addicts who live isolated in the mountains and use prayer as a way to cure themselves.
Awards: Won Best Actor (Berlin)
International Sales: Le Pacte
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at the French Film Festival ’18)
There have been films about rehabilitation, and there have been films about religion. In that very intersection are films about rehab through religion. The Prayer, the latest by French director Cédric Kahn, falls into that category. It is not a great film, but could be insightful for different kinds of audiences.
For me, religion fascinates more than rehab, and in the case of The Prayer, as its title foregrounds, its religious themes come into play as a young man at the cusp of adulthood travels by bus to a remote village with few people. In that village is a Catholic mission hoping to rehabilitate those who have strayed, particularly drug addicts and alcoholics. Over there, Thomas (Anthony Bajon in a Berlin Best Actor performance) finds refuge—and loads of consternation and self-doubt—as he tries to wean off the vices that have consumed and destroyed him.
Reading all of these might make you feel meh, and indeed the film doesn’t quite offer great resonance, least of all spiritual illumination, though it might, as I said, offer specific insights. The treatment is fairly rote, but Kahn’s sense of location is strong. The setting, in the natural highlands, gives a wide spatial counterpoint to Thomas’ inner conflict. And in possibly the film’s finest sequence, which feels like something out of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Thomas finds himself stranded on the fog-shrouded mountains after a hike with his community of friends.
Much of The Prayer is about that very community, close-knit and supportive, though one might question its blind-valuing of conformity. A visiting nun asks Thomas whether he is happy, and this is something I would ask too, but from an outsider’s perspective, I am curious if religion can truly make someone happy, or is reassurance merely a substitute for happiness?
The Prayer ultimately falls short and part of the reason is that the film’s overbearing sense of religious righteousness—of choosing the (only) right path—doesn’t allow for great cinema. The other reason is that it ends on a convenient if ambiguous note that doesn’t quite earn it its power. The result is that we have an excellent lead performance, but the film leaves little indelible impression.