Stations of the Cross
Strict faith and unrelenting self-denial are pushed to devastating limits in Stations of the Cross, Dietrich Brüggemann’s stark, strikingly original tale of lost youth. Fourteen single shots mirror its namesake, each a moment in the steady decline of Maria (Lea van Acken), a bright fourteen year-old unwavering in her dogged pursuit of the Catholic faith her parents impose. Though it hangs over the film like a darkening cloud, religion is not confined to mere villainy, Brüggemann instead taking a less heavy-handed approach which constantly questions its own views upon Catholicism. An eleventh-hour miracle which uproots the viewer is summative of the film’s approach: too intelligent to wholly condemn religion despite a harrowing surface which appears to do so.
As rigid in its view of Maria’s life as she is in her faith, Stations of the Cross observes it in carefully framed long takes with a mostly static camera, both deepening the film’s naturalism and demanding remarkable stamina and discipline from its young leads. Van Acken delivers a mature, accomplished performance, a visibly dwindling light as she denies herself all forms of pleasure, basic comfort and eventually nourishment. Familiar tropes of the coming-of-age schoolgirl tale, the first crush, the gym class bullying and the heated family arguments play out with unsettling implications. Yet as Maria’s onscreen interactions become increasingly cold and detached, her connection to the viewer is never strained the same way, underpinning the inevitable tragedy and leaving an admirably complicated aftertaste.
“Mundane but interesting, I guess”, says a tourist of her diary-keeping habits halfway through Manakamana. The same sadly can’t be said of this self-important film as a whole, which posits a potentially fascinating idea before leaving it and the viewer to drift more slowly and repetitively than the very cable cars it studies. Fixed-camera takes, each the length of a 16mm roll of film, follow full journeys in cars suspended high above lush Nepalese valleys, ferrying worshippers to and from a mountain temple.
The potential for ethnographic intrigue in these fleeting glimpses of day-to-day life is vast, yet Manakamana plays out as if directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez could not collect enough ripe material, padding out the running time with visitors who stare beyond the lens, wordless and expressionless. Making for a far less poetic watch than Spray and Velez clearly believe, this would be forgivable were it forming the truthful, unedited hidden-camera documentary that the film initially seems. Yet given that the pilgrims are knowingly acting for camera, each time a new companion emerges from darkness amid the sound of whirring mechanisms before proceeding to do nothing more than the audience for ten minutes, the latter inevitably feels short-changed. Dialogue is never absent for too long, yet is rarely more than inconsequential small talk about the landscape or the weather. When amongst this uninspiring cast the viewer is granted an intimate view of a goat’s backside for ten minutes, Manakamana’s attitude to its audience is best encapsulated. The patience it both portrays and demands never offers a reward.