Loving the Lord a little too much, young novice nun Celine’s (Julie Sokolowski) spiritual devotion to Christ even freaks out the other, mostly elderly, nuns in its all-consuming passion. Starving herself and practising (thankfully undepicted) self-mortification, the Mother Superior thinks Celine may be a little too tightly wound for convent life, that she may be taking the whole piety and self-sacrifice thing a bit far, that the extremity of her faith may be selfish, an extreme manifestation of vanity and that maybe a little time back in the real world will give Celine the chance to examine her vocation and put her life in perspective.
Cast out of the convent, the devastated Celine returns to the Parisian home of her wealthy parents where she soon embarks on a platonic relationship with young Muslim Yassine (Yassine Salime), making it clear that she’s saving herself for Christ. Increasingly drawn to Yassine’s older, more serious brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), Celine comes to see him as something of a kindred spirit. Quiet, thoughtful and devout, he shares her fanaticism for God. Seduced by his extremism, he and Celine visit the Middle East where the spectacle of everyday, random violence perpetrated on the population inspires Celine to commit a shocking, brutal act of catharsis.
Austere, elliptical and pessimistic, Bruno Dumont’s work can be an acquired taste. It’s certainly one that I haven’t acquired yet. Devoid of humour and thumpingly obvious, his teenage ruminations on the bestial nature of Man and Nature (Twentynine Palms, Flandres, Hors Satan) are usually notable only for rendering boring his explicit depictions of extreme sex and violence. Named after the Medieval poet and mystic who, like Celine, also had a bit of a thing for Jesus and self-harming, Hadewijch is no less ponderous than Dumont’s other work but it is refreshingly rape-free for a change, choosing instead to focus on a female protagonist, her intense crisis of faith and fanaticism rather than his usual bestial males and their more worldly concerns.
The film’s slow, contemplative meditation on religious fervor and its dark side will divide audiences but its equating of the extremism of both Christianity and Islam is a rich, bold move. This isn’t a film about the rights and wrongs or particular merits of one religion over another. This is a film about lonely, isolated, alienated people who are desperate to believe in something, anything, bigger than themselves. Adrift in a secular, seemingly godless world, Celine and Nassir’s thankless devotion to God and their eventual act of terrorism is as much a desire to prove they matter. They want God’s attention. They want him to notice them. As the Mother Superior suggests to Celine at the start of the film, her devotion is far from selfless. Her fasting and self-punishment isn’t really about God, it’s a way for Celine to be noticed.
Non-actor Sokolowski gives a fantastic, nuanced performance as Celine, bringing a depth to the pious failed nun that simply isn’t in the script, eliciting the audience’s sympathies and identification. Dumont never explicitly condemns or condones Celine’s actions but he does allow her a glimmer of hope, the possibility of redemption.
Bleak and sincere, Hadewijch is an absorbing study of blind faith and devotion.
Julie Sokolowski, Yassine Salime, Karl Sarafidis, David Dewaele