Matchup of the Day: First Reformed VS Winter Light
In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain who presides over the historical landmark church of the title. He is divorced, suffers from a potentially fatal medical problem, and mourns his son who died in the Iraq war. First Reformed, which draws more tourists than parishioners, is supported by a larger church nearby. Toller performs his mostly mundane daily duties while cutting himself off from participation in the outside world. This changes, however, when one of Toller’s flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her radical environmentalist husband who believes the Earth is heading toward imminent disaster. The husband commits suicide not long afterward, which causes Toller to become increasingly eco-conscious. He begins questioning whether God would approve of humankind’s stewardship of His Creation.
Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light is similarly set up, but in this case the pastor of the church, Tomas Ericsson, has to counsel a man who is fearful that the Chinese are going to plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust (the film came out during the Cold War). Ericsson’s wife has recently passed away, leaving him empty and questioning the existence of God; this is similar to Toller’s loss of a son. Where the two films diverge significantly, though, is that Toller develops a relationship with the widow of the man who killed himself, while Ericsson does not. In both films, the clergymen had an affair with a doting woman whom they grew to dislike. Ericsson spends a great deal more time with the woman, Märta, than Toller does with her counterpart in First Reformed, Esther. Märta has a monologue in Light that goes into considerable detail about the nature of her relationship with Ericsson. Later in the film, he, in turn, goes into some detail as to why he can no longer tolerate her. In First Reformed Esther doesn’t get much screen time, and the younger Mary turns out to be much more important in the film.
At the end of Light, Ericsson stands before an empty church, save for Märta, reciting a prayer he doesn’t believe in. His deceased wife is all that mattered to him, and his emptiness is inconsolable. Toller, on the other hand, adopts the extremist views of Mary’s husband to fill the hole inside himself. He finds out that one of the men who donates to the church is the owner of a company known to be a heavy polluter. Toller decides to suicide-bomb the First Reformed church during its 250th anniversary celebration, at which the culprit will be in attendance. Toller takes a similar path as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, for which Paul Schrader, the director of Reformed, wrote the screenplay. Instead of a shooting spree to rescue an underage prostitute, Toller is out to save the Earth itself. His plot is thwarted, though, when Mary unexpectedly shows up at the celebration. He doesn’t want her to be injured in the explosion, so instead he wraps himself in barbed wire and opts for suicide by drinking Drano. The movie comes to a perplexing conclusion at that point. Paul Schrader says in this Slate interview that the ending is intended to be up in the air, and that he doesn’t have an answer as to what it means.
(NOTE: Winter Light is part of the “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence are also a part.)