Moviemakers have long been attracted to extremes in religious faith. This has ranged from hellfire and brimstone preachers in westerns to clerical abuse in more modern times.
Cults, too, have attracted much attention, with the emphasis on scams that prey on people’s vulnerabilities.
By contrast, genuinely inspirational movies have usually featured more mainstream religions.
In new European productions, extreme beliefs have been the focus. Prominent in this are the causes and consequences of radical Islam, particularly among alienated youth rebelling against their migrant parents.
France has a large Muslim minority that remains largely unassimilated and does not share that society’s dominant values.
L’adieu à la nuit (Farewell to the Night), screening in the disrupted French Film Festival, is set in the unlikely surrounding of the southwestern coastal countryside near the Spanish border rather than the urban banlieues of Paris or Marseilles.
Catherine Deneuve runs a horse-riding school and is delighted when her grandson (Kacey Mottet Klein) turns up suddenly after a long absence. But he does not come alone. He is in a jihadist group that includes his girlfriend (Oulaya Amarara) and a sinister recruiter (Stéphane Bak). They are preparing to join the Isis forces in Syria.
When their intentions become obvious, a former jihadist (Kamel Labroudi) is called in to persuade them otherwise.
Veteran director André Techiné doesn’t sugar-coat the story and highlights the gap between the appeal of youthful devotion to a deadly cause and
the bizarre anti-social behaviour that follows.
The Swedish TV mini-series Kalifat (Caliphate) on Netflix is much more upfront about the nature of Isis and its European jihadist offshoots.
It has two main plots, one concerning security intelligence attempts to prevent a series of terrorist attacks in Stockholm, and the other about the plight of a Swedish “wife” and mother who wants to escape virtual captivity in Raqqa.
Interweaved with these is the recruitment of two schoolage sisters, also with migrant Muslim backgrounds, who have negative views toward their parents and society generally.
While staged as a thriller, the series offers insights into why several hundred from the Nordic countries joined the Isis cause.
Les éblouis (The Dazzled), also in the French Film Festival, traces the radicalisation of a family who join a charismatic Catholic sect, the Community of the Dove, in the parish of Angoulême in southwest France.
They live communally, but are dominated by “The Shepherd” (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), who insists his flock “baa” when he enters the room.
The story focuses on the eldest daughter (Céleste Brunnquell), who is entering her teens and attends a school outside the community. Her rebellion exposes the cultish practices of “The Shepherd” and is based on writer-director Sarah Suco’s own childhood experiences.
A similar story is the background to the Netflix mini-series Unorthodox, about a Hungarian subset of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community.
In this German production, endorsed for its authenticity by members of Berlin’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, an unhappy young bride (Shira Haas) escapes to join her birth mother in Germany, pursued by her husband and an enforcer. Netflix also has a “making of” documentary that explains much of the detail.
Curtiz (Netflix) Film buffs will be fascinated by this Hungarian production set in early 1940s Hollywood, where director Michael Curtiz is making Casablanca in a studio lot with fake fog and a model wooden plane. The dénouement is proving elusive, as the screenwriters (the Epstein twins), producer Hal Wallis, a government censor, studio boss Jack Warner and Curtiz himself struggle to complete the final scenes. Curtiz had directed most of the biggest hits for Warner Bros, then Hollywood’s top studio. He was also famously autocratic, had a short fuse and treated everyone accordingly. This includes his estranged daughter, who turns up to complicate his already notorious private life. Filmed, like Casablanca , in atmospheric monochrome and acted by a mainly Hungarian cast, this is a must for those who admire one of Hollywood’s greatest films. Netflix rating: 16+. 98 minutes.
Uncorked (Netflix) At last, an aspirational film about Afro-Americans that is mostly free of rapping, swearing, violence and crime. Instead it follows Sideways (2004) and Bottle Shock (2008) and has an amiable wine instruction manual dressed up as a domestic drama that pits a son, who wants to be a sommelier (Mamoudou Athie), against a traditionalist father (Courtney B. Vance), who runs a BBQ ribs restaurant. Writer-director Prentice Penny, in his feature debut, maintains an easy-going narrative that provides few surprises, but doesn’t ignore the glaring social disparities of life in Memphis. This is highlighted when the demanding wine course examinees, most from privileged backgrounds, are taken to Paris to sharpen their palates. Netflix rating: 13+. 104 minutes.
Thoroughbreds (Netflix) First shown at Sundance in 2017, this features two young actresses who had impressive breakout performances (Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch and Olivia Cooke in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ) at Sundance in 2015. They play two childhood friends who re-unite years later in Connecticut’s wealthy belt of suburban mansions. One has been hired as tutor of the other, who has been socially isolated while awaiting trial on a charge of killing her horse. They scheme to murder a disliked stepfather, reminiscent of Sir Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures , though first-time writer-director Corey Finley’s treatment owes more to Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining (1980). The main drawback, as for Jackson, is that the lead characters lack empathy, while the message that the rich lack a moral compass or compassion is hardly original. Netflix rating: 13+. 92 minutes.