The Pale Virtues of Slow Cinema

OPEN ON a dark screen. No sound, no music. A dark image materializes with aching, enthralling slowness. A church, wide angle, compositionally centered. PUSH IN as the light creeps up, revealing the white wooden structure, angled roof, pointed steeple, steadily, majestically growing larger. Slow, slow reveal.

Slow.

This is the opening shot of First Reformed, a drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, best known as the author of Taxi Driver. Starring Ethan Hawke as a minister trapped in a crisis of faith, the film was released on May 18, 2018, in limited release. It cost $3.5 million to make, and as of July 1, it has grossed only $3.1 million. So far it’s losing money. It may eventually turn a profit from DVD sales and online access.

Odds are you have not seen it. It’s a great pity. I am not one to make ten-best lists, but if I did, First Reformed would surely be there.

It is a prime example of what Schrader calls “slow cinema”. As he said on Fresh Air, this style of filmmaking is “slow, long… where not much happens”. As the box office figures indicate, First Reformed is a minority taste.

Capsulizing the most salient feature of slow cinema, New York Times critic A. O. Scott said the film “asks nothing more than our quiet attention.”

I adore paying quiet attention. I saw it in Raleigh at ten in the morning with my Lutheran pastor. We were alone in the theater. I could not have asked for better surroundings. My friend and I watched in meditative silence.

Most movies are jazzed up with sharp angles, dense sound effects, loud music, quick cuts, and flying cameras. Slow cinema has none of these features. The camera in First Reformed is anchored for most of the film. Characters play directly to the camera in long takes, often arranged in absolute symmetry. There is little shouting, a subdued narration, and music is used so sparingly that when it finally emerges, it startles.

It is a film you walk through, rather than one that assaults you. You have time, precious time, to listen to and learn from the actors, to feel the story unfold at life-speed. You have time to think, savor, taking everything in. You experience that rarity in current movies: deep character development.

First Reformed rewards patience. I will not spoil it. Suffice it to say, Pastor Toller undergoes a radical emotional and intellectual transformation, clues to which are embedded in every frame. As he resolves his conflicts, the film’s pace quickens, draws you into the story, clutches your heart. The quiet attention you have paid offers rare insight into the civil war that rages in each of us. You will not soon forget it.

Slow cinema perplexes and frustrates most moviegoers. It runs counter to our hyper-kinetic box office smashes. You probably won’t see First Reformed. It’s a great pity.

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