Berlin 2018: The Prayer review


A film about faith in all its various forms, Cédric Kahn’s The Prayer is a sobering drama about the fragility of the human spirit, interwoven with a dollop of biblical abstinence. Thomas (Anthony Bajon) is a junkie. That’s about as much as we know about him when he arrives at a remote community in the French mountains where young men of varying social backgrounds come to beat their addictions.

Run by a local nun and overseen by a Catholic priest, their recovery is achieved through a combination of prayer, work and friendship. At first Thomas is a tightly wound ball of anger, and struggles to integrate in the group, but after some initial slip-ups, and the threat of solitary confinement, he soon begins to find his way, thanks primarily to the help and support of Sybille (Louise Grinberg), a local girl who lives at a nearby farm with her parents. Gradually, he begins to give his new life a chance – but is he a believer, or has he merely replaced one dependency for another?

If there was ever an argument for a divine creator, then the awe-inspiring countryside that surrounds this rehabilitation camp makes a compelling case. Beautifully shot by renowned Belgium cinematographer Yves Cape, these ashen mountains, fertile green fields, and bright, cloudless skies are naturalistic and unromantically captured, offering nothing but optimism about the possibility of a higher power. It’s not surprising then that it’s within these mountains that Thomas eventually finds God.

It’s here that alarms bells start to ring – has this really been a recruitment ad for the seminary all along? The miraculous tends to get left out of films, unless they are specifically about the life of Christ, and with a film like this, where divine mysteries are buried into more earthbound concerns, expectations of irony and disillusion, or some violently satirical moment, are high, yet when Thomas finds himself stranded on the mountain, with what looks like a broken leg, it seems he really has experienced a miracle when the following morning he wakes up and walks home.

Thomas clearly believe that this is a sign from God and the following day applies to be a priest. Yet, despite his new-found faith, there’s clearly something eating away at him. The hard labour enforced on the boys often sees Thomas working with the earth, either chopping at fallen trees or digging in the surrounding fields. He’s even described at one point by the house’s priest as a young man with his “head in the ground”. However, it soon becomes clear that it’s Thomas’ inability to dig beyond his immediate concerns, and find the source of his dissatisfaction that leaves him feeling so empty – so it’s no surprise that his greatest temptation comes not from the drugs that are smuggled into the commune one night, but Sybille, a trainee archaeologist.

In a sense The Prayer is a prison movie, with the commune offering a similar approach to rehabilitation. Kahn floats the idea that it’s not simply God who has enraptured Thomas’ soul, but his desire to exist within a society that accepts him. Sadly the mechanical aspects of the film’s plotting mean these ideas never manage to bubble to the surface. Neither dogmatic nor particularly dogma-phobic, The Prayer has a cool, compassionate way of suggesting we need to look inside ourselves rather than to the heavens for help, but a deeper, more lasting examination into the source of the dissatisfaction that leads such men like Thomas down these destructive paths might provide more clues as how to save them.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 15-25 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble