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  • David Parkinson

Parky at the Pictures - In Cinemas (25/10/2018)

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Reviews of By the Grace of God; Corpus Christi; The Pilgrim's Progress; and Monos


Two very different films about the priestly vocation are doing the rounds at the moment. One French, one Polish. Both are based on actual events and each represents a marked departure for its director. Moreover, François Ozon's By the Grace of God and Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi examine the relevance of religion in an increasingly secular world and the Catholic Church's conflicted attitude towards both its mission and its responsibility to a flock whose faith in its pastoral probity has been severely tested by the Vatican's handling of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal.

Following a shot of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (François Marthouret) raising a monstrance on the roof of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière to bless the people of Lyon, we hear Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) reading a letter he had written to the Archdiocese in June 2014. In it, the Catholic lawyer and father of five reveals that he was molested at scout camp by Fr Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) and wants to know why the cleric has been allowed to return to the area to give bible studies classes to preteens. He also asks if the Church was aware of Peynat's crimes and whether any steps were taken to punish him.

Barbarin puts Alexandre in touch with psychologist Régine Maire (Martine Erhel), who specialises in abuse cases involving priests. Alexandre breaks down in describing an encounter during a St Luc scout camp in Portugal and she assures him that he is not alone in his pain. Wife Marie (Aurélia Petit) urges Alexandre to discuss the issue with his children, who can't understand why their grandparents didn't intervene to protect their son. She also steels him when he has doubts about meeting the 70 year-old Preynat in Maire's presence. But, while the priest admits to touching Alexandre as a boy, he refuses to apologise and claims he is suffering from a disease that he has repeatedly tried to cure.

Frustrated by Preynat's refusal to make a public confession and Barbarin and Maire's reluctance to follow up the admission, Alexandre argues with his mother at a family gathering after sons Gautier (Max Libert) and Victor (Nicolas Bauwens) are confirmed by the cardinal. He even commends the boys on supporting their father and gives them signed copies of his book, Is God Outdated? But Alexandre feels he is trying to stonewall them, even after Pope Francis promises to act on paedophile priests. During their meeting, Barbarin admits to disliking the term and Alexandre suggests that Preynat and his ilk should be called paedosexuals and pleads with Barbarin to ensure that he is punished for assaults on up to 100 children.

Barbarin is annoyed with Preynat for his refusal to beg forgiveness, but Marie suggests this is part of the Church's tactic for covering up the problem, as it is more interested in redemption than recrimination. Correspondence continues over Christmas, as Preynat teaches catechism classes and says mass. At Easter, however, Alexandre draws the cardinal's attention to the case of Jósef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop resident at the Vatican, who was laicized after his past caught up with him. Moreover, he vows to compile a dossier on Preynat to send to Pope Francis and he is grateful when old friend Olivier Itaque (Nicolas Bridet) agrees to add his name to the complaint.

When no action is taken, Alexandre realises that Barbarin (who has a long-standing regard for Preynat) is hoping to stall so that the statue of limitations will kick in. Consequently, he write directly to Pope Francis and receives the support of former diocesan secretary Suzanne Cremer (Martine Schambacher), who is dismayed by the Church's silence. However, her nephew, Didier (Pierre Lottin), is too ashamed to speak out, even though his brother's suicide may may have been linked to the abuse he suffered as a boy, and he reacts aggressively when Alexandre makes contact.

Fearing that the trail will go cold, Alexandre files a complaint against Preynat with the Lyon police and they contact Odile Debord (Hélène Vincent), who had written to the archdiocese in the early 1990s to accuse Preynat of abusing her son, François (Denis Ménochet). Having lost his faith and spent three decades burying the details of his ordeal, he is averse to assisting with the inquiry. But, when he and wife Aline (Julie Duclos) discover that Preynat is still alive and working with children, he agrees to co-operate with police captain Courteau (Frédéric Pierrot). Indeed, when Barbarin recommends caution in pursuing the complaint, François threatens to go to the press and his story prompts surgeon Gilles Perret (Éric Caravaca) to come forward.

Together, they begin phoning contemporaries in the St Luc scout troop and several more victims accuse Preynat of abuse and Archbishop Albert Decoutray of protecting him by moving him to another parish. On setting up La Parole Libérée (`Lift the Burden of Silence'), Perret launches a website to provide a point of call for those affected by the case. His wife, Dominique (Jeanne Rosa), who is a criminal victim therapist, assures those attending the inaugural meeting that they will feel a sense of peace if they testify. Contact is also made with Alexandre, although he is uneasy with François's bullish approach, as he wishes to remain a Catholic and is as keen for the Church to reform its procedures as he is for Preynat to be prosecuted.

Brother Louis (Stéphane Brel) also has doubts about François's methods and the pair have a huge row over Christmas Eve supper that father Pierre (François Chattot) proves unable to referee. On the day the new group gives its first press conference in January 2016, however, Pierre presents François with his brother's membership fee and they embrace. But ripples soon spread from the requests for Barbarin to admit what the Archdiocese of Lyon and the Papacy knew about Preynat's behaviour, as Irène Thomassin (Josiane Balasko) passes some cuttings on to her epileptic son, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who meets with François prior to telling partner Jennifer (Amélie Daure) that he is going to give evidence to Courteau.

He confronts Preynat at police headquarters and refuses to forgive when the priest offers his apology. However, Emmanuel struggles to cope with being in the spotlight and hits Jennifer when she accuses him of flirting with the TV reporter who comes to interview him shortly after Preynat is formally charged. They split up, but Irène takes over the Parole Libérée hotline and sympathises with her son when his attempt to reach out to his father is met with macho denial. But, while he remains out of work and reliant on sport to find some escape from his trauma, Emmanuel feels better for having gone public.

At a press conference, Barbarin uses the phrase `by the grace of God' when discussing historical allegations and he is hauled up by a journalist who demands to know why he thinks it's fortunate that the courts can't hear more cases. He hurriedly corrects himself and insists that he alerted the Vatican to Preynat's activities. The previous year, Barbarin had been voted Lyon Citizen of the Year and the 2016 award goes to La Parole Libérée. While celebrating, however, the leaders fall out, as Gilles announces that he wants to take a back seat and François reveals that he has applied formally to renounce his faith. Alexandre questions his apostasy when it would make his advocacy more potent if he was still inside the Catholic Church. But they agree to disagree before closing captions reveal that Preynat is still awaiting trial and must, according to French law, be considered innocent.

Events have moved on since the film was signed off, however, with Preynat having been defrocked by the Vatican in July 2019 after being found guilty of committing criminal sex acts against minors and Barbarin being given a suspended six-month sentence for covering up the crimes. Although he sought to resign, however, Pope Francis opted to remove him from the leadership of the Archdiocese while leaving him with his ecclesiastical title. However, the French courts did decide to extend the August 2018 statue of limitations by a further three decades to allow other victims to make themselves known.

Much has been made of the fact that François Ozon has made this film when it departs in so many regards from the rest of his oeuvre. There's no question that it's a highly workmanlike picture that places an almost procedural emphasis on the efforts of La Parole Libérée to get their voices heard. In this way, it differs greatly from Tom McCarthy's Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015), whose drama derived from the actions of the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the child abuse perpetrated by five priests under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Bernard Law. That said, the Emmanuel sequences are punchier than those involving François and Alexandre, which respectively seem more melodramatic and more detached. The lighting and editorial tones also vary between episodes, but not in a showy or distracting way, as Ozon takes the side of the victims while expressing disappointment with the Catholic Church for letting them down rather then openly censuring it.

Having decided against making a documentary, Ozon also steers clear of sensationalism by making the brief flashbacks to the scout camping trips feel like gnawing thoughts in the minds of the principals. Indeed, he also uses epistolary voiceovers to help set the scene and allow the people with whom he consulted while writing the script to have their own say (while also preserving their anonymity, as he has changed their names). Otherwise, Ozon largely keeps things clipped and factual, but he periodically raises moral dilemmas involving the Catholic hierarchy and the parents who opted to keep quiet in a well-intentioned bid to spare their sons pain and shame, while also seeking to avoid the social stigma of challenging the Church.

The irony won't be lost on cineastes that Bernard Verley played Jesus Christ in Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way (1969) and the scenes in which Preynat meets Alexandre and Emmanuel are among the most disconcerting in the entire feature. However, Verley plays an impossible part with a dexterity that is matched by Melvil Poupaud, Swann Arlaud and Denis Ménochet, who are deftly supported by a fine ensemble, with Josiane Balasko being the standout. Manuel Dacosse's photography and Emmanuelle Duplay's production design are evocative, if functional, as is the score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, which avoids choral cliché and the temptation to prompt audience response to revelations and developments that need little embellishment.


Markedly different from the patriotic paean to the Home Army presented in Warsaw `44 (2014), Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi could easily form a trinity of priestly pictures with Malgorzata Szumowska's Mug and Wojciech Smarzowski's Clergy (both 2018). In many way, representing a variation on the dilemma facing the whisky priest in Graham Greene's novel, The Power and the Glory - which was unpersuasively filmed as The Fugitive (1947) by John Ford - this is an arresting study of faith and vocation that offers astute insights into the part that Catholicism plays in modern Poland.

Twenty year-old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is in the last days of his stay at a young offenders institution. He has been so impressed by the good sense spoken by the chaplain, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), that he wonders whether he has a vocation. However, he is informed that his record would prevent him from being accepted into a seminary, although Tomasz does encourage him that everyone is a priest of Christ. When not singing the 23rd Psalm at mass, Daniel keeps watch while other inmates bully the weak and they smirk when old nemesis Bonus (Mateusz Czwartosz) arrives at the facility and tries to intimidate Daniel in the dining hall.

Despite his promises to stay sober, Daniel celebrates his release with a night of drinking with his mates and a knee trembler with a psychology student. For a laugh, he dons a dog collar stolen from Fr Tomasz. But it comes in handy when he decides he can't face working in the rural sawmill where he has been sent to serve out his parole and wanders into the nearby village where he is mistaken for an itinerant missionary priest by Marta (Eliza Rycembel). As the ageing parish priest, Fr Golab (Zdzislaw Wardejn), has health problems, Daniel (using the name Fr Tomasz) agrees to stand in for him while he takes a brief rest cure.

Marta's mother, Lidia (Aleksandra Konieczna), plays a key role in parish affairs and has her doubts. However, she accepts that Daniel is better than nothing and allows him to live in the presbytery. He uses his mobile phone to get himself through his first confessions and offers one mother advice on how to stop her teenage son from smoking. The night before his first mass, he sits up reading by the torch on his phone and parrots the introductory remarks that Fr Tomasz had used at the borstal before singing `The Lord Is My Shepherd' to ease himself into his new role.

Daniel discovers that Lidia lost her son, along with five of his friends, in a head-on collision with another driver. The priest had decided to omit this victim from the shrine at the edge of town and Daniel joins the bereaved parents during their nightly vigil and they are touched by his prayer asking God to understand their anger at what seems such a random act. He also earns himself a round of applause during a baptismal service in which he reminds the congregation that the Kingdom of Heaven is all around them and that they can talk to God at any time they like and He will hear them.

Lidia isn't entirely convinced by Daniel soaking his vestments by dousing himself in holy water, but she has to accept that he is having an effect on the village with his unconventional approach to the liturgy. When Fr Golab contacts her to say he will be away for a few more weeks, Daniel agrees to stay, even though he is shaken by an old woman dying while giving her the Last Sacrament. He also risks Lidia's ire when he encourages the other mourners to let out their anger during a prayer session at the shrine. But Marta is intrigued by the young priest, who smokes and dances to music on his phone.

She invites him to hang out with some of her friends at a beached riverboat, where the conversation turns to temptation. Daniel says rules exist for a reason and that they should be followed. However, he doesn't know how to react when the topic strays on to the driver of the car who supposedly caused the crash by being drunk at the wheel. One lad suggests that Fr Golab made the wrong decision in refusing to bury him at the church and a heated argument ensues, during which it becomes clear that Marta had issues with her brother at the time of his death.

Having tried to speak to the driver's widow, Ewa (Barbara Kurzaj), Daniel accepts an invitation from Walkiewicz the mayor (Leszek Lichota) to bless the new wing at the sawmill. He advises Daniel to stop prying into things that don't concern him and threatens to report him to the bishop. But Daniel reminds Walkiewicz that, while he might have the power, he has right on his side and he forces him to kneel n the mud and pray for humility during the dedication service. During the guided tour that follows, however, Daniel spots Pinscher (Tomasz Zietek) from the reformatory and he makes his excuses to rush back to the parochial house to pack his belongings.

But he recognises that he has been sent to the village for a purpose and decides to risk remaining. He asks the grieving parents to bring treasured belongings to the shrine to help them let go and Marta brings her brother's baseball cap. She also shows Daniel phone footage of the gang being drunk on the night of the crash and accompanies him to see Ewa, who has been ostracised by her neighbours. Indeed, she shows Daniel some of the hate mail that she has received and Marta recognises her mother's handwriting on one of the more vitriolic letters. Ewa swears that her husband had been sober for four years and reveals that she had been forced to cremate him after Fr Golab had reneged on his promise to bury him once the fuss died down.

Shortly afterwards, Pinscher comes to the confessional and reminds Daniel that he knows that he accidentally killed Bonus's brother during a fight and exploited Fr Tomasz's trust to ger a cushy parole posting. He wants hush money and watches the collection being taken at mass with a leer. Pinscher also hangs around for the festival taking place in the village over the weekend and watches Lidia sing on the makeshift stage. Her performance brings tears to Daniel's eyes and he announces that the bumper collection will be used for the driver's long-delayed funeral.

Returning with him to the presbytery, Pinscher gets drunk and breaks down in telling Daniel that he needs the money for his girlfriend and their child. Despite feeling sorry for him and recognising that he is just another human with problems and reasons for his actions, Daniel sticks to his guns and insists that the cash is for the funeral. When the families of the five youths object, Daniel hands out the missives they had sent to Ewa and Marta slaps Lidia's face for shaming her in front of her neighbours.

With nowhere else to go, Lidia asks if she can sleep at the house and winds up in Daniel's bed. They are disturbed, however, when the shed in which he is storing the deceased's possession is torched and Walkiewicz makes it clear that he will expose Daniel's deception unless he informs the police that the blaze was accidental. He also acts as mediator in a meeting between Ewa and Marta, who remains obdurate. When Daniel mentions that the kids were drunk, Lidia denies it and he is only able to save face when Ewa takes him to one side and confesses that she had thrown her husband out during a row and he had driven away threatening to kill himself.

As he leads a procession from Ewa's house to the cemetery, Daniel is glad that Lidia has accompanied them. But he is pleasantly surprised when some of the other villagers fall into line and he invites them all to attend a farewell mass. Turning to leave, he sees Fr Tomasz and he realises that the game is up. He is determined to say his farewells, however, and climbs out of a window to rush to the church. Having seen gifts from the parishioners thanking Daniel for his efforts, the priest realises that he has done good work. But he can't allow him to continue the deception and takes the mass himself, after Daniel removes his cassock on the altar and extends his arms to shows himself in an `ecce homo' moment before exiting the church.

Marta wishes him God's blessing and wipes away a tear as he leaves. But Pinscher isn't so welcoming when Daniel returns to the institution and has no qualms about having betrayed him. The next day, as they leave the workshop, Daniel is set up so that Bonus can exact his revenge. At the same time, Lidia hitches a ride away from the village and Marta nods towards Ewa as she lingers at the back of the church during mass. Fr Golab preaches about God speaking to us during every moment of our lives, but Daniel isn't sure what the message means as he overpowers Bonus and begins repeatedly head-butting him before Pinscher bundles him out of a door before the warders come. With his eyes blazing and his face coated in blood, Daniel strides away into an uncertain future.

Were it not for the fact that this is based on a true story, it would occasionally seem hard to swallow, especially as nobody thinks to check the credentials of an incredibly youthful clergyman who turns up out of the blue. Moreover, nobody at the sawmill thinks to wonder where the missing parolee might have fetched up. But Mateusz Pacewicz's script underplays the narrative convolutions to focus on the quandaries that Daniel faces when a combination of desperation and egotism prompts him to exploit a misunderstanding about his clerical status.

Once the basics have been established, Komasa directs with muscular solemnity in utilising the ambiguities thrown up by the plotline to keep asking the audience to consider how they would react in the situations that arise. As Fr Tomasz realises, Daniel has used his deception to do good and, by healing the wounds in a riven community where faith has been shaken, he has very much done the Lord's work. The question is, does his beneficial impact atone for the sin/crime he has committed by impersonating a priest?

The shocking finale suggests that Daniel has learnt little from his experience, as he certainly doesn't turn the other cheek. But Komasa and Pacewicz deftly highlight how difficult it can sometimes be to live by Christian principles in an environment in which faith is seen as a sign of weakness. Strictly, he has frittered away his redemption in the name of brutal self-defence. But, as he came to appreciate during his ministry, God is even more aware than the great French film-maker Jean Renoir that everyone has their reasons.

Skinheaded, wiry and pugnacious, Bartosz Bielenia excels as the accidental killer who learns much about himself and human nature through his mendacious vocation. He is ably supported by Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia and Eliza Rycembel as Marta, whose respect for the cloth is strained by Daniel's unconventional methods and unpalatable message. Moreover, the ways in which Komasa and cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, Jr. use close-ups and frame the characters (particularly Daniel) against Marek Zawierucha's sets reinforces the moral, emotional and spiritual agonies they are enduring without stooping into melodramatic cliché.


The religious theme continues with Robert Fernandez's animated retelling of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress From This World, to That Which Is to Come. Despite being translated into 200 languages, this 1678 allegory has only rarely intrigued film-makers since Mario Caserini and Francis Powers produced seriously abridged versions in 1912. Indeed, besides a three-part production broadcast by ABC in 1967, there have only been a handful of big-screen takes on one of the great glories of English writing, including Hermann Kugelstadt's 1961 German interpretation, Dangerous Journey (1961); and Ken Anderson's earnest, but amateurish 1978 saga, which featured a debuting Liam Neeson as Evangelist, Neeson returned as Greatheart in the 1979 sequel, Christiana (1979), while Danny Carales attempted another live-action version in 2008. This was primarily aimed at Christian audiences and Fernandez's debut has similarly been sponsored by Steve Cleary's Revelation Media to spread the Word.

Following an exhortation from Northern Irish hymn writer Kristyn Getty to use our imagination while watching the film, the action switches into computer-generated animation as the narrator (Jasmine Jones) welcomes us to the City of Destruction, just as its discovered that a man named Faithful Pathfinder (Jonathan Keeble) has failed to report for work. Christian Pilgrim (David Thorpe) and Obstinate (Andy Harrison) are detailed to remove the religious paraphernalia from Faithful's rooms. However, Christian finds a book that predicts a coming war and he is so convinced by its urging of the reader to head to Celestial City that he pleads with wife Christiana to leave with him.

She opts to remain with her children, as Christian ventures into the Forbidden Forest. despite having learned that Faithful has strayed into the Swamp of Despondency. Supervisor (Andy Harrison) reports the disappearance to Apollyon (Andrew Wyncott), who orders him to capture the fugitive and make sure that no one else leaves Destruction City before the coming war. Christiana also sends Obstinate and Pliable (Tristan Beint) to persuade her husband to return home. But, despite the burden on his back getting heavier, Christian is determined to press on after receiving reassurance from Evangelist (John Rhys-Davies).

In the guise of Help, he plucks Christian from the swamp after he and Pliable fall in while rushing towards the gate on the straight path. Scrambling to the bank, Pliable decides that shining garments and streets of gold are not for him. But Help assures Christian that the mud sticking to his clothing is nothing but fear and doubt that can be washed away and he promises that his journey through the Outer Realms will be well worth the effort and sacrifice because Celestial City and its king are very real and welcoming.

Realising that he will be in serious trouble unless he brings Christian back, Supervisor disguises himself as the colourfully suited Worldly Wiseman (Chris Pavlo), who convinces Christian that Evangelist is cuckoo and sends him along a golden path to a gloomy town named Morality. At the foot of a mountain strewn with commandment stones, Christian meets Legality (Stephen Daltry), who offers to remove his burden if he follows all of the rules he is busy chiselling out of the rock from which he's made. Unable to cope with so many dictates, Christian stumbles. But Evangelist helps him to his feet and guides him back to the path with a reminder to avoid the glib words of tempters like Worldly Wiseman.

Apollyon refuses to give up so easily, however, and orders Supervisor to dispatch a flight of winged gargoyles to terrorise Christian. They cause him to fall down and incline, only for him to land outside the gate, whose door bears the message for all-comers to knock for admittance. The Gatekeeper (Stephen Daltry) ushers Christian aside and laughs when he tries to relieve himself of his burden. He points out that he still has a good way to go, but makes the next part of his journey easier by obliterating the demonic pursuers in a frantic martial arts battle.

Some fireflies guide Christian through the darkness to the dwelling of The Interpreter (Kristyn Getty), a glowing blonde in a long white gown who informs him that she is here to provide light to help him understand. They ride in a bubble through the sky, where they pass the Followers of the King, who gaze only at the things that last forever; a giant bawling baby named Passion, who throws tantrums to get his own way; another infant called Patience; and an old man in an unlocked cage dubbed Despair. Realising that his task is to look as well as see and listen as well as hear, Christian trudges along the Patience Path and he is rewarded when the King's Heralds greet him with the news that he is free because his heart has been cleansed. At that moment, his burden falls from his back and rolls down the hillside, allowing him to continue his journey towards the Palace Beautiful.

Naturally, Apollyon is not one to give up on a soul and he vows to crush Christian in case he inspires others to follow his example. However, the chained beasts lining the path to the house belonging to Watchful () don't deter Christian and he is invited inside to meet daughters Discretion, Prudence, Piety and Sweet Charity. They are touched when he regrets being unable to persuade Christiana to follow him and fit him with a suit of armour for his ordeal in the Valley of Humiliation. He is confronted by a suave Prince in a black suit, who suggests that he owes a duty to his family and should return to them rather than pursuing a personal path to glory. When Christian refuses on remembering The Interpreter's words about meeting impostors, the Prince morphs into Apollyon and the valley erupts into molten fire as they joust.

Despite some setbacks in the fierce battle, Christian holds his own and a wounded Apollyon retreats vowing to return. Met by Faithful (who is wearing identical armour), Christian is reunited with Evangelist, who warns them beside a campfire that they will be arrested in the pleasure-seeking town of Vanity Fair, where one or both of them will seal his testimony with blood. The pair are taken before Judge Hategood (Ben Price) for insisting that the town holds no temptation for them and doing nothing to contribute to the populace's enjoyment. Envy and Gainglory testify against them, but Cruelty (also Ben Price) steps forward from the jury circle to suggest that Christian and Faithful are subjected to hardships for daring to imply that they seek things of the heart that cannot be bought with coins.

The friends are led through the revellers (who are all wearing 18th-century aristocratic costumes) and subjected to brickbats and blows. But the accept their fate without retaliation or recrimination and Cruelty recommends to Hategood that they should be executed for their stoicism. The judge selects Faithful to die first and, as he is taken away, he reassures Christian that he will see him again. Thrown into a dungeon, Christian calls for strength and aid and he is immediately freed by one of the guards after he has sent his companion back to the fair to indulge himself.

The guard follows Christian and asks to join him. He is Hopeful (Justin Butcher) and he expresses a doubt when Christian suggests that they take parallel path across a lush field rather than picking their way through jagged rocks. However, they walk directly into a lowering cloud and have to shelter from a downpour in the boot of Giant Despair (Chris Pavlo), who plucks them up and deposits them in a hanging cage in the Castle of Despair. After six days without food or water, Christian is beginning to fear the worst. But Hopeful realises that neither the giant nor his wife has the capacity to kill them and are merely waiting for them to die. By refusing to succumb to such an inevitability, the pair are rewarded with a key that magics itself out of Christian's breastplate and they are able to escape.

Amusingly, the giant faints in times of stress and the embittered encouragement of his wife, Giant Diffidence (Alison Pettit) brings on a fit and Christian and Faithful are able to clamber over his bald head to get through a hole in the wooden gate. Once in the open again, they are greeted by a Good Shepherd (Jonathan Keeble), who tells them to fix on the light of the Celestial City and not be led astray by The Flatterer. No sooner has the shepherd vanished than an old man in a cowl hails the travellers and congratulates them for having come so far. He begs Christian to avail him with tales of his heroism and he soon finds himself dangling inside a net whose red ropes have been made from his boasts.

Appalled to have fallen for one of the Supervisor's disguises, Christian curses. But Hopeful remains upbeat and his positivity earns them a rescue by a floating woman cracking a whip. She sends them on their way with a reminder to place their full trust in the King, as he will guide their every step. On reaching a towering wave, however, Christian's nerve fails him, as he wants to return for his family. But Evangelist appears to promise that his progress has caused talk in his hometown and that others will follow in his footsteps. Eager to reach the Celestial City, Hopeful takes the plunge and Christian follows on being informed that conquering death is his last task.

Sinking in his armour, Christian is reminded of Apollyon's vow to make a final bid for his soul and he is only able to resist with Faithful's words of support ringing in his ears. He is wounded, however, and is surprised to find himself healed when he regains consciousness on the shore. The King is standing over him and he reveals himself to have been the Good Shepherd. Moreover, he explains that he shed his own blood to save Christian and he escorts him through the gates of the Celestial City, where he is reunited with Faithful and Hopeful. A page from the book flutters from his pocket and lands on Christiana's bed. But, as she wakes her sons to break the news that their father is alive and that they must join him, Apollyon hovers in wait over their humble abode.

A closing caption promising `To Be Continued' suggests that Christiana's story will eventually follow. One can but hope that, by then, Fernandez has found a way of making his characters walk more naturally, as they currently resemble unblinking CGI versions of The Woodentops. This is a shame, as the backdrops are eye-catching, while the set-pieces in Morality, the Valley of Humiliation and Vanity Fair are splendidly rendered and make light of the modest budget. Frustratingly, the vocal work is similarly inconsistent, although audio book specialist David Thorpe admirably holds things together as Christian (in spite of some rather dodgy laughing on being delighted by the fireflies).

The pacing is a bit sluggish in places, but Bunyan had a lot of time on his hands when he wrote his text in prison and there is a plenty of questing plot to fit in. Indeed, Fernandez adds the odd scene of his own, most notably the ones involving Legality and Apollyon and Supervisor. While he proves a steady storyteller, Fernandez's graphic novel-inspired production design is more assured, as he pays adroit homage to the flying monkeys in Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Galadrial in Peter Jackson's adaptations of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (2001-03). But he falls resoundingly flat with the decision to depict Diffidence as a termagant, as such chauvinist humour went out with Bernard Manning's mother-in-law jokes.


Until now, the best fictional films about child soldiers have been Kim Nguyen's War Witch (2012) and Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation (2015). However, they are now surpassed by Colombian Alejandro Landes's Monos, which slips elements from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and William Golding's The Lord of the Flies into a visually and thematically audacious scenario that disconcerts and compels in equal measure.

First seen playing a game of blindfold football beside a mountaintop ruin, the `monos' (or `monkeys') are a band of machine gun-toting child soldiers operating in an unnamed Latin American country. They receive a visit from their commander, Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), who criticises them for getting sloppy and puts them through some exercise drills. He also presents them with a black-and-white cow named Shakira to provide milk for the unit and their prisoner, American engineer, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson).

While on parade, Wolf (Julian Giraldo) requests permission to make Lady (Karen Quintero) his partner and the diminutive Mensajero approves of the match. She braid's Sara's hair before she is filmed reading from a newspaper to prove to her loved ones that she is still alive. As Mensajero rides away, the monos celebrate the fact that Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) has turned 15 and Sara relucantly joins in the ritual of whipping her on the backside. However, she is excluded from the party thrown in honour of Wolf and Lady after they chop down a tree to build them a special bed. The spare wood is used for a bonfire and the youths throw themselves into having fun, in spite of the mud and cold.

The next morning, Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Dog (Paul Cubides) and Boom Boom (Sneider Castro) fire into the air to mark the fact that Wolf and Lady are now an item. But Dog shoots indiscriminately and kills the cow, which Mensajero had warned them to guard with their lives because it was going to be returned to its owner once their mission was over. For his punishment, Dog is forced to dig a hole in the ground and remain under sheets of corrugated iron. But, even though the androgynous Rambo and the volatile Bigfoot fight, the rest agree that Wolf should take responsibility for the accident, as he is their leader.

While the monos haul Shakira's carcass across the mud in the translucent mist and uses ropes to suspend it for butchering, Wolf kills himself and Lady is distraught that her moment of happiness should have been so short. Still bearing the marks of his beating, Dog is released from solitary and joins the others as they roast the meat over a bonfire. Bigfoot suggests they tell Mensajero that Wolf shot the cow while he was drunk and killed himself in remorse. But, while Lady thinks Dog should be punished for his carelessness, she is the only one to vote against the plan and goes outside to kick Wolf's corpse, which is wrapped in a rug and exposed to the elements. Rambo follows and we see her kissing Lady, as they get drunk beside a fire in the darkness. However, this might simply have been a dream, as Rambo wakes alone next morning beside the charred embers and Wolf's body.

Recognising that she will be exposed unless she renews her ties to the unit, Lady uses the short-wave radio to inform HQ that Wolf killed Shakira and himself. Sara is brought to the microphone to answer some questions to prove she is still in one piece and she gets upset when her interrogator refuses to allow her to pose a query in return. Back in her cell, Sara leans against a wall and tries to dance to rid herself of stress, but the shot is composed in such a way to keep her head out of the frame so it's impossible to gauge her precise mood.

With Bigfoot now in command and Boom Boom as his deputy, the monos are warned that the enemy is approaching their territory and that they should stay vigilant. The order is lost on Bigfoot, however, who finds some magic mushrooms growing out of one of Shakira's cow pats and he, Boom Boom and Swede get high. They run their fingers through the foliage, as they appear to see familiar things in a new light. But Bigfoot is disgruntled when he finds the other two having sex, as he has a crush on Swede.

He's not able to dwell on his resentment, however, as shells drop close by and the unit is forced to take shelter in a crudely dug trench. At first, Bigfoot is too wasted to realise what is happening. But, as figures are seen in night vision staggering towards their position, he orders Swede to take Sara into the basement of their bunker. The American asks the girl if she has ever killed anyone and offers to help her in any way she can. Swede reveals that she wants to dance on television before being thrown forward by the impact of a nearby explosion. She huddles against Sara in terror and starts nuzzling her neck. After initially responding to the embrace, Sara pushes Swede away and she mocks her with a cackling laugh.

The next morning, Bigfoot arrives with news of victory before Sara can steal the sleeping Swede's gun. He tells them that they have been dispatched into the jungle to keep Sara away from potential rescuers and he is proud of the fact that the map co-ordinates written on his wrist are only visible in ultra-violet light. Wandering through wounded soldiers being treated, Sara returns to her cell and retrieves the machete she has been hiding in a crack in the wall.

By contrast with the bleak hilltop redoubt, the jungle bivouac is positively warm and cosy. But the trees also make it harder to keep an eye on Sara, who slips away while the guarding Smurf (who is easily the youngest member of the group) is distracted by his pals swimming in a pool. Using the river to sweep her along, Sara makes decent progress, while the kids go in pursuit after Bigfoot smashes the radio to avoid Mensajero learning of his dereliction. However, having been attacked by insects and swept away by a mud slide, Sara is recaptured on a wooden bridge across the river and brought back to camp, where Rambo is forced to put a chain around her neck so that she can be tethered at all times. Bigfoot is furious with Rambo for showing weakness in front of the hostage by crying and, later that night, he wrestles her in the mud to teach her a lesson.

As he has been unable to contact them by radio, Mensajero comes to the camp to investigate. He blames Bigfoot for the fact that Sara refuses to speak on camera and put the entire troop through a series of gruelling keep fit tasks before making them sit in a row in the river and hold a tree trunk above their heads. When they drop the trunk, he puts them through an accusation session, in which the truth emerges about Shakira's shooting and Sara's escape. Boom Boom and Swede complain about the fact that Bigfoot has prevented them from becoming partners while he sleeps with Lady and Mensajero is so disappointed with his prodigy that he takes him by speedboat to face court martial in front of the Organisation council for claiming that he is now in charge and that Doctora is his hostage.

Stopping to relieve himself, Mensajero momentarily turns his back on Bigfoot, who grabs a rifle and shoots him. He returns to camp and blows into the palm of his hand to give the secret monkey signal. Smurf is tied up for his treachery and a pig's head on a stick is planted in front of him to remind him of the fate that will befall anyone who crosses Bigfoot. Having gone rogue, he cakes the face of the boys in black and the girls in brown mud to camouflage them from the search parties that will inevitably come looking for them. They lay low as a helicopter hovers above the trees and ambush and torch a truck that approaches under cover of darkness. But Rambo refuses to submit to Bigfoot's bullying and she creeps away after Lady catches her trying to untie Smurf.

Rambo is rescued by a gold prospector (Jorge Román), who takes her back to the house he shares with his wife and three children, who make room for her to watch a TV show about Haribo's Gummy Bear factory in Bonn. Her absence makes it harder to keep an eye on Sara, who strangles Swede with the chain while they are bathing in the river. Breaking the links with a rock, she returns to camp for her belongings and some provisions and Smurf pleads with her to take him with her. But she refuses and steals his wellingtons before heading out into the jungle.

Waking to the sound of young children playing, Rambo buries her head under her quilt. However, Bigfoot, Boom Boom and Dog have tracked her down and they gun down the prospector and his wife before chasing Rambo through the trees. Back in the house, the radio announces that Sara has been spotted in the jungle. But, at that moment, Lady enters the house to find the sibling trio cowering beneath the table and it's clear that they will become reluctant recruits, as many of her confrères would have been.

Rambo plunges into the rapids, with Bigfoot and Boom Boom on her heels. The camera alternates between perspectival views of being buffeted by the swell and medium shots of the bodies bobbing like corks on the torrent. A towering aerial shot shows the river snaking through the impenetrable rainforest before picking out an exhausted Rambo on a mud flat. She is winched into a helicopter and taken to the nearest town. As the pilot radios for instructions, Rambo turns to look directly into the lens. Tears are welling up in her eyes, as she clenches her fists in dread at what is to follow.

Counting JC Chandor and Diego Lerman among its many producers, this punishing picture takes no prisoners in depicting the grim horrors that face those impressionable young souls who have been forcibly trained for combat. The most disturbing passage involves Lady discovering the mites who have just witnessed the slaughter of their parents, as it's through such incidents that the cycle of abduction and indoctrination is able to continue. The fact that we don't know what the Organisation is fighting for makes the plight of the monos all the more chilling, as it doesn't matter whether their cause is noble or not, as, either way, their situation is cruel and intolerable.

Moisés Arias is the only familiar face among the child soldiers. But there isn't a weak link among the feral ensemble, with Sofia Buenaventura and Karen Quintero standing out as Rambo and Lady. Likewise creating a fully fleshed character from hints at contextless details, Julianne Nicholson also impresses as the American hostage trying to hold herself together as her juvenile jailers become increasingly unhinged, while special mention should be made of Wilson Salazar, as the screenplay written by Landes and Alexis Dos Santos must have brought back painful memories of his time as a Farc guerilla.

The technical contributions are equally outstanding. Whether capturing the changing light of the mountains and the jungle or tumbling in the mud or swirling through the river swell, Jasper Wolf's camerawork reinforces the stark and often surreal ethereality of the milieu. Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Ted Guard and Santiago Otheguy's editing also pitches the viewer into the heart of the action, as do the soundscapes designed by Javier Umpierrez and Lena Esquenazi and the audio effects created by Eduardo Castillo, which are given an additional percussive punch by Mica Levi's insinuatingly unsettling score.

It remains to be seen whether the jury selects Colombia's entry for the Academy Awards. But this has to be a strong contender, as it keeps intruding upon your thoughts long after the screen cuts to black from the short-haired Buenaventura in a manner that recalls the famous freeze frame of Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of François Truffaut's epochal study of troubled youth, The 400 Blows (1959).

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