Friday, June 30, 2017

DEVIL'S BRIDE (Tulen Morsian, 2016)

Saara Cantell's film turns a 17th century witch craze on a Swedish-ruled Finnish-speaking island into something of a Christian allegory. That's an interesting twist when most of the film feels like The Crucible with Abigail Williams -- the Winona Ryder character from the most recent movie version -- as the heroine. Anna (Tuulia Eloranta) lusts for a married man and tries to ruin his wife by accusing her of witchcraft. All she wants, though, is to drive the other woman from town, as Anna's own mentor, Valborg the midwife (Kaija Pakarinen) is banished early in the picture. It's not Anna's fault that the witch mania escalates to a lethal degree. The persecution is driven by hypocrisy and learned intolerance. The local pastor is the hypocrite, a serial rapist of young women whose main beef against Valborg seems to be that she performs abortions, presumably killing his children. The local judge (Magnus Krepper), for whose mother Anna works as a maid, is a pharisaical figure as intolerant of "superstition" as his like in future generations would be toward religion itself. He flaunts the latest thinking from academia, somehow more credulous toward rumors of witchcraft than the literature of his mother's time, which Anna, a bright girl, is able to read. As Valborg's banishment opens a flood of accusation, the patriarchs increasingly demand death for the accused, who in all too familiar fashion are tortured into confessing and denouncing others.

To her credit, Anna is horrified by this. She never really wanted her supposed rival, Rakel (Elen Petersdottir) to die, and the death sentence pronounced on the innocent wife crushes Anna's spirit. She begs forgiveness of the prisoner, promising to baptize Rakel's newborn daughter and eventually (and blasphemously?) doing it herself, but Rakel is understandably reluctant to forgive. Guided by the judge's mother, whose wits remain sharp despite a stroke, Anna challenges the entire premise of the witch trials, only to have the old literature scoffed away by the judge -- who nevertheless suspects that something is fishy about the anti-witch evidence pushed by the pastor. Finally, there's only one thing Anna can do to save Rakel. It won't be enough to admit her original lie. She has to accept guilt for all the fantastical sins others have attributed to the other woman, or that Rakel has been forced to admit -- in effect, to confess to witchcraft and effectively sentence herself to death.

Cantell may be best known in her own country for a popular series of films about the friendship between two young girls, so Tulen Morsian must have been a profound change of pace for her and those familiar with her work. She nails the terrifying escalation of the witch-craze, from the minor tragedy of Valborg's banishment to brutal mass executions. These are the makings of a horror movie, but  Devil's Bride proves to be a powerful emotional experience as Anna accepts martyrdom -- though the film teases us with a legend of her miraculous escape -- in order to expiate her own sins and those of the entire community. The awakening of her sexuality initially drives Anna wild and makes her a menace, but the awakening of her conscience -- her true coming of age -- redeems what might have been written off as a misogynist stereotype and makes a real heroine of her.  Taking the viewpoint of an accuser strikes me as a novel approach for a witch-trial film, and the gamble of inviting identification with an apparent villain pays off emphatically. In many ways Tulen Morsian is as horrifying and infuriating as any film in its grim genre, but in a modest way, with less of the barnstorming bombast of The Crucible (which is still tremendously entertaining in its own right), it's one of the most sincerely moving of witch-trial films.

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