“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” If you’ve seen the film I’m referring to, ‘First Reformed’ will be one of your best movie experiences this year. ‘Taxi Driver’ is a watershed moment in the history of cinema, not only for its hypnotic style and heightened depiction of violence, but for finding a contemplative interface between faith and cinema. The character of Travis Bickle has assumed a sort of divine status over the years; actors try desperately to replicate De Niro’s stunning animation of solitude, while writers endeavor to match the penmanship of Paul Schrader. It can be safely said, though, that no one has been able to emulate the feat. Until now, even though just the latter part. And the man to do it again is Schrader himself.
‘First Reformed’, in many ways, is a spiritual companion to Paul Schrader’s magnum opus, ‘Taxi Driver’. While the latter greatly benefited from the craftsmanship and vision of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, the former bathes in the glory of its creator’s seminary background and ascetic understanding of religion. ‘First Reformed’ centers around the life of a former military chaplain, Ernst Toller, who finds himself boxed in the mechanical square of the camera and the vicious circle of life. His transition of thought and culmination of desire for atonement and redemption serves the narrative akin to the manner in which Bickle’s abhorrence of the human society assisted ‘Taxi Driver’.
It is almost bewildering how Schrader’s immense talents draw the two contrasting protagonists, drastically distanced from the other, together in the same light. Reverend Toller is a man of the collar, well-respected by his pupils, and a grieving father dealing with the loss of a child; Bickle, on the other hand, shares nothing with Toller in his outlook of the society and vice versa, apart from their military background and moments of epiphany. Bickle and Toller are also different in the way they have processed into the personalities that they are, even though Bickle is much younger. They both pen a journal on a daily basis, interacting with their inhibitions, at times in conflict, others abnegation. Their initial exploration of the world around them is ironically similar in temperament, though different in physicality. While Bickle’s perspective is largely confined to the dark, unforgiving nights, Toller experiences the world in a much warmer, solemn context.
For Travis, the female body is a vile tempest; unfathomable, impregnable: for Toller, it is companionship and a celebration of life. Urban decay, exacerbated by the onset of capitalism and consumerism, wraps both the protagonists in its mist and shrouds them with an intangible force much powerful than their faculty to see optimism and happiness in life. Therefore, viewing ‘Taxi Driver’ in a different light than ‘First Reformed’ would be a futile exercise and a decision that fails the other-worldly gifts of Schrader altogether.
Along with ‘Taxi Driver’, Schrader heavily draws on Mr. Ingmar Bergman’s similar questioning of faith through a pastor in an existential crisis, ‘Winter Light’. While the movies are definitely engineered in a strikingly similar fashion- the boxed narrative, the frugal camera movements, and wilfull, verbose close-ups- the two movies digress on their protagonist’s purpose and crisis. Pastor Tomas suffers in his His glorious shepherd’s silence, Revered Toller exhausts deliberation on God’s reaction to modern-day industrialization and destruction of nature. “Will He forgive?” is the question that is deeply-rooted at the core of the film. Bergman and Schrader tread on similar plotlines that involve a conflicted man of the collar, a man scared of living in the world washed with suicidal tendencies, and paranoia that has become an inherent feature of contemporary society. I’d call the three films as spiritual sisters, each giving another dimension to the other while still standing out as individual films.