Film Society Kicks Off Semester’s “Unconventional Endings” Theme with “First Reformed”

by Mariana Duque & Madalyn JohnsonContributor & Asst. A&E Editor

The Manhattan College Film Society held their first screening on Friday, Sept. 27, in Miguel 311, playing the Oscar-nominated film, “First Reformed” (2017), starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfriend. The movie revolves around Reverend Ernst Toller who struggles with how to pray and gradually becomes more ill as he encounters an environmentalist and his pregnant wife.

Students Sharon Egan and Teresa Ramoni, along with Margaret Toth, Ph.D., presented the A24 movie to the MC Film Society as it fits into the club’s semester theme of unconventional endings.

Before the screening began, students were notified that the project was directed by Paul Schrader and filmed over the course of 20 days in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., with a small budget of $3.5 million. Students analyzed how Schrader was inspired by 50s and 60s European films when making “First Reformed”. “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951) which centralizes its plot around a sick and inexperienced priest is one movie that used by Schrader as a resource. Another was “Winter Light” (1963) which also carries a pastor as its protagonist.

Camera movement was carefully studied throughout the film by club members. Ramoni and Egan pointed out how throughout most of the film, the camera barely moves in comparison to other films in which the camera generally is panning. The setting of each scene had a very boxed in feel except for when characters, Mary and Reverend Toller, were included in a scene together.

Additionally, a big resemblance was made between this film and the classic Scorsese movie, “Taxi Driver”. Students acknowledged that the two films have numerous similarities, including a constant voiceover by the protagonist as he privately writes in a journal and an ambiguous ending that leaves audiences at the edge of their seats and confused afterward. How the story of “First Reformed” ends was what the society paid attention to most.

Ramoni shared with the society that when “First Reformed” was played at screenings and film festivals, 50 percent of the audience was pleased with the ending, and the other half were not. The same could be said for the film observers in Miguel, considering some were satisfied with the ending and some absolutely disliked it. Many even speculated the ending was fantasy, an imaginary scene going through Reverend Toller’s head.

Toth shared how she, unlike other movie watchers, loves the idea of an unexplanatory ending where the watcher comes up with their own beliefs as to what the movie’s ending represents and means.

“I like films that make you think and have conversations, like the conversations we had this evening,” Toth said. “In general, I admire A24 and I will watch every A24 film that comes out just because they’re trying to do something different in terms of characterization, structure, even the presenters talked about visuals.”

One student, Alfonse Calato, also approved of the ambiguous ending.

“I like the fact that it was ambiguous. A movie with an ambiguous ending that also relies on faith, our personal beliefs, our personal takes of the movie,” he said.

However, Calato disapproved of the harsh, final cut of the film.

“I just didn’t like the fact that it was like slammed, just over. It was just going on and then just cut to black. I don’t usually like it when movies just cut to black,” he said.

Besides the controversy and confusion, the ending stirred amongst the MC film society, students were intrigued by the film’s political message. Especially now in a time when climate change is a high-priority issue amongst society, the movie carried great significance.

Egan spoke about how the character, Michael, who is emotionally deranged by the problems of global warming, mentions a few environmentalists that were actually activists in real life, including Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife. They shared similar concerns to the character, Michael, and fought against deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In 2011, they were fatally shot by gunmen who have still yet to be found.

Michael also reflects on Dorothy Stang’s death, a nun from Ohio who was shot by two hired gunmen as she read the Bible near the Amazon. Another political observation students made dealt with the setting of the film, the small church Reverend Toller serves at. The church is funded by a big corporation and seen as a tourist attraction to the townspeople, even to the pastor Reverend Toller works with. Students thought this signified how environmental and religious causes are usually circled around business and economic growth.

With regards to some of the themes of the movie, such as climate change, and the dispute over whether the ending was well-produced or not, Toth expressed that MC students should attend upcoming screenings of movies with ambiguous endings so they can converse with others about their thoughts on a certain project.

“I feel like, especially in today’s culture, having people just watching on their laptops and even on their phones, it’s a different kind of viewing experience,” Toth said.“When directors are making films, they are imagining an audience watching it together and them ideally talking about it after, so that’s the reason why I think people should join.”