If you look around, nuns can be seen just about everywhere. This isn’t a tired gimmick to scare you into thinking there are demonic figures hiding in the shadows around you. No, just a feeble attempt to prove that sisters of the church have been the focal point in many recent films, from French director Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents and Jeff Baena’s Little Hours, which lifts the veil of obedience in hilarious ways, to this years Hammer inspired The Nun. As Zoolander’s fashion mogul turned assassin profiteer Mugatu might say, “Nuns are so hot right now. Nuns!”
Enter WELCOME TO MERCY, IFC Midnight’s recent contribution to the holy sacrament of film which premiered at this years Tribeca International Film Festival. Directed by Tommy Bertelsen (Feed) and written by Kristin Ruhlin (who also stars), WELCOME TO MERCY tells the story of single mother Madaline (Ruhlin), who returns home after her ailing father sends for her. Shortly after arriving with her daughter Willow (Sophia Massa), Madaline begins experiencing signs of the stigmata, and is instructed to go stay at an abbey called Mercy in order to prevent further harm to her daughter. It’s here where her traumatic childhood begins filtering back into the subconscious, blurring the lines between past and present.
And almost too well. After opening with the dramatic and nebulous events of Madaline’s past, WELCOME TO MERCY quickly whisks us away to the cold and harsh landscape of Latvia. It’s here where Bertelsen effectively captures the frozen breath of its tundra, chilling the story with its pink sunsets and blackened surroundings that solidify the atmospheric tone for the rest of the film. One that never thaws despite melting deep into the family dynamic, offering up icy and reserved characters that feel as convoluted as its plot.
Even Madaline – her daughter tethered to her on a leash – feels lost amidst a timeline that’s as hazy as the fog blanketed abbey (run by Eileen Davis’ Mother Superior) where she is forced to stay. Nuns pass through, amassing the lens with shrouds and veiled faces that carry with them the power (and weight) of the holy spirit, yet despite frequent interactions feel as silent as their vows. These are less characters and more objects, preyed upon by the force within Madaline in order to propel the story along. After all, this is a film that suggestively toys with the idea of malicious wrongdoings by Father Joseph (Juris Strenga) in order to skew the truth, treating a key figure like a McGuffin, and the problem within the Catholic Church like a utensil for terror.
When we’re introduced to August (a magnetic Lily Newmark), the young nun who holds a key to Madaline’s traumatic past, the films central yarn begins coming undone as psychosexual inclinations are hinted at – what nun film doesn’t? – while layers of exposition are added. We’re shown glimpses of Madaline as a child (Marta Timofeeva), her interaction with a young Father Joseph (Toms Liepajnieks), her soon-to-be father Frank (Dainis Grube) and the love given from her mother Alyona (Ieva Seglina), a nun at the abbey. It’s suppose to – and I could be wrong – replace and mirror the love between Madaline and her own daughter, though instead it begins suffocating a rather lean story about exorcising demons and trauma.
We learn that the “sinful” love between Frank (who was once a priest) and Alyona manifested a demon, as we witness the two lovers strapped to beds and chairs, the holy water hissing as it hits their skin. It’s all done with an over-abundance of slow motion, amplifying a dramatic beat that drowns out any of the horror that comes from a sub-genre that’s been spewing vitriol since William Peter Blatey shook the Catholic hornets nest.
When WELCOME TO MERCY chooses to cleanse itself in the blood of horror, it is effectively jolting and immediately chilling. Bertelsen and cinematographer Igor Kropotov (The Pale of Settlement) draw an attention to tone when they do decide to play off the horrors of family that it is steady, assured and jarring. Not just because it’s constantly coming off the heels of a histrionic mood piece, but because it emerges from the shadows of inspiration rather than the tropes of the genre. Much of Kropotov’s camera work is often mired by copious close-ups that when he spares breathing room with panoramic vistas of Latvia, they are (ironically) breathtaking.
It’s almost to a fault that Ruhlin hardly allows her script the chance to speak through its haunting atmosphere and sparse locations. Too frequently are we reminded of the stifled chemistry that Madaline single-handedly nurtures throughout the film that it’s often difficult to determine if this is a character flaw or a shortcoming on Ruhlin’s part. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t effectively demonstrate urgency and command, as she often emotes a lost terror that feels as self-evident as the wintry temperatures.
Unfortunately, there’s a reserved nature to Madaline’s demonic mothering that further roots us outside the walls of the abbey, and places the films relationships with its characters (which is a significant heft of the story) at arms reach. While confidently shot, WELCOME TO MERCY too often feels woefully unwelcoming and detrimentally convoluted, a character heavy horror yarn whose sinful tatters never quite embrace the inherent horrors of motherhood or the church.
WELCOME TO MERCY opens in select theaters, VOD, and via digital platfroms in the US on November 2, 2018