Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Faith, A Study of Devotion
Faith, Valentina Pedicini’s third film, starts as it intends to go on. A throbbing dance track blares out as an amorphous group of people—dressed in white, with shaved heads—gyrate, seemingly with no agenda or intention. Over the next hour and a half, Faith unfolds. Pedicini follows a group of Catholic monks, the Guerrieri della Luce– roughly twenty two people of varying ages—who also practice Shaolin kung fu, living in a secluded commune in the rural Italian countryside, in self imposed isolation. The title seems to be a reference to the way that they live—in thrall to a man who they call “Maestro”, who possesses total control of them as a collective and as individuals, pushing them through gruelling training and leading them in prayer.
Faith is an observational documentary, following the daily lives of the Guerrieri della Luce with a dispassionate eye. Early on, the group convenes in a mirrored room to discuss the behaviour of a male monk, who has been accused of sexually harassing a woman—who ended up leaving. The Master explains their transparency, saying: “We don’t want people to say, ‘They’re like any other sect, there’s something fishy about them’.” Pedicini traces routines and rituals. They range from the quotidian—a young family having breakfast, with a bald toddler stumbling over the word for “spoon”—to the unsettling: where the women of the sect are made to sit in a circle in the middle of the night, passing around a mirror, trembling.
The camerawork and framing decisions enable a sense of intimacy; in one instance, the camera hovers close to two sets of lovers in bed, so their limbs take up the whole screen. The choice to shoot in black-and-white makes Faith feel as timeless as it is atemporal, but it also means every twitch registers. Scenes of the daily training, which is emotionally and physically gruelling, end up looking like paintings. In one scene, a young woman runs, jumps, and kicks her legs up in the air, over and over again, contorting with effort. She cries when the Master yells at her, asking whether she’s ready to be a warrior. This ebb and flow, a mixture of love which becomes something closer to fear runs like a hot undercurrent throughout Faith. The only people still immune to it may be Olympia and Altair, a pair of toddlers who are the only two people who ever look directly into the camera as it moves around them.
The relationships between individuals unspool as you watch, even if there are very few chances to find out how they were brought into this sect and why they have stayed. People are rarely shown alone, but always in relation to one another. In the final scenes, there is a ceremony where everyone, dressed in white robes and beads, swears an oath of consecration to the Master. After, they dance again, this time outside, in something that seems like an exhalation. Faith could be about religion, but it reads more like a study of devotion to other people. Every frame is fundamentally about the agony and ecstasy of communal experiences. Whether caring for each other by shaving one another’s heads, going through the same post-dinner motions of licking your dish clean, or training together, everyone exists as one body, moving in pleasurable, painful unity.
Sanjana Varghese is a researcher and writer based in London, focusing mostly on technology, culture, and power.