**_Emotionally ambiguous, thematically complex, aesthetically daring – an exceptionally accomplished directorial debut_**
>_Qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste._ [_Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices._]
- Voltaire; _Questions sur les miracles_ (1765)
> _We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think._
- Bertrand Russell; _The ABC of Relativity_ (1925)
> _Gli uomini non fanno mai il male così completamente ed entusiasticamente come quando lo fanno per convinzione religiosa._ [_People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction._]
- Umberto Eco; _Il cimitero di Praga_ (2010)
Is religious fanaticism a form of mental illness? Certainly the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) would argue it is. However, from the perspective of the fanatic, such fanaticism is often not only logical and justified, but unavoidable; they don't choose to be fanatical, they are compelled to be fanatical, no matter how insane their behaviour may seem. The disparity between what a fanatic believes and what other people believe is the main issue examined in _Saint Maud_, the stunning debut feature from writer/director Rose Glass. Part-horror, part-psychological thriller, part-character drama, part-ecclesiastical treatise, _Saint Maud_ can be read in a variety of ways – an analysis of the interaction between faith and self; a threnody for the life of a young woman suffering a mental breakdown; a drama about loneliness; a study of the importance of friendship; a tale of possession; a tragedy about the frailty of the human body. Told mainly (although not entirely) from the perspective of a fanatical Christian, the story makes room for the possibility that, however unlikely, such fanaticism isn't mental illness at all and that God really is communicating with this person. And this magnificently handled ambiguity is the film's trump card. Disturbing, horrifying, challenging, unpredictable, emotional, and occasionally very funny, this is a film that forges a path entirely its own, and is as impressive and daring a directorial debut as you're ever likely to find.
The film takes place in a thoroughly depressing English seaside town (it was shot in Scarborough, but the town in the film is unnamed). There we're introduced to Maud (an incredibly physical performance from Morfydd Clark), a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. Exceptionally devout, Maud believes that all of mankind is amoral, lustful, and wicked, and that only by way of a true saviour can we be saved. Is she that saviour? It's possible, because God has explicitly told her that he has very special plans for her in the near future. Before being called upon to save humanity, however, Maud is working as a private palliative care nurse, explaining to God (we hear her prayers in voiceover) that she feels tending to a dying person and treating them with kindness and dignity in their last days is akin to saving their soul. The story begins as Maud arrives for her first day with Amanda Köhl (the always brilliant Jennifer Ehle); a formerly world-famous American dancer and choreographer suffering from end-stage spinal lymphoma. Amanda has a reputation for being acerbic, but she and Maud get on well – Maud admires her strength of character and zest for life, whilst she wants to help Maud let her hair down a little. However, there are certain elements of Amanda's life of which Maud does not approve – her smoking and drinking, for example, or the frequent visits from Carol (Lily Frazer), Amanda's much younger lover, and as time goes by, Maud starts to exert more and more control over Amanda's life. Meanwhile, although God continues to promise Maud that the time is coming when she will be called upon, she's started to get a little frustrated waiting. And so, facing the possibility that something hideous from her past could resurface, Maud decides to prove to Amanda, God, and everyone else just how far mankind has fallen and just how sanctified she really is.
Although Maud is a hard-line fundamentalist, Glass refuses to dismiss her as an irredeemable monster, arguing instead that such individuals genuinely believe they really are communicating with the Divine. It's the old thing about how a crazy person doesn't know they're crazy, but manifested in a more complex form – Maud may be mentally ill, but even if that is the case (and the film is in no rush to confirm that it is), then surely she deserves compassion and kindness, so completely has her mind bent reality to support her delusion. As will be discussed in a moment, Glass tells much of the story from Maud's subjective perspective, and in this sense, it's almost understandable when she sees signs of God's presence in everyday things (an inexplicable whirlpool in a glass of beer, for example) and when she's occasionally rendered almost catatonic as the Holy Spirit flows through her. As the subjective perspective communicates brilliantly, this may be delusion, but if it is, it's a total delusion that she is powerless against. In a very real sense, she cannot be held accountable for her actions.
Even irrespective of mental health issues, however, Maud is all-in on the whole Catholic thing. She tells God about how important her work is, as it allows her to "_save souls_", which is the greatest task she can imagine; she credits her recent conversion to Catholicism as reversing the downward spiral of her life, explaining that she always felt "_there was more than this_", but it was only when she became a Catholic that she was allowed to see what that "more" was. She's also a firm adherent of the Job school of faith-by-suffering, cheerfully telling a beggar, "_never waste your pain_" and later engaging in some truly gnarly DIY shoemaking.
Along the same lines, she tolerates Amanda's little digs about her life and how lonely she seems, but when Amanda turns her caustic wit to Catholicism, Maud is unable to let that stand without offering rebuke. Of course, her relationship with Amanda forms much of the film's narrative backbone, and is deeply nuanced and layered, with neither woman allowed to occupy the moral high-ground. Ehle plays Amanda as profoundly bored with her failing body, whose isolation and inability to leave the house mean she must find amusement where she can, and so she seizes on this strange, ultra-serious young woman who has come to look after her. Amanda is never portrayed as a villain, but she does regard Maud as something of a plaything and Maud's reverential and humourless attitude as something to be joked about, not with the intention of hurting Maud, but with the intention of amusing herself. Amanda, however, fails to understand that these are not mutually exclusive intentions.
As strong as _Saint Maud_ is thematically, however, where it really excels is in its aesthetic design. Glass directs the hell out of it and there's not a weak link amongst her crew – from Ben Fordesman's murky cinematography to Paulina Rzeszowska's detailed production design to Paul Davies's oppressive sound design to Adam Janota Bzowski's creepy score to Mark Towns's ambiguous editing (including a shocking slam cut right at the end that's as brilliantly jarring and thematically crucial as anything in the work of Nicolas Roeg).
Crucial to the overall aesthetic is how Glass handles perspective; most (although, crucially, not all) of the film is told from Maud's perspective, so we encounter her visions not as an objective third-party would, but as she herself does. So, for example, when she sees a small whirlpool spontaneously appear in a glass of beer, we see the same thing, and there's no cutaway to show us Maud staring at a normal glass, _sans_ whirlpool; when a towel placed near a crucifix falls to the ground for no obvious reason, we see it fall just as she does, and there's nothing to objectively suggest why it may have fallen; when God talks to her (in Welsh, no less), we hear His voice as she does, and there's no portion of the scene where we see Maud answering a voice we cannot hear.
Similarly, is it just a coincidence that so many shots of Maud are blocked with windows or lights in the background that create a halo effect, and is the shot of her walking on the beach, with a thin layer of water covering the sand, intentionally framed in such a way that it looks like she's walking on water? One particular scene near the end of the film, which I won't go into as it would be a spoiler, is especially important in the construction of a subjective point of view – what we're seeing couldn't possibly be anything other than psychosis, and yet the film has given us very little to confirm such a reading. Could it be that what Maud is experiencing is real? Is this scene confirmation that her mind has irreparably snapped, or is it confirmation that she was completely sane all along? Constructing a scene based on two literally inverse interpretations can't be easy, yet Glass does it so smoothly, you won't even realise the sharp dichotomy until it's all over. At the very least, even if we don't accept Maud's view of things, the film encourages us to sympathise with a woman undergoing a mental breakdown. There's no cynicism here – either Maud is truly in contact with God or she isn't, and if she isn't then her story is as much of a tragedy as Amanda's, and she deserves help, not condescension or ridicule.
Running only 84 minutes, it's extraordinary how much Glass squeezes into her debut feature; from the arresting performances by Clark and Ehle to the thematic complexity to the extraordinarily well-handled perspectival ambiguity to the haunting aesthetic design. Looking at issues such as trauma, faith, fundamentalism, sexuality, and human impermanence, the film has much more going on than the generic horror elements one might expect. Either a depiction of the mental collapse of a young woman or a study of the supernatural, the ambiguity might frustrate those who prefer their narratives with solid answers, but for the rest of us, there's much to embrace and celebrate here. One of the best directorial debuts I've seen in a long time, I was only half-way through the movie and I was already looking forward to whatever Glass might do next. _Saint Maud_ probably won't break any box-office records, but as a calling card, it's second-to-none, and we are going to be hearing a lot from Rose Glass in the future.