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2018 Berlin Film Festival Review: Cedric Kahn’s superbly acted and engaging ‘The Prayer’

Synopsis: A heroin addict enters a religious rehabilitation center far in the mountains in hopes of liberating himself from addiction. There he experiences religion, friendship and self-discovery.

Cedric Kahn’s THE PRAYER is going to be a divisive film. Certain to be seen by some as a simplistic, parable-like story that advocates for religion, others may see beyond the surface and approach Kahn’s interesting, if slightly confusing for some, approach in toying with concepts of faith, love and identity to craft an emotional story that is much more than a story about healing or even religious faith.

As the film opens, we see Thomas (Anthony Bajon) being driven to a religious rehabilitation center in the mountains. It’s in the center that he will spend days, weeks and months in hopes of restoring his strength and be finally free from heroine addiction. But a junkie’s journey is always a tough one and there are no shortcuts to healing. As expected, Thomas resists at first, only to then realize getting off drugs is his only hope of finding the better version of himself. Throughout the weeks and months, he spends there, he goes through interesting encounters with religion, love, friendship and hope.

On the surface, THE PRAYER is a film about the power of faith – religious faith, faith in one-self or in others – and how it can save those who lack the power of will from falling into substance addiction. On another level though, it is a film about what happens after the addiction is almost gone, and not how to get there. Several scenes subtly emphasize the various ways through which junkies heal, and by showing us Thomas’ resistance to prayer and religion at first, it is evident he is not the type who will succumb easily to using religion as a drug despite peer pressure.

In one of the film’s best scenes, and perhaps one that need to closely examined, a nun confronts Thomas and help him come to terms with the lie he is living. Religion will not save him, neither will being clean for a while. He will have to truly dig deep to understand what he essentially needs – not wants – to be able to find inner peace. Is religion merely a convenient habit that he thinks offer him some fake comfort or forced calmness? Perhaps he is still an addict, but this time to the religion drug that soothes but does not convince.

It is this exact concept, of finding comfort as an escape or a resort from what is truly tormenting and troubling, that Kahn examines here with emotion and finesse. He is not interested in making a propaganda film about the power of religion, though many will certainly perceive it this way, but the film’s final moments address the story’s whole point and bring to focus the film’s emphasis on how honesty and self-understanding could perhaps be the ultimate liberation for someone who resorts to mental and physical drugs to disappear, escape and wander aimlessly in a life that’s only once lived.

The film’s locations, a beautiful mountainous area in France that is not named in the film, help bring the notions of liberation, escape and refuge to focus. But the story could have used a bit less on-the-nose execution and a more nuanced approach to deliver a more intellectually coherent viewing experience. Kahn brings the best out of his ensemble cast, who are given small moments to shine via a series of confession scenes that become slightly repetitive after a while but help shine the light on real stories of addiction and healing. Nevertheless, as the credits roll and the viewers take a step back to reflect on what they had just seen, some may feel the execution was perhaps not entirely focused – and that what is surely a sincere attempt to reflect on several interesting psychological notions ended up slightly manipulative despite being well-intentioned.

Verdict: THE PRAYER is an interesting experience that will split audiences and could have used a more subtle and coherent approach to comment and hint rather than make firm statements that may seem heavy-handed. Still it is superbly acted, well shot, engaging for the most part and hits several right notes here and there.

Grade: B

Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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