Johan Liedgren’s latest film, The Very Private Work of Sister K, begins with a priest telling a story. He is doing so at the request of a young nun who sits at the end of a table. It’s the tale of a little rabbit who decides to take the opportunity to eat a bit of meat. The little rabbit discovers that being a vegetarian is too limiting. The tale’s ending is simple but disturbing. The little rabbit begins to hunt and consume meat. Soon it transforms into a bloodthirsty beast. His listeners are not only unsatisfied with this ending — they do not seem to understand the point. The priest is attempting to use his story as an ice-breaker, but he provided a revealing analogy.
His little fable is really more of a parable in which a meek creature has become a life-threatening menace. Sister K wants to hear his story once more before her hearing begins. The men in the room are far too polite and cautious to call the meeting by the appropriate term. Sister K, a young nun, has apparently committed several grave transgressions. Despite their initial protests, this is not a gathering to protect and assist Sister K. This gathering only appears informal and friendly. Four priests, a lawyer and a doctor have gathered to issue a judgement regarding the young nun. An older nun sits off the side. This young nun finds herself seated in front of the patriarchal order of Catholic Hierarchy.
Johan Liedgren has effectively used a rabbit analogy before. The protagonist of his 2013 film, Mother Nature, is bullied, threatened and maligned as being the equivalent of a “little rabbit.” In that intense film, the father is gradually pushed to adapt the far more sinister powers to prove that he is far more than an innocuous creature. In both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K, the idea of the respective protagonists as furry little creatures fit easily into one rabbit-like archetype. The only shared rabbit attribute is that they both manage to lead others down into deeply rooted holes.
Johan Liedgren’s Mother Nature came to my attention by accident. A friend had mentioned him as a potentially important emerging film artist. As it turns out he was not “emerging.” Liedgren was already firmly emerged and established. He is a respected and savvy storyteller who has been thinking out-of-the-box his entire career. And it is a career of note. Just press a few buttons to discover how successful he has been at creatively utilizing his skills in more than a few disciplines. Mother Nature is his first feature length film. It is a potent and unforgettable debut. My friend had not seen the movie and I could find no reviews posted to iTunes when I took a chance and purchased a copy. It turned out to be a rewarding investment.
Mother Nature presents itself within the trappings of an Art Horror film, but it is actually a surrealistic journey to the core of male identity. Liedgren’s film masterfully pushes the main character to his primordial core. Phillip Roebuck’s performance is perfectly matched with the manner in which the movie unfolds. We first see him playing with the family dog. Within a couple of minutes we know that he is a father taking his son and their dog on a short camping trip. This appears to be an outing designed to foster bonding. Father is out of sorts. His marriage has failed and now he wants to connect with his son.
This is not a father who easily fits into the mode of a fun loving dad. The son is not looking forward to hanging out with his father and the audience can’t help but understand. It is difficult to articulate, but Father is somehow unlikeable. Roebuck is brilliant in the role. With each small gesture and glance, this character just feels like a frustrated mass of inertia and depression. In the first portion of the movie, Father is of no interest. A skilled film actor is always welcome in any movie, but here it is of particular note. Roebuck is playing a character who turns out to be something far more than anticipated. Liedgren has written a character who will soon inhabit The Jungian Archetype. We do not see that coming and the transformation is unhinged and believable.
At first, the “hero” of Mother Nature is not someone we can like. Roebuck rightfully plays the father as passively aggressive and slump shouldered. He is disagreeable and awkward. Karina Deyko’s character hates him upon first sight. His very existence annoys her. And she is more than eager to let him know. Thanks to exceptional directing, acting, writing, editing and cinematography — we can’t help but agree with her. This is a bold choice but effective. It is also in keeping with the film’s odd dark humor.
The surrounding nature is beautiful, but somehow sinister. It doesn’t take long for Father to piss off all of the neighboring campers. And all of these fellow campers seem to possess natural weirdness that lends itself to cruelty. The son rightfully wants to leave, but his father becomes determined to stand their ground. Passive anger begins to simmer to the boiling point. Father‘s inner animal instincts begin to take control. It never feels unbelievable. The father’s transformation to Warrior is warranted and, with hindsight, it is inevitable. Like a cunning animal waking from a deep sleep to defend his turf, Father no longer fears anything. External threats have provoked his realization of identity. This provocation leads him to primal instincts and it is visceral. Father‘s strength was always there. It was just sleeping.
Thinking a snake has slithered under a fellow camper’s tent, he warns her and begins to poke beneath her enclosure to force the snake away. Instead of being appreciative — she seeks to humilate him. She refuses acknowledgment of his attempted kindness. Instead she incredulously accuses him of wanting her to like him. As if he has committed a crime by getting her attention she considers this snake to be of the Freudian variety. Frustrated and emasculated, he mutters that the snake is probably gone. Head bowed he admits he never actually saw it. His son claims to have seen it.
“Well, not seeing it won’t make it go away.”
Like the priest in The Very Private Work of Sister K, father has a story to share with his son. Before he can even begin to tell it the son attempts to stop him.
“Whenever you tell me stories you want something from me.”
Father does not attempt to argue with him. He merely points out that this time it is only a story.
The story tells of an Alaskan park ranger who, while conducting a bear population study, ends up becoming trapped with a sleeping bear. This bear is pure beast who will most definitely kill and eat the ranger. The ranger manages to use a small pair of clippers to slice deep within the bear’s neck to severe its main artery. The triumphant ranger falls asleep atop the bear who has died in a pool of its own blood. The son is impressed, but the point is not clear.
But Father is already thinking that they are now trapped in a situation that is equally dangerous. A sociopathic camper begins to threaten Father and taunts him as being no more than “a little rabbit.” Liedgren’s film takes an unexpected turn. Mother Nature presents one man’s fight for survival. A meek little man transforms to Warrior.
Trevor Fife’s cinematography is simple but articulate and masterful. Ben Lukas Boysen’s musical score is pitch-perfect. The real star here is the ways in which Liedgren has collaborated with his crew of artists and then achieved a tightly edited story that is as equally intense, unnerving and entertaining. It is of note that this film manages to register so deeply. Mr.Liedgren has not attempted to cash in on cheap effects. There is no sentimentality here, but we relate. We understand.
Mother Nature is one of those great movies that has never managed to secure the audience it deserves. It is available for rent or purchase on both Vimeo and iTunes. I highly recommend it. Watch the trailer for Mother Nature here.
The Very Private Work of Sister K is every bit as bold, provocative and surprising as Mother Nature, but the protagonist has a different sort of conflict. While it is far removed from the visceral world established in Mother Nature, the ideas of identity and the primordial inner battles of sexuality pulsing just beneath her habit is just as unrelenting.
After she successfully nudges the priest to share his story, Sister K sits patiently awaiting the Catholic patriarchy attempt to lull her into believing that they have not gathered to judge her. Sister K’s gaze signals she knows better. Utilizing Catholic hierarchy to funnel age-old misogyny, sexually conflicted fears and hypocrisy, Liedgren has created a darkly comical and often sharp edged take on the parlor drama. This is a highly intellectual work that is fueled by words, but make no mistake — this is cinema.
Zia Mohajerjasbi’s camera is truly masterful and it reflects a majestic scope. Bryson Michael’s editing is decisive and elegant and smooth. Both of these of these crucial elements serve to elevate and add additional impact to Liedgren’s witty film. There is a simple complexity to both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K that lead to almost quietly deafening resolutions. As I watched this film I could not help but think of Michael Haneke’s collaborations with Christian Berger and Monika Willi. While Haneke’s cinematic visions go to different places, Liedgren’s stylistic approach is similar. This is a film of ideas presented in a passionate but unsentimental language.
It should be noted that while the movie articulates dark comedy — it never sacrifices a thread of potency. It is refreshing to witness a filmmaker who can color outside the lines without surrendering to any level of uncertainty. This is a small film with big ideas — and all are pushed forward with style to match their substance. Essentially a chamber drama that takes place in one room, Liedgren never loses a cinematic hold. This is not a filmed play. This is cinema of ideas that flows easily and it never backs down from standing its ground. Sister K and her judges are angry. But hunger trumps anger. Sister K is far to hungry to put with their repressive fear, stupidity and misogyny.
Thinking that they have safely hidden their true selves behind the fraudulent mask of fatherly concern, the judges are eager to punish their little rabbit. The priests appear to be ascetic, but they each have agendas that oppose this concept. Liza Curtiss plays Sister K with quiet resolve. She is no one’s martyr. It isn’t her future that seems to concern her. It is the hypocrisy and evil that thrives within the walls of her chosen faith. As the nature of her transgressions become clear so do the illogical viewpoints of the men who lead the Catholic Church. These men of God are all too eager to paint facts to match the color of their vileness. It is from this perspective that we understand that this young nun has become a bloodthirsty monster rabbit intend on defiling all they hold sacred. The story of that little rabbit transformed to bloodthirsty beast turns out to be more fable than parable. These holy men see unsuppressed women as menacing beasts.
Sister K is thirsty, but it is not for blood. She hungers for the knowledge, blessing and love of God. And from where Sister K sits — God has long left the Catholic Church. He has left the building and it is crumbling from the decay of corrupt power, repression and suppression. Sister K has found truth and salvation through the access that these so called men of God have refused her. The priest most eager to deliver punishment is also the first to lick his lips and salivate as the detail of Sister K‘s transgressions are revealed. She sits accused of rape, but her judges are not concerned with the crime. Their worry is rooted in the fact that this young woman shows no remorse.
Sister K disagrees that she has done any wrong. She has followed a path that offered both she and her supposed victim a freedom not thought possible. She is grateful for what she has experienced. The “victim” that her judges refuse to name has brought her close to God. She has experienced true salvation. But her accusers disagree. When she tries to explain how the sweetness of sexuality delivered her lover to the light of knowledge and contentment, a priest attempts to shame her.
“He filled a nature!”
“He woke up.”
“With an apple shoved down his throat!”
“An adam’s apple we would deny no other man!”
“It was just sex!”
“It was just an apple!”
Her refusal to retreat like a sweet little rabbit is not going to happen. And she leads these men to the source of their problem: a fairy tale of a garden in which a woman lures all mankind to the doom of knowledge.
Johan Liedgren has made a film almost as angry as Ken Russell’s The Devils, but he contains that anger into a fascinating exchange between the accused and her accusers. The Very Private Work of Sister K is a cinematic provocation that relies on the power of ideas to spark a light in a dark world. In many ways Sister K is far more dangerous than a deranged flesh eating rabbit — she is an intelligent woman who smells the fraud. Our protagonist will not to be hunted or victimized. Actually, her work has only just begun.
The trailer can be viewed and the film can be rented or purchased here
Matty Stanfield, 11.9.2016