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Paul Schrader unusually focuses on spirituality in ‘First Reformed’

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Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried give sensitive performances in “First Reformed.” (Courtesy A24)

The first thing one might notice about writer-director Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is that it’s small. It’s framed in the narrow 1:1.33 aspect ratio, used in the days before Cinemascope.

“When you get involved in contemplative cinema, there are a whole buffet of techniques that directors use, but they are all withholding devices,” said Schrader during a visit to The City for the San Francisco International Festival. “Whether it be in acting or composition or camerawork, they’re all giving you less.”

Opening Friday, “First Reformed” is a masterful portrait of a priest struggling with his inner torments, and the external realities of the church and the world.

Schrader — whose 1972 book “Transcendental Style In Film” focused on directors Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson, and who was inspired by Bresson’s “Pickpocket” when he wrote the screenplay for “Taxi Driver” — takes cues from Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” in “First Reformed.”

It’s almost a full circle in Schrader’s remarkable career, which includes “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.”

“I never really thought I would make a spiritual or contemplative film,” Schrader says. “I was interested in action and empathy and sexuality and violence, which are really not in the transcendental tool kit.”

He changed his mind when he met Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski (of the Oscar-winning “Ida”). Their in-depth conversation made Schrader realize, “It’s time.”

In “First Reformed,” Ethan Hawke plays the priest, Toller, of an old-fashioned church; Cedric the Entertainer (credited under his real name, Cedric Kyles) plays an evangelist at a modern church with lots of frills, and Amanda Seyfried portrays Mary, a young woman who finds solace in Toller’s church.

In one mesmerizing, 12-minute scene, Mary asks Toller to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist whose despair has given birth to radical ideas.

Calling the conversation “crucial to the film because it sets in motion all kinds of things,” Schrader adds, “It’s an hour later, when the reverend starts to veer off, that you say, ‘This character who I respect and who I identify with … maybe he’s not worth it.’ And that’s always a delightful place to put a viewer.”

And as Michael’s concern that the environment may be past the point of fixing, the film offers a powerful refrain, “Will God forgive us?”

“Frankly, I have a feeling that the decision has been made by humankind, whether our continued existence is more important than our present comfort,” Schrader says.

“For 20,000 years or so mankind has been pondering this question: Why are we here?” he continues. “For all those years, that debate was hypothetical, because no one envisioned that we wouldn’t be here. And now it’s starting to take on a different urgency. The planet will be just fine, but we may not necessarily be here.”

However, Schrader’s character Mary brings the movie a sense of hope, or, at least, grace.

“As she says, I go to a strange city and I look for a church so I can be alone and just sit there. That is built into you if you are a church person, as I was,” Schrader says. “There’s a kind of peace that you find, simply, in a church that other people, say, might find at a park. I don’t think that you ever lose that. And I think that’s a good thing.”

IF YOU GO
First Reformed
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger
Written and directed by: Paul Schrader
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

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