The Religious Ecstasy of Insanity – A Saint Maud Review

Lewis J. White | Film Editor

Rose Glass’ debut feature: Saint Maud tells the story of pious nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark), as she cares for terminally ill ex-dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud’s faith is put to the test as she must search for God’s purpose for her and how she can save Amanda’s soul by any means necessary. Saint Maud is a psychological thriller that places the question of faith and divine purpose in the minds of the viewer as they clench their hands in fear and discomfort.

Saint Maud shines in almost every aspect, from its beautiful screenplay written by Glass, to Clark’s performance of the titular character. Every frame feels so full of energy, the way the camera spins and transforms in leu with the protagonist – the film feels like an experience; a spiritual one at that. Rose Glass has entered the film industry with a sucker punch of thought provoking writing and a beautifully choregraphed way of directing. Taking inspiration from 1970s horror, The Exorcist (1973) perhaps being a predominant inspiration, Glass draws from some pioneer features of genre cinema. In certain scenes the way Maud moves and writhes is reminiscent of how Regan moves when possessed in The Exorcist.

Images of possession and supernatural persona’s often come from demonic or devilish consequences yet, in this narrative, Maud’s inhumanity and other-worldly characteristics come from God and Christianity. Maud’s obsession with faith comes after a traumatic experience that haunts her throughout the film, as a way of repenting she turns to faith, gradually becoming more extreme, and cares for the terminally ill – claiming Mary Magdalene as her inspiration for good faith. When looking after Amanda, an ex-dancer dying from cancer, her faith is challenged when put in contrast to Amanda’s ‘debauchery’. Maud tries to save Amanda from her debauched life and help Amanda embrace her coming death and the holy spirit. It’s fruitless and challenging but reveals Maud’s flaws; showing the audience who she really is.

One of the film’s key themes is sexuality, both in practice and queer identity. Maud struggles to separate her youth and the ‘sinful’ actions of sex from her religious conversion, especially when Amanda has a sexual relationship with a young woman. Maud can’t handle her view of the world contrasting with the experience of others. At the film’s core it is entirely about one person’s singular experience with faith and spirituality. In tandem with how Amanda’s sex life is questioned Maud’s own intimate relationship with God seems, at its core, to be sexual. Clark’s performance seems to imply an orgasmic or ecstatic interaction with the holy spirit, seeming visually reminiscent of the sculpture: L’Estasi di Santa Teresa or the Ecstasy of St Terresa (1647-1652). Teresa of Ávila was a catholic nun whom experienced an orgasmic spiritual experience from God and thus was depicted in a dramatic way by sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This depiction of ecstatic divinity seems to be an inspiration for Saint Maud and thus presenting Maud’s own spirituality as such seems deliberate and fascinating. Similarly, when reading a book gifted to her by Amanda about romantic poet and artist William Blake – she reads how he rejected the church as an institution, instead favouring the individual experience of religion, this seems to coincide with Maud’s own experience and exploration of her faith. An experience that changes her but perhaps not for the better…   

Saint Maud is thrilling and challenging but intelligent in its handling of religion and sexuality, discussing themes with nuance and bravery for the 21st Century to consider – cementing itself as a contemporary horror classic.                                       

Saint Maud is out in UK cinemas October 9th 2020

(Thank you to Margy from StudioCanal for the exclusive screening)

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