What do you believe in?
Michaela Klinger (Sandra Hüller, looks a bit like Chloe from 24) is a 21 year-old girl preparing to start her first semester at university, having already lost one year to reasons that she is unwilling to discuss with anyone. It soon becomes apparent that the reason for her year out, as well as some of her odd behaviour, is her epilepsy, a condition she keeps hidden from those outside of her family, including best friend Hanna (Anna Blomeier, looks a bit like Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson)) and boyfriend Stefan (Nicholas Reinke, looks like a lot of people, yet no one in particular). Things are complicated by Michaela's fervent Christianity, and her belief that her condition is a test from God.
If any of the above sounds familiar, that's because it is. Requiem is based on the same case that the more supernatural and sensationalist American film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. However, whilst that film was more concerned with the aftermath and what happened to the poor girl and the possible role that the clergy may have played, this film is a drama which takes the more difficult task of creating for us a portrait of a confused, intelligent and highly devout girl who does not understand the condition that afflicts her. The film succeeds splendidly in this endeavour and, even if it takes a while to get going, it's fascinating to watch Michaela struggle with her new life, her condition and her repressive mother, it's a joy to watch her brief moments of happiness, and harrowing to see her eventual decline. All of this is beautifully played by Sandra Hüller, who really carries the film with an astonishing central performance, managing to give a sense of hope for her character even though her destiny is never in doubt.
This is largely to do with the presentation of the film. It completely avoids any special effects, or even background music, in favour of a naturalistic, almost documentary approach to the story. This goes a long way to making the story as effective as it is, since it creates a real sense of ambiguity over how the film-makers view Michaela's condition; is it medical, or is it demonic? The film refuses to fall on one side or the other, leaving it up to the audience to bring their own beliefs to the table. It's a brave approach to the subject and I think the film benefits hugely from it.
It's also an incredibly frustrating film because Michaela is an inherently frustrating character. She's clever, funny, articulate, kind, loving and has so many redeeming qualities, yet it's her irrationality that leads to her downfall. Her central misunderstanding of her condition and her stubbornness about it mean that although there are plenty of moments for her to get help, with even her family's priest telling her that it's just fantasies in her head, that God and the Devil are just constructs, not literal things that can possess her, yet she keeps plowing on, until she starts to convince those around her that her condition is more than medical. This is the central tragedy of the film, and even though it ends before we get to see what happens to Michaela (though their is a postscript that leaves little doubt, though I didn't have any when I went in anyway), it is still deeply, deeply saddening to see how her story progresses.
Incidentally, I was particularly pleased to see that the clergy in general were represented in a fairly even-handed way. It's too cheap and easy to demonise them in a story like this and its to the credit of its creators that they manage to keep things balanced until the story demands for the scales to be tipped.
I wasn't expecting much from this, I even forgot why I had put it on my Lovefilm list (in case anyone wants to know, Mark Kermode recommended it on an old podcast) but I was really quite taken with it. It's as brilliant and frustrating as its central character, but it's an exceptional film that tackles a difficult, deeply psychological and religious story and does wonderful things with it. It's very rough around the edges, but the core makes up for it.
Also, it's got a very good soundtrack, in that the songs that are used are perfectly suited to their scenes, particularly 'Anthem' by Deep Purple.