A young man stumbles out of the woods, wounded and desperate. A village of devout Christians welcomes him with open arms, nursing him back to health and giving him a place to stay. They don’t know who he is or where he came from, and the children in the village follow him closely, as if he possesses some magical powers. Is he a force for good? Or is he a malevolent spirit tasked with punishing them for their sins and hypocrisy? These questions hang in the air in Rebecca Daly’s “Good Favour” — and they just keep on hanging, until the intrigue gradually slips into boredom and the film’s determined ambiguity starts to feel like aggravating coyness. Daly succeeds at imagining the hardship and tarnished idealism of a religious community, but the film can’t survive on ambience alone. It’s missing answers.
With her third feature, following “The Other Side of Sleep” and “Mammal,” Irish director Daly and her screenwriting partner, Glenn Montgomery, advance a sophisticated parable about religious values and the perils of isolationism, but the setup is more compelling than the execution. As Tom (Vincent Romeo) emerges from the forest, he’s both intensely vulnerable and utterly mysterious, a soft-spoken 17-year-old who accepts the charity of the villagers, but keeps them at arm’s length. The spiritual leader of the community, Xavier (Lars Brygmann), chooses to believe that Tom’s appearance is a blessing and instructs his followers to uphold their Christian charter and make him one of their own. Though Hans (Alexandre Willaume), the patriarch of the teen’s host family, clearly harbors some suspicions about the newcomer, his wife (Victoria Mayer) and daughter (Clara Rugaard) quickly grow close to him, and the children of the town, especially, react to him as if he were the Pied Piper.
The more time Tom spends in the village, however, the more information comes to light about the darker secrets it’s harboring. For one, there’s a strong interest in forbidding all access to the outside world. Children are warned of an invisible boundary in the woods they cannot cross — shades of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” — and an elderly woman is denied the hospital care that might save her life. On top of that, a child’s disappearance continues to haunt the community, which may give residents reason to wonder if their mysterious guest had anything to do with it. Whatever the case, there are cracks in the bedrock piety of the place, and Tom’s presence is opening them up, no matter his intentions.
The brutal austerity of this fundamentalist sect recalls the brittle dramas of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Dreyer, but there’s no follow-through nor specific themes expressed. Daly and Montgomery have created an allegorical Rorschach blot from which many conclusions are possible, but few are explicitly suggested. The result is turgid and unsatisfying, despite the evident quality of the performances and the thought invested in how a Christian community like this one might operate. While Tom displays some qualities that seem to make him someone special — like a wound on his torso that never heals or the ability to revive a drowning victim — Romeo plays him as a cypher: It’s a frustrating manifestation of the film’s fatal elusiveness.
Photographed in rich blue-green hues by Tibor Dingelstad, the world of “Good Favour” has been thoroughly realized down to the last stitch on the dress shirts and bonnets. Yet the film’s refusal to light the fuse on this powder keg of a scenario is almost willfully perverse, as if it’s somehow vulgar to dramatize the conflicts being set up. Leaving some mystery to the audience is fine. Leaving it with only mystery, however, calls a film’s purpose into question.