If you don’t believe in God, but praying to him gives you comfort, does it count? If you do believe, but don’t express it, does your faith still protect you? Like Catholic variations on the old if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest question, these and other theological uncertainties are intelligently woven into “The Prayer,” Cédric Kahn’s clear-eyed, open-minded study of a rural religious sanctuary for recovering addicts. Agnostically observant in its approach to spiritual matters, but more devout in its quiet celebration of human compassion, this film’s most complicated lines of inquiry largely play out on the young, unformed face of its protagonist Thomas — impressively played by breakthrough star Anthony Bajon — a shy former junkie whose push-pull battle between the ways of nature and grace gives this otherwise tranquil film a throughline of nervous tension.
Though this Berlin competition entry will likely be respectfully regarded on the festival circuit, its absence of both stars and narrative fireworks might curb its international distribution prospects. Its plain, confident purity of style and tone make it another distinguished entry, however, in the growingly diverse oeuvre of Kahn, one of France’s most unassuming but subtly muscular auteurs. Following 2014’s earthily rewarding back-to-nature drama “Wild Life,” “The Prayer” also confirms that Kahn has found his optimum creative ally in ace cinematographer Yves Cape (“Holy Motors,” “White Material” and a host of Bruno Dumont austerities), whose tactile but casually airy shooting of weathered male faces and majestic Alpine mountainscapes alike is perfectly in tune with his director’s own textured simplicity.
Bookending shots at the beginning and toward the end of the film zero in on the particularly narrative-bearing visage of 22-year-old Thomas, the slight differences between them marking the degree of internal change — not exactly a neat 180, as the vertex struggles back and forth with the seasons — that takes place over the film’s approximate two-year timeframe.
Bajon, robustly graduating from recent, smaller assignments for André Techiné and Jacques Doillon, is blessed with the kind of countenance that can change startlingly from one scene to the next even without makeup effects — though when he’s first introduced, glowering in the passenger seat as he’s driven to a remote refuge in France’s Isère region, it takes us a minute to see what a boy he still is beneath the wounds and graying complexion that go with heroin dependency.
Kahn and co-writers Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux deliberately offer us nothing in the way of backstory for their protagonist, beyond the basic nature of his addiction. Where Thomas has come from, what domestic drama he has left behind, and the circumstances that placed him on this particular rustic path to recovery are blank spaces left for the audience to consider. That’s apt enough, given that this isolated Catholic community of substance abuse victims, led with no-nonsense calm by reformed junkie Marco (Alex Brendemühl) is not concerned with anyone’s past — only the enlightened way forward, via a rigorous group regimen of manual labor and intensive prayer.
“The Prayer” features no confessional group therapy scenes familiar from countless addiction dramas; indeed, some time passes in the film before Thomas, an anxious, aggressive presence at the outset, utters so much as a word on screen. Solitary and prone to seizures, he’s slow to fit in; at just the three-week mark, bullishly believing himself cured of addiction and exasperated by the others’ earnest expressions of faith and piety, he makes a rash run for the hills.
Many viewers might be right there with him. The film is gracefully even-handed in its depiction of a religiously dictated community, showing its life-lifting benefits for some and the oppressive effect it can have on the less spiritually assured, who might be more inclined toward the Church’s principles than its practices — a point underlined in a lucid, moving montage of contrasting testimonials from various folk who have passed through the refuge. If the sanctuary’s managers show humane patience in the face of Thomas’s confusion and fury, however, he encounters a sterner judge in visiting benefactress Sister Myriam (Hanna Schygulla in a hard, disquieting cameo), whose Catholic dogma is less of a movable feast.
If Thomas is brought back from the brink by Sybille (Louise Grinberg), the pragmatic, escape-yearning daughter of a neighboring farmer, his blossoming affection for her develops in parallel with a solemn, growing reverence for God. As the seasons meltingly pass — editor Laure Gardette tracks the passage of time with unhurried exactitude — it becomes clear the young man is headed for a major choice in determining the primary object of his newfound devotion. It’s a dramatic confluence less organic than everything else in Kahn’s tender but matter-of-fact portrayal of more brotherly love, but the unwavering human kindness of “The Prayer” — a film as clean and bracing as the mountain air that surrounds it — sees it through to something truthful.