“Faith” is a flexible concept in Valentina Pedicini’s documentary of the same title. Her subjects, a self-isolated group of kung fu practitioners in rural Italy referred to as the Warriors of Light, are beholden to a range of conflicting higher powers. That they simultaneously identify as Shaolin monks and devout Catholics seems complicated enough; that they live largely in thrall to their human Master, a rigorous martial arts trainer with complete control over their routine and environment, casts a tangle of question marks over their religious devotion. It’s a pretty irresistible subject for any docmaker, though a lurid exposé is not really what Pedicini is after: Rather, “Faith” is as disciplined and intriguingly opaque as the men and women it studies, attempting to unlock the nature of the group through mesmeric observation of routine and ritual.
Premiering in competition at IDFA, “Faith” represents a potential international breakout for Italian docmaker Pedicini, whose success has thus far been largely limited to her home country. Though it’s undeniably a special-interest piece, the sheer, sensuous weirdness of the subject matter here, combined with some head-turning craft, should secure her latest multiple further festival berths and deals with more adventurous distributors. “Faith” should certainly play on the enduring public fascination with cults of all varieties — an eternally grabby doc topic, from “Wild Wild Country” backwards — though whether what we’re observing in this unique monastery is among the many post-screening discussion points the film sets up.
For Pedicini, meanwhile, the film is something of a revision: In 2008, the filmmaker made her first student short about Laura, one of the community’s longtime residents. Per press notes, however, Pedicini states that the resulting film was missing some key events and information that may have cast the Warriors of Light in, well, a less flattering one. Returning a decade later with the same cinematographer, Bastian Esser, she eschews narration to editorialize her investigation, though the camera’s patient, passive scrutiny yields disquieting revelations: Early on, we sit in on a group meeting between the Master and his disciples, as he sternly addresses one young woman’s recent departure from the group. A male monk, Gabriele, is accused of having sexually harassed her and given an ultimatum to shape up or leave.
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Audiences are liable to wonder whether this tidy confrontation is patching up a deeper rot within the group. “I don’t want anyone to say, ‘They’re like any other sect, there’s something fishy about them,” the Master concludes, though it’s a statement that in its own way invites suspicion. For amid the elaborate semi-Zen performance of it all — a hodgepodge of practices that mixes Buddhist singing-bowl meditation with the Lord’s Prayer — things don’t seem quite peaceful within the monastery. (Analysts of cultural appropriation, meanwhile, have a lot to absorb here.) The Master rears his fighters with what appears to be a grueling program of extreme physical training and emotional abuse, as demonstrated in one particularly startling sequence that sees him working one-on-one with Laura, both his favorite pupil and his lover, with a rope fastened tightly around her neck.
Is this a toxic demonstration of patriarchy in action, or is it a kind of perverse theater, blending spirituality and sadomasochism to inseparable effect? Featuring no direct interviews with the Warriors, “Faith” remains ambiguous on this front, though it isn’t blind to the allure this sequestered world might hold for them. The group training sequences, in particular, are shot and cut to propulsive, near-hypnotic effect. Esser’s exacting black-and-white lensing — hitherto aptly monochromatic in line with the monks’ austerity — sinks into expressionistic depths of strobe-lit chiaroscuro; the club-like lighting and pounding drum-and-bass to which they train heightens the impression that they’re cathartically dancing as much as they’re fighting. It’s certainly no Shaolin or Catholic priest’s idea of expressing devotion, but it does appear to culminate in a manner of fleeting nirvana.
For some, at least. At least one other will eventually leave the group: “You either become what you are or you pack you bags,” the Master counsels, though pinning all justification for staying or leaving on one’s self-realization feels evasive. It’s hard not to wonder what Altair and Olympia — the two young, shaven-headed children of the monastery — will make of the commune raising them as they grow up. One scene that finds them playfully goofing about like any other kids in the monastery’s garden is initially striking for its plain normality. Viewers may gradually realize it’s also the film’s first shot of daylight, a rare escape from the walls securing the Warriors of Light — whose name seems less fitting as this serenely unnerving film unfolds.