Cinema can become a tool for the exorcising of demons. Repressions and life experiences can suddenly be evoked and shared with everyone in the theater or watching at home. Joachim Trie’s dark and perceptive film, Thelma (2017), is a gothic parable which serves as an interesting examination of the consequences of repression. A young girl becomes the receptor of her parents’ rigid, one could say Puritan, religious views of the world. Released in only a few arthouse venues and now available for streaming via Amazon, Thelma touches upon issues rarely gazed upon by mainstream/fantasy cinema. In an increasingly secular- albeit not rational- world, organized religion is being relegated more to a habit of the past. It even seems the Pope now claims hell does not exist. But for those raised within islands of dogma, belief is a very powerful and palpable part of life.
The film stars Eili Harboe as Thelma, a young girl in Norway raised in a strictly conservative, religious home by two stern parents. They have the air of the sort of classic Protestant homes one still finds in middle America. Raised apart from any liberal notions of sex or unreligious social circles, Thelma is thrown into college like an explorer thrust into an alien society. Her peers refrain of any hostility towards her unsure, restrained manner, but they can’t help but give away that look of curiosity when dealing with an oddity. As Thelma discovers the worldly indulgences of drinking, smoking some pot and exploring one’s sexuality, an inner conflict begins to boil. Yet there is another factor involve here. Thelma is also manifesting a supernatural force or power that manifests itself through subtle or open- even terrifying- forms.
Trie’s film and screenplay (co-written with Eskil Vogt) finds a unique marriage between the spiritual and a critique of conservative isolation. It has the supernatural intensity of Carrie but the introspective, tortured soul reminiscent of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Countries like Norway and the Scandinavian areas have lately been the center of genre films which transcend their origins, becoming instead keen and haunting dramas. The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In uses the story of a boy befriending a young vampire as a dark, involving parable about the bonds of friendship. There is a vampire in the story and blood, but it is truly about the unique bonds we form with those who become companions as close as family. Last year there was a little-known, barely seen thriller from Iceland, The Oath, which was a powerful exploration of guilt and memory disguised as a thriller. Maybe it is the terrain and history of these corners of the world, still adorned in long winters, grey skies and vast rural zones of forests haunted by the past. Yet Thelma sets itself apart as a thriller and drama which also touches on the subject of faith and conformity. It utilizes a specific genre to explore much deeper territory. This makes Trie’s work similar to that of Paul Schrader. Raised a strict Calvinist, unable to see his first movie until the age of 18, Schrader would go on to write brilliant films about guilt, faith and tradition including Martin Scorsese-helmed classics like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader’s own films as a director merge stories grounded in the struggles of real life with the shadows of spiritual codes and beliefs. In Hardcore, a Calvinist businessman played by George C. Scott journeys into the world of pornography to find his daughter, while in Mishima, the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima becomes a driven fanatic when it comes to his own causes and obsessions. He ends his life with the ultimate act. The writing and aesthetic of these films feature exuberant visual gestures, but a depth that reaches beyond materialism.
In Thelma, Trie transforms the environment of Thelma’s college campus into an almost mystical battleground between faith and modernity. While sitting in the sterile architecture of a classroom nature will suddenly shift, birds will fly in strange patterns and snakes and other creatures will emerge from the ground. In Biblical fashion signs abound of some coming or impending event to which those living in the bubble of normal, urban life are woefully blind. There is a scene where Thelma is invited by her friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and her mother to a theater performance. During the performance Thelma again feels a strange energy and the lights above the stage begin to move and tilt. Like a medieval mystic Thelma suffers from sudden spasms or seizures which can arrive at any moment. She is in a sense cursed, or touched. There are reminders here of the great 2011 film Take Shelter. Directed by Jeff Nichols, it is one of the great recent American parables via cinema. In it Michael Shannon plays a farmer assaulted by prophetic hallucinations and dreams about an impending storm. It isn’t God or a specific religious force speaking to him. It is instead as if his instincts have become attuned to another wavelength. To his neighbors the farmer seems to be a freak, or a mental case. When he begins building an actual shelter to prepare for the impending cataclysm, even his wife (Jessica Chastain) begins to have doubts. But what if he’s right? In Thelma the viewer is challenged, at least in the first two acts, to ponder if Thelma is truly the carrier of some form of otherworldly force, or conditioned by her upbringing to interpret the world through a devout haze which alters her perceptions of reality.
What the main character is hurtling towards in this strange, unique film is an apocalyptic reckoning in which her newfound freedom as a young adult careens into a cataclysm with her nest. As allegory this is a beautifully-constructed film where the forced confinement of those reared in hyper religious environments grasp freedom, but then must struggle to keep it. On campus Thelma experiences sexual desire, and the potential to explore and fulfill such urges. Alcohol and drugs are offered by friends, who are puzzled as to why such leisurely activities seem like an enormous leap for this girl. When she explains she has been raised as a devout Christian, a member of the group offers his own challenge to the very notion of religious faith. The way Thelma’s response is written has a great authenticity, because her rationalization of faith is not too off kilter. When she begins to have sexual feelings towards Anja, Thelma begins to realize she is crossing a border zone from which she cannot return. A first kiss becomes a momentous event, and yet the supernatural disturbances grow stronger. One can be liberated, yet the shadows of the past remain, especially if growing up is defined by powerful ideas concerning what is right and wrong, with the ever present threat of divine judgment. Thelma’s parents call her with a cold, policing air. Their purpose is to make sure she has not strayed from the right path.
Eili Harboe’s performance in this film is key. She evokes a restraint and fear that isn’t cowardly, instead it is the behavior of the internally repressed. Harboe captures that special kindness and naïve comportment of the sheltered. As the story builds to its final reckoning we see Harboe gradually transform her character from repressed silence to a building, fiery rage. The final act of the movie fully dives into the supernatural aspect of the plot. But instead of becoming some sort of scare fest, what the climax of the story truly represents is that old Spanish saying, “raise ravens, and they’ll take out your eyes.” The parents have raised the instrument of their own doom. Having tasted the sensations of the outside world, Thelma is determined to be free and to exact her revenge.
Thelma by the end becomes a symbol for a crucial debate that has always faced conservative societies or households, whether one means religiously or politically, and that is how to face the tide of change. In the United States we have many universities and educational institutions of a religious flavor. In theory the very devout can raise their children in a controlled, Christian environment from the cradle through college. It is popular in these institutions, such as Liberty University or the Calvinist-tinged Master’s University, to defy accepted science and espouse doctrines claiming the Earth is merely 6,000 years old, or that psychiatry pales in comparison to “Biblical counseling.” In the Norwegian world of Thelma, the main characters household seems to be such an environment, and so when she enters a secular college and begins to spend her time with individuals outside of her world, the simple act of attending a rave becomes a shock to the system. Like many great thrillers or horror films, Thelmain its subtexts evokes some relevant social commentary. In the same way that Thelma is a person reared in a specific lifestyle suddenly finding herself in new environments, much of the conservative order in many societies today struggles with a world changing ever so quickly. This is one reason why reactionary politics are making such a comeback in the supposedly developed world. Change in the air brings fear, and fear creates a reaction which can be oppressive and even violent. Norway itself was the sight of a massacre in 2011, when Anders Breivik, his mind intoxicated by fascist literature and propaganda, killed 69 people attending a Workers’ Youth League summer camp. Already having lived a damned life, Breivik was entranced by the ideologies of those who fear change and see violence as the corrective. Repressed by reactionary forces, Thelma strikes back, and her parents will be consumed by the kind of otherworldly forces they so fervently believe in.
Writing about Thelma is the sort of endeavor where many avenues open as you proceed. This is the kind of supernatural thriller/drama you don’t see much of in the United States. To explore these themes with a tinge of the fantastic usually means reducing the material to the lowest common denominator. Thousands will flock to theaters to watch a complete slice of nonsense like the recent Truth or Dare, where a demonic entity plays with a group of college students, daring them to carry out activities such as sleeping with each other or walking the edge of a roof chugging vodka (not exactly the sort of activity the average frat pledge needs the forces of darkness to egg them into). A hidden gem like Thelma is usually discovered by accident, in the arthouse circuit or in a streaming service. Hopefully the curious will be enticed. It features forces from another reality, as well as scares, religious iconography and hidden family secrets concerning dark powers. But unlike many of its peers, it is a film with things to say. It is a young woman’s journey into the discovery of herself, and the apocalyptic reckoning with the cradle that shaped her.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.