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11 April 2016

Søndagsengler (1996)

Directed by: Berit Nesheim
Starring: Marie Thiesen, Hildegun Riise, 
Bjørn Sundquist, Sylvia Salvesen, 
Martin Dahl Garfalk, Ina Sofie Brodahl, 
Ann Kristin Rasmussen
A very long time ago, soon after we'd come to the US, my husband borrowed Søndagsengler from the local library. (For a very funny reason.)  We really had no clue what the film was about since those were the days of VHS, but since we watched anything and everything those days, we put this in as well. Suffice it to say that we thoroughly enjoyed the film.  

Set in the late 1950s, Maria is the oldest daughter of the household, ruled by its patriarch in the manner of a petty tyrant. (He forbids her playing the piano - because it is a Sunday.) Her father, Johannes (Bjørn Sundquist), is the vicar, and Maria's Sunday mornings are spent in church where, at exactly five minutes to eleven, she has to sit down quietly and miserably on the uncomfortable wooden pew, as her father preaches his austere, and mostly-boring sermons. As the film begins, she is sitting there once again, outwardly attentive, while quietly calculating the number of hours - 684 - she would have spent inside the church, on this very bench, before she's confirmed. 

The oddest of thoughts continue to pass through her head - she would go to hell, or so the old hags in church have told her, if she doesn't look straight ahead and pay attention; Mrs Tunheim (Hildegun Riise), one of the elders, would look smart with lipstick...  meanwhile, her father preaches on.
One day, on one of her solitary walks through the woods, she comes across Mrs Tunheim, most sinfully enjoying a swim. Maria is both fascinated and puzzled - she's been taught that to take pleasure in one's body is sinful. Unable to comprehend Mrs Tunheim's obvious delight in her freedom, and frightened that she was discovered peeking, Maria runs away. 

She is strangely isolated in that little community, a part of the adolescent boys and girls, yet in some way separate from them. Slowly, she comes closer to Mrs Tunheim, who often looks like a smile is seeking to escape her lips. Unlike the joyless 'old hags' in the church, Mrs Tunheim is full of vitality, and Maria yearns for her company. 
Mrs Tunheim's unconditional acceptance of her, and the openness of her friendship warms the young girl, who's never been able to talk openly to anyone before.

One day, Maria musters up the courage to go to her the local teen hangout in the town. While her classmate Birgitt (Ann Kristin Rasmussen) welcomes her, the boys, who are drinking, make fun of her father, and mock the commandments. Maria is not sure whether she should stay or go. Stay she does, and soon, there's music and dancing, and Maria is dancing as well. For a while, anyway.
Maria's friendship with Mrs Tunheim continues unhindered. It is the one place where she feels free to be herself, to smile, and even laugh. Mrs Tunheim has unexpected depths, and Maria is finding her a very amiable companion.
Mrs Tunheim encourages her to do what she likes to do. Go for walks in the forest, to swim, so the water can bring her peace, to laugh - even though her mother is ill again, and might have to go back to hospital. Maria takes her words to heart. 

Her relationship with her father, however, continues to deteriorate, until Maria, chafing under her restraints, finally takes a very important decision - she will not be confirmed. Her father cannot understand. 
Maria, as is her wont, runs away to the forest. Where she realises the truth of Mrs Tunheim's advice - the water does bring peace. However, that peace is short-lived. When she returns home, it is to find her mother being taken to hospital. 

Matters are coming to a head - Maria, left alone to look after her siblings, is not as quiet and obedient as she used to be, and her father, unused to being questioned in his own house, does not know what to do with his recalcitrant daughter.

Maria is conflicted too, and there's more confusion in store for her as she stands alone, not yet on the cusp of womanhood. Secrets and tears, happiness - of a sort, and conflict, and death... 
...and always, the goal of freedom on the horizon. It is only later, when she finally reaches that horizon that she understands what Mrs Tunheim meant when she said, 'There's a God for the two of us, Maria. A God who who wants us to be what he created us to be.'  
Søndagsengler (literal translation, Sunday's Angels) is an unusual coming of age story in that the protagonist is a girl. As Maria becomes more and more aware of herself, she struggles even more against the rigid rules that govern her upbringing. [Her father once sends her brother from the dinner table, without food, for accidentally farting.]  This brings her in conflict with her father, who is both stern and repressed. With no one to speak to, Maria begins to withdraw into herself, preferring to go on long walks by herself to escape the teasing of her classmates. Her only escape lies in reading the more erotic passages from the Song of Solomon...
... and in thinking the oddest things while she's in church. 'Isn't that the strangest invention, to love and cherish until death do us part? I love meatballs. But I cannot promise God I'll do that for the rest of my life!'

Her journey towards freedom - to be herself, an individual with her own beliefs, first and foremost - comes from the encouragement that she receives from Mrs Tunheim, who is herself trapped within the confines of the church and community. 'It reminds me that we must remember to live,' she says, once, when they hear music outside.

A film that slowly unfurls the narrative as Maria unfurls her own self, interspersing Maria's rebellious thoughts with scenes from her life, Søndagsengler is both contemplative and questioning, not only of manners and morals, but also religious dogma as it is often preached. With no real 'plot' to speak of, it is more a stream of consciousness than a real story. Maria's dreams are vague, her desires, her feelings amorphous. Indeed, she can scarcely describe them herself. Marie Thiessen plays her with a vulnerability and feeling that make her hurt and grief very real indeed. 'Father loves his parishioners and they love him,' she thinks to herself. 'We exist so the priest can have a home.'    
As Maria begins to grow more confident, she begins to wonder at a vengeful God whose repressive views seems to be mirrored in the miserable attitudes of her father, and that of the rest of the congregation. Her rising disenchantment with the religion of her father brings up some existential questions. 'Do you think God did a poor job of creating man?' she once asks Mrs Tunheim. 'He created us so we have to ask for forgiveness all the time.' Yet, it is to this God that she addresses most of her teenage angst, praying for the silliest, and the most serious of things, complaining to Him about the world He created, questioning the 'orders' that seem to be blindly practiced by her father, even telling Him, 'Dear God, starting today, I'm going to be an atheist.'
She is ably supported by Bjørn Sundquist as Johannes, the priest for whom the laws of God are inviolable, yet is hypocritical in his own personal life. It's not a cardboard cutout of a character, however; Johannes is also a man who loves his family, but cannot bring himself to say or do anything that is not 'God's will'. Sundquist gives Johannes a humanity that softens the harshness, even if it doesn't completely mitigate it. 
Also remarkable is Hildegun Riise as Mrs Tunheim. Alive and sparkling, it is she who gives Maria the much needed encouragement to find herself. Yet, all the time, she's losing her own self in a relationship that can go nowhere. It is she who sets Maria free to live her own life on her own terms - something, she confesses, that she'd never dared to do. Yet, in the final reckoning, she finds her own freedom - just a different sort.    

If you're, or have ever been, a teenager struggling with the pain and confusion of growing up, being 'different', not being able to talk to someone, needing to find a way to express your true self, this film will resonate with you. A rather dark humour underlines the pain, and you'll find yourself laughing rather ruefully at your own past self, even as you wince inside once in a while. 

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