SAINT MAUD is an Incendiary Awakening of a Would-Be Savior

Rose Glass’ divinely terrifying debut is driven by striking performances from Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle

I’m a passionate champion of the crisis of faith. The story of our struggle with a seemingly absent omniscience is a battle one wouldn’t think could be one of film’s most enthrallingly cinematic — but in films like Diary of a Country Priest, First Reformed, and Silence, audiences are given an incredibly visual roadmap from doubt to enlightenment. In remedying others’ connections to God, the Priest of Ambricourt discovers his own sense of transcendental grace. In directly confronting the apparent purposelessness of his faith, Pastor Toller finds himself drawn to the tangible action inspired by radicalization before, too, finding his own radical transformation in the relationships he has with others. And driven to apostasy in 16th-Century Japan, Father Rodrigues reckons with the personal connection he has with Christ as he seeks to convert others, often to his own peril. All three of these films explore intensely personal, often questioned, and altogether different relationships between the physical and the divine — reflecting the diverse connections we may have with a higher power, but united in a search to find earthly purpose in more ethereal spirituality.

In Saint Maud, its title character faces a similar crossroads — approaching her latest posting as a palliative carer, Maud (Morfydd Clark) hungers for God to finally illuminate the path before her. Unlike the men in these previous films who have devoted their personal and professional lives towards religion, we eventually learn that Maud is a recent convert. Nearly driven mad by a fatal incident with a patient whose terror is nowhere near as ambiguous as its circumstances, Maud has turned towards religion as a source of deliverance and coping with a trauma she’s long since buried. That said, she shares a similar anxiety in that her newfound devotion hasn’t borne its personally-fulfilling fruit — yet she doesn’t allow her confidence to wane. What separates director Rose Glass’ debut feature isn’t just Maud’s unshakable devotion in spite of the crisis brimming inside her — it’s the dark path Glass allows her character to wander after her seemingly-divine guidance finally offers its disturbing direction. Saint Maud is a different film about faith — less of a familiar journey of enlightenment than it is about the paralyzing fear of losing that transcendental sense of purpose…and the disturbing lengths we’re willing to go to to repel our doubts.

Maud’s new charge is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) — a former choreographer still in love with the physical pleasures life has to offer her even in the final stages of her terminal illness. Where Maud finds comfort in self-imposed asceticism, Amanda finds salvation in drunken flings with paid companions. Both Clark and Ehle’s performances are wonderfully devoted to these characters’ warring senses of comfort. Maud’s intense devotion is frightening, and could in the wrong hands veer into self-conscious parody — but there’s just as much terror in the unwavering sincerity Clark finds in a character like Maud, one that’s built on a foundation of repressed trauma. As such, Maud’s piousness never feels false, no matter what crazed lengths she goes to in order to protect or justify it. While she exists on the other end of the ideological spectrum as Maud, Ehle’s Amanda never feels like a character that solely exists to antagonize Maud’s beliefs, or to act as a complimentary sounding board that constantly tests her. Rather, in several short scenes, Ehle lets the viewer into Amanda’s closely-guarded inner world, giving sparse glimpses into how she relies on her physical comforts — be them objects or people — as literal life preservers. The more she devotes herself to the immediacy of life’s tangible delights, the easier it is for her to block out the possibility of death.

That’s also one of Saint Maud’s most revelatory aspects — just how tangible and sensual faith is, to a literally erotic degree. Maud is often wracked with ecstatic trances where she “feels” the Holy Spirit take control of her, causing her to collapse and surrender to forces beyond her. For someone like Maud, faith is a very earthbound, tactile thing — and Glass’ direction and Ben Fordesman’s cinematography revels in each physically transformative experience. And these moments don’t just have influence over Maud herself — these moments create flickering lights, spontaneous swirls in pints of beer, and…well, let’s just say beyond. It’s such a unique way to seduce and trap the audience into Maud’s headspace — by allowing her faith to have these intensely visual and tangible impacts on the world around her.

Such moments, though, also provide a unique counterpoint to the film’s further developments — being so closely linked between Maud’s worldview and the world she inhabits, we instinctively reject whatever forces might cause these moments of wonder to come into doubt. Through the sudden appearance of one of “Maud’s” former classmates, we learn that there’s much more to Maud and her past than meets the eye — and that her unwavering, horrific piety may know no earthly or spiritual bounds. It’s here where Glass allows the horror elements of her film to truly excel — not just because these sights are so damn scary, but because of how invested her audience now is in Maud’s fears. Even in its short 80-minute runtime, Saint Maud manages to pack in several horror features’ worth of dread and scares — all the while making its audience empathize and root for an increasingly-deranged would-be savior.

The less one knows about where Maud’s search for enlightenment arrives for her and Amanda, the better — but even though over a year had passed between my initial viewing at 2019’s Fantastic Fest and my recent re-visit for the film’s long-delayed release, Saint Maud’s climax has lost none of its shattering potency.

A welcome departure from similar films that reckon with our search for divine purpose, Saint Maud is a terrifying exploration of what happens when we seemingly find our path illuminated — and what darkness we’ll embrace if it means getting that much closer to the light.

Saint Maud is currently in limited theatrical release by A24, with an exclusive VOD release on Epix starting February 12th.

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