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The masochistic designs of men in fervent “Faith”

Valentina Pedicini’s final feature, a documentary on a martial arts cult in Italy, is now available on MUBI.

Valentina Pedicini’s final feature, a documentary on a martial arts cult in Italy, is now available on MUBI.

Especially now, movies allow us insight into people and places we may not otherwise see. Italian filmmaker Valentina Pedicini followed this idea to an extreme to create films that documented people in complete physical and mental isolation, as she immersed herself alongside them to understand invisible worlds. Starting with her 2013 documentary From The Depths, which follows Italy’s sole female coal miner working deep underground, she further developed this interest in her final film Faith (2019), about an obscure martial arts-focused religious sect. In the wake of Pedicini’s tragic passing in late November, MUBI is currently hosting Faith as a tribute to a unique documentarian who left us all too soon.

Faith is an immersive documentary about Warriors for Light, a small group in Italy who’ve lived in a monastery for the last 20 years. Most of their background is given on an opening title card: In 1998, a kung fu master recruited other martial arts champions to follow him as they trained for a fight against demons. Ever since, The Warriors (divided into “Warrior Monks” and “Guardian Mothers”, with the leader just being dubbed “Master”) have been living in a cramped monastery, training extensively without any contact with the outside world. While the specifics of their faith are unclear (though some signs point to a Catholic-derived system of belief), in practice they follow an ascetic lifestyle that emphasizes oneness and complete control of mind over body.

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However, there is a sense that Master is simply making it up as he goes along. The opening and closing scenes in the film show him leading ecstatic group dances to blaring electronic music, and he appears to be having sexual relationships with multiple Warriors. The group is fascinating in the way they blur this line between the libertine and ascetic, as it seems their first commitment is to physical intensity, and the doctrinal connections come afterward. They’re Shaolin Monks, but for the Eurobeat and CrossFit crowds.

Anyone who has watched a documentary on cults in the last 10 years will instantly spot some red flags: a charismatic guru, complete social isolation, and a constant pushing of physical and emotional boundaries that attempt to do away with the concept of “limits” altogether. Removed from the financial complexes that drive more lucrative cults, Warriors of Light exists for the fulfillment of one man’s paranoid fantasy: an ultimate metaphysical-turned-physical battle with demons (which, if we’re being honest, probably won’t be won by a group of 20 kung fu experts).

Pedicini’s ambivalence to the dynamics of the group can be frustrating, though. She takes Master’s potentially abusive leadership at face value, and only gives about one minute of screen time to another male Warrior who has been accused of assault by multiple women. Master’s scarily large crossbow collection is only glimpsed in passing. This distance fuels but never answers the main question of the film: which practices of faith are “legitimate,” and which are the masochistic designs of men?

As cults reinforce an isolating tunnel-vision among their members, Pedicini and cinematographer Bastian Esser visually recreate this desperation by shooting the monastery’s interiors in heavily-shadowed black-and-white, obscuring the corners of rooms. The film’s Expressionist lighting reinforces the claustrophobic character of the monastery, and the physical space of the film is continuously confused.

Both guru and landlord, Master is a provider of both spiritual direction and physical light. In this world of his making, light only exists to allow for the group’s heightened physical discipline— any further use is outside his defined purpose and therefore unnecessary. By immersing herself in this space, Pedicini blends herself with the Master as the guiding auteur of the film, and the distinctions between their visions become increasingly difficult to distinguish. While this approach poses more questions than it answers, Pedicini was a clearly patient and intelligent filmmaker whose sensibility made her films necessary in a way few achieve. Without her, this insular world could have remained unknown to the world at large.


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