The creator of Hill House returns with a new mystical creation, more religious and spiritual than frightening, but devilishly bewitching.
The ways of Mike Flanagan are still so impenetrable. After terrorizing Netflix subscribers with The Haunting of Hill House (in 2018), then Bly manor (in 2020), the American director proves once again that he knows how to film darkness like no one else. Abandoning ghosts and haunted houses (this time there are no hidden specters, to look for in the background of the image), Flanagan takes hold of the religious, in a parable as haunting as macabre on fundamentalism, fanaticism and more generally the deviation of Catholicism. Midnight sermons (Midnight mass of its original title) is out today on Netflix and will certainly be the gospel word for years to come.
So here we are on Crockett Island, a small fictional island off the coast of America, battered by the winds, where a handful of fishermen and their families reside. A working-class village in full decrepitude, ruined by an oil spill, which no longer believes in much. It is in this haven of misery that Riley returns, he who burned his life at both ends on the Continent, to the point of accidentally killing a young girl. This thirty-something just released from prison, in the throes of his conscience, is back in the fold, in his parents’ house, in the village where he grew up, the one he wanted to flee all his youth and which now seems to be its future. Like him, Crockett Island is wandering. But Crockett Island will be given a new lease of life. A young priest arrives to take charge of the small Saint-Patrick church deserted by his faithful. And he will work miracles …
When we know that Mike Flanagan was an altar boy during his childhood, near Salem (yes, the witch town of Massachussets), we understand better why Midnight Sermons is his most personal project to date. The sophisticated horror specialist ventures here into much more intimate religious territory. Less spectacular than Hill house Where Bly Manor, his new Netflix series is a true philosophical reflection on faith and what we all choose to believe at one time or another. With a rare theological ambition, Midnight Sermons mostly sounds like a warning against religious extremism or any form of fanaticism. But it also offers an in-depth reflection on the Catholic Church and the way in which it is still struggling to be heard today. This reply from the village sheriff, of Muslim faith, claps in the air like a summary of Flanagan’s thoughts. As the local devout deacon begins handing out Bibles to public school children, he protests and explains: “Warning: Muslims believe in Jesus, but they believe that Jesus was a prophet of God. We also believe that after the time of Jesus, following the intervention of Men, people altered his message.”
So the deacon (incredibly embodied by the creepy Samantha sloyan of Grey’s Anatomy), who knows the scriptures like the back of his hand, quotes the Bible at will, to justify anything and everything. Because the Holy Book is open to interpretation, she makes him say what suits him, in order to absolve the sins that suit him. Through this and so many others, the screenwriter signs an intelligent and subtle critique of the perverse effects of manipulated religion.
From Midnight Sermons that we listen to with fascination. It’s nice. But it’s also grueling. Because Mike Flanagan still has a tendency to listen to himself talk. Like an evangelist, he multiplies emphatic speeches, grandiloquent dialogues on life, death, faith: “And you, what do you think is after death? “, Erin asks Riley by the fireside. An exchange of almost 20 minutes follows, of quite limited interest. Each replica is not essential. And we often say to ourselves over the course of these (very) long episodes – which sometimes come close to 1:10 – that Mike Flanagan was a bit light on the edit. Extraordinarily talkative, this Midnight mass almost even turned into deep boredom …
But as if by a miracle, it remains systematically fascinating. And from philosophical reflections to metaphysical thoughts, we hang on. Also because the fantastico-gothic atmosphere is magnificent, once again staged with a sense of suspense and cheerful detail (this poster by Seven above Riley’s bed …). Especially because Flanagan once again hit the casting jackpot with Hamish Linklater. Second anecdotal role of the small screen, crossed in Legion Where Old christine in recent years, it has undoubtedly been the key to the success of the series. This enigmatic Father Paul channels the powerful magnetism of a passionate preacher, a humble man of faith and devoted to his community, touching but so disturbing. His charismatic performance in these Midnight Sermons is the divine grace that she needed to develop fully and go beyond the framework of basic religious allegory, into which she could easily have sunk. This Midnight mass is decidedly a rare, indefinable televisual object. The ways of Netflix are impenetrable.