Berlin, February 10, 2014 (Peter Malone) - Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) by Dietrich Brüggemann won the Ecumenical Prize in Competition of the 2014 Berlinale.

This is a film of particular Catholic interest.

The title, of course, refers to the traditional devotion to the passion of Jesus, the Way of the Cross, 14 steps of contemplation from Jesus being condemned to death by Pontius Pilate to his burial. (In more recent times, Pope John Paul II added a further contemplation of the resurrection.)

This German film, screened at the 2014 Berlinale, winning the main jury prize for screenplay and the Ecumenical award in the main Competition.

The film opens with a priest, young, clerically dressed, teaching five children about the sacrament of Confirmation which they are about to receive. His words are plain and clear. He then says to them that the church has had 2000 years of tradition - and then asserts that along came the Second Vatican Council which ruined everything. He is critical of such things as Communion in the hand, female altar servers, music, a worldly spirituality.

We are being taken into the life of a group which resembles the Society of St Pius X, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, here called the Society of St Paul. What the film has to offer is a portrait, according to the writer-directors, of a traditionalist Catholic Church, often extreme in its attitudes, fostering an austere spirituality, an isolation from the mainstream which it fears and condemns.

At the centre of the film is the young girl, Maria, part of the Confirmation class. She is urged by the priest to greater holiness, her hoping that she could be a saint. But this requires a great deal of asceticism on her part, not protecting herself against the cold, not eating, much praying - with the motivation that her little brother, who has not spoken, will be able to speak because of her mortification. Maria becomes the character who goes on her own stations of the cross. This is emphasised by the priest who points out that the children are now to become warriors of Christ, warriors for Christ, battling themselves and evil in the world. To be fair, he does point out that the children's battle is also for good in the world.

In this way Maria becomes a Christ-figure, following the pattern of Jesus in his suffering. While there is some talk of heaven, it really does not loom large in the horizons of the Society of St Paul. This is made very clear in a powerful confession sequence, where she talks frankly about herself from the perspective of a young girl, and allows herself to be questioned about all kinds of issues, including sexual temptation.

One of the features of depiction of Christ-figures is the selection of characteristics of the Jesus of the Gospels for understanding the parallel character. The depiction is a challenge to appreciate what criteria are important to the viewer in establishing a Christ-figure, what is included, what is not included.

Maria is an intelligent girl and makes friends with a boy at her school who invites her to sing in the choir at his own church. She is tempted, but his choir includes some rock music and her mother is horrified. In fact, the film's focus on Maria's mother shows us a woman who is extremely rigid in her perspectives, fearful of temptations in her daughter's life, very critical of her when they walk in the mountains, go shopping, buy a dress for her Confirmation, humiliating her at the table after Maria pretends that her friend is a girl and then confesses and admits this to the family.

This means that the audience is very sympathetic to Maria while not understanding the devotion in her motivations. It also means that the audience is quite unsympathetic to the mother, even at the end when she is so haughtily hostile to the doctors and nurses, but decides that her little girl is a saint and should be beatified. In these days of awareness of abuse of children, psychologically as well as sexual, it appears that the training of Maria, the encouraging of her penances, assuming that she understands these matters as an adult, is a warning against spiritual abuse.

Mainstream Catholics and mainstream Christians will be dismayed at this particular portrait of Catholicism, its joylessness, its awareness of God as punishing more than loving, its focus on the sufferings of Jesus without looking to the resurrection, its rigidity of belief, intellectual understanding of faith without a personal pastoral dimension. Life is governed by puritanical attitudes in the Jansenist traidition in the Catholic church.

There is one friendly character in the film, the au pair from France, Bernadette, who brings to the household something of a more humane and sympathetic perspective on life, a support for Maria, offering some alternative way of looking at life, Maria relying on her more than the mother that she strictly obeys. It is Bernadette who speaks positively of Heaven and love for the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

One caution. Catholic viewers may be taken aback at a scene in the hospital where Maria expresses a desire for Communion. The priest brings the host but Maria cannot swallow it and it has detrimental effects on her breathing - and the nurse, matter-of-factly, simply takes the host out of her mouth and puts it on a towel. The scene is to highlight the unreality of the members of the sect in terms of illness and treatment.

There is a Spanish film of 2010, Camino, which has some similarities to Kreuzweg, the story of a little girl who is ill, a member of Opus Dei as is her family, who are unrealistic in her medical treatment, even brutal in their devout approach to religion, wanting her to be a saint.

Members of the society of St Pius X may find the film too critical, but mainstream viewers will find that this particular community, its beliefs and its spiritual practices are brought to life.