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Saint (2010)
Director: Dick Maas

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Myths are peculiar things, they seem to hover somewhere between the obvious falsehood of stories and the potential truth of legitimate beliefs about the world. Neither completely true nor obviously false, myths survive from one generation to the next thanks to a process of cultural renegotiation whereby myths are re-fashioned to suit the needs of the day. Those myths that remain relevant survive; those that do not are relegated to the arena of the fictitious.

An excellent example of this process in action is the evolution of the mythology that has grown up around the 4th century Greek bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra. Once upon a time, Nicholas of Myra was a real person. This real person was then canonised by the Catholic Church and, as a saint, he came to be associated with particular aspects of the Christian experience of the world. Over time, different cultures latched onto different elements of this mythical figure and remade it to suit the demands of their own cultural spaces. For example, the Americans stripped Saint Nicholas of his Catholic heritage and re-invented him as a mascot for consumerism and yuletide over-indulgence, while many North European cultures continue to celebrate a decidedly more dualistic figure whose gift-giving role is attenuated by a terrifying fondness for beating and kidnapping wicked children. Once upon a time, Nicholas of Myra was a real person, now he is nothing more than a series of vessels for the fears, concerns and aspirations of different cultures.

While all the different versions of Saint Nicholas stand as proof of the evolutionary forces affecting popular myth, we can also find evidence of cultural renegotiation in the tendency to deconstruct and reclaim mythical figures. Indeed, once popular mythology becomes detached from popular values it creates the space for deconstructive play. For example, Santa Claus is a large bearded man who enters people's homes under cover of darkness in order to lavish presents on their children. This innocent generosity is the product of a different era when people lived communally and accepted gifts entirely at face value.

However, times have moved on and the current climate of perpetual fear of paedophilia and violent crime means that, rather than innocent and generous, Santa's nocturnal wanderings now seem nothing short of sinister. People tell their children to fear strangers bearing gifts, why should Santa be any different? The growing disconnect between the myth of Father Christmas and the values of our society has opened up an opportunity for deconstruction whereby the myth is broken down and reinterpreted. This kind of deconstructive play allows writers and artists to present us with darker versions of the myth, versions that will either edge Santa out of popular consciousness or set the stage for a popular reinvention that will realign old Saint Nick with modern values.

Notable deconstructions of the figure of Santa include such horror classics as Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil (1980); Charles Sellier Jr's Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984); and Jalmari Helander's cruelly under-appreciated Rare Exports (2010). In fact, 'evil Santa' films are common enough to constitute a subgenre of their own. One interesting take on this is the Dutch film Saint (aka: Sint). Directed by Dick Maas, Saint looks beyond the American figure of Santa Claus in favour of the North European figure of Saint Nicholas. This vision of a slightly different evil Santa imbues Saint with a good deal of freshness but this freshness turns out to be something of a double-edged sword.

Saint begins by driving a wedge between the liberal values of contemporary Dutch society and the terrifyingly authoritarian values embodied by the figure of Saint Nicholas. Maas introduces us to the values of contemporary Dutch society thanks to a group of university students who are exchanging gifts on the last day of class. When a lecturer announces that this year's class has beaten the university record for sex toy-based gifts, a might cheer goes up suggesting that these students take pride in a set of sexual values that would have shocked their parents and horrified their grandparents. This sense of social progress in action is made even clearer when Sophie (Escha Tanihatu) dumps Frank (Egbert Jan Weever) following his dalliance with another girl. However, rather than dumping him because of his infidelity, Sophie happily admits that she dumped him because she prefers her other boyfriend and thought it best to leave Frank to pursue his latest infatuation without having to sneak around. Youth, it seems, is on the move.

The happy liberalism of the university students stands in stark contrast with the hideous racism and authoritarianism of their mythical figures. Indeed, far from reflecting the liberal generosity of an easy-going society, Saint Nicholas is a terrifying medieval bishop who kidnaps wicked children in order to sell them into North African slavery. The sense that Dutch society has become alienated from its own myths is neatly embodied in the figure of a police detective intent upon bringing Saint Nicholas to justice. As a child, Goert (Bert Luppes) watched his family being slaughtered at the hands of Saint Nicholas and his Moorish henchmen. Thirty-two years later, Goert is lobbying for the creation of an anti-Santa task force as the disconnect between Dutch society and the myth of Saint Nicholas has resulted in Saint Nick's behaviour seeming nothing short of terrifying.

Like many genre films, Saint is built around a series of set pieces. While the film's initial set pieces (including an attack on a car full of students) are both impressively tense and deliciously gory, the film's true power lies in its capacity for surrealist confrontations between reality and myth. Brilliantly conceived, elegantly shot and hilariously deadpan in their execution, these later scenes include a visit to a children's hospital ward in which smiles and wonder turn to terror and an achingly superb roof-top chase sequence involving a bunch of police cars, a medieval bishop on horseback and the thoroughly appropriate use of bullet time.

Unfortunately, once you move beyond the brilliance of its set-pieces, Saint's charms begin to wear a little thin. The problem is that none of the central characters (be it Goert, Frank, or Saint Nicholas himself) have enough substance to sustain a proper narrative, and this results in a film that feels rather too episodic and piecemeal for its own good. However, while Saint never completely convinces on a purely dramatic level, the briskness of its pacing, the brilliance of its set-pieces, the wit of its script, and the surprising quality of both its direction and production values combine to produce one of the most memorable high-concept horror movies of recent times. In fact, Saint's big idea may be a good deal bigger than writer-director Maas intended.

Saint's freshness relies upon a simple trade-off: on the one hand, Saint is unlike anything else in the evil Santa subgenre because the version of Father Christmas that Maas deconstructs is unlike the version of Father Christmas that tends to feature in this type of film. On the other hand, because English-speaking audiences are unlikely to be all that attached to the figure of Saint Nicholas, Saint lacks the wider cultural resonance of your typical evil Santa flick. In fact, the differences between Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas are so pronounced that Saint barely qualifies as part of the evil Santa subgenre.

However, far from being a bad thing, Saint's lack of wider cultural resonance means that it is possible to divest the film of its Christmassy elements and read it as the story of a medieval bishop who terrorised the liberal inhabitants of modern-day Amsterdam. Rather than renegotiating the myth of Santa, Saint can be read as a vicious satire of the Catholic Church and its position of presumed moral authority over a society that has long since evolved beyond the strictures of its medieval moral precepts. Indeed, Saint is best read not as a renegotiation of the myth of Santa but as a more aggressive renegotiation of Catholicism itself.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church stood between humanity its God. Not content with merely teaching the content of the Bible and providing simple moral instruction, the Catholic Church insisted that its institutions were the terrestrial component of a much larger divine bureaucracy. Because church institutions were continuous with the process of divine judgement, the Catholic Church had the distinctly supernatural capacity to affect people's paths into the afterlife. For example, one person's generous earthly donation could release them from centuries in purgatory, while another person's public disagreement with church authorities could result in both their excommunication and perpetual damnation.

Since the high Middle Ages, humanity has fought long and hard to free itself from Church control but while the Catholic Church is no longer universally seen as an instrument of divine judgement, it still enjoys an almost unparalleled degree of moral respectability. Indeed, whenever such pressing moral issues as stem cell research, abortion, or same-sex marriage are debated in public, you can bet your bottom dollar that a Catholic priest or bishop will be asked to weigh-in and share their opinion.

Were we still living in a world where the majority of people were Catholic and public opinion broadly lined up with church teachings then the presumed moral authority of the church would seem perfectly natural. However, given that popular opinion has moved on while that of the church has not, the presumed moral authority of the church is starting to seem more and more surreal. The sense of surrealism surrounding the church's presumed moral authority is even more tangible once you factor in the scandals surrounding the behaviour of church institutions.

For example, Jim Loach's film Oranges And Sunshine (2010) tells the story of how the Catholic Church worked with British and Australian governments to take children away from 'undeserving' and 'immoral' parents. Informing children and parents that their loved ones were dead, authorities deported children to Australia where they underwent decades of abuse and humiliation in a religious educational environment indistinguishable from indentured servitude. Far from being an isolated occurrence, these deportations potentially involved hundreds of thousands of children from a number of different countries and reportedly went on well into the 1990s. When questioned on their actions, church authorities either issue a flat denial or place the blame on a few supposedly isolated figures, thus preserving the church's presumed authority when it comes to matters of public and private morality.

Given that the Catholic Church is not only out of step with public opinion but also responsible for some of the most heinous acts of institutional child abuse imaginable, there something unbearable about the inclusion of churchmen in public discussions of moral questions. Who the fuck are these withered old bastards and where do they get off telling us what to do?

The idea that the Catholic Church is now nothing more than a morally putrescent corpse imbues Saint with a strong satirical edge. Indeed, the modern Catholic Church behaves very much like the film's Saint Nicholas, a hideous and antiquated authority figure that 'hates everyone' and routinely abducts children in order to force them into servitude. Indeed, the power of Maas' surreal confrontations between myth and reality owes quite a bit to the absurdity of a medieval institution operating in the modern world. We all know that the world was not created in six days, we all know that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and we all know that women should have the absolute right to choose... so why do we listen to a cadre of elderly men in skirts and hats who tell us that we are not only wrong but damned?

Again, who the fuck are these withered old bastards and where do they get off telling us what to do? Saint is film that is driven by a single naked lunch moment, a realisation that the princes of the Catholic Church really have no place in the modern world. Like all mythical entities, the teachings of the Catholic Church must either evolve or die out. By presenting us with the image of a Catholic bishop terrorising liberal modern-day Amsterdam, Maas is contributing to a climate in which Catholicism's influence over issues of public morality is very much up for debate.

Saint also contains a lovely moment when the Amsterdam authorities reveal that they are fully aware of Saint Nicholas's rampages. Every time it happens, the powers-that-be wheel out their spin-doctors to 'explain' the murders and abductions as accidents and isolated events. When challenged over the cover-up, Amsterdam's mayor reveals that he is powerless to do anything about it... he just hopes that at some time in the future people will realise how toxic these myths can be and stop giving them the time of day. When read as a film about an evil Father Christmas, this scene feels bizarrely out of place. It is almost as though, by introducing the idea of a political conspiracy, Maas decided to draw our attention to the deficiencies of his own themes and plot. Indeed, even the far darker North European version of Father Christmas is relatively harmless and so hoping the myth might die out seems like something of an over-reaction.

Furthermore, while the introduction of a political conspiracy may explain why people will continue to believe in Saint Nicholas after the rampage depicted in the film, it is by no means necessary for explaining the events in the film. If, on the other hand, we read Saint as part of the broader process through which Catholicism's place in society is renegotiated, this scene serves to reflect the fatalism of liberal politicians forced to deal with the vestiges of Catholic influence: yes, it would be lovely if the Catholic Church were to simply fuck off and die but there is really not much that liberal politicians can do in a democracy to hasten the process. All they can do is hope that some day people realise the toxicity of these myths and decide to put a stop to them.

Because Saint Nicholas is quite a different mythical figure to Santa Claus, Saint presents itself to English-speaking audiences with two subtly differing interpretations. The first understanding of the film functions as a hugely enjoyable slice of yuletide silliness, while the second interpretation of the film offers a brutal and sustained critique of the Catholic Church's presumed moral authority. Regardless of which version of Saint you decide to 'see', rest assured that this is one of the most enjoyably provocative horror films that you are ever likely to see.

Saint



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