Welcome To Mercy


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Welcome To Mercy
"There are moments of real brilliance in this film, taking viewers in unexpected directions emotionally as well as narratively."

Films on particular themes tend to appear in clusters - and sometimes in cloisters, too. This year there are a lot of nuns about, from gentle documentary Chosen (Custody Of The Eyes) to the throw in everything and hope something sticks silliness of The Nun, the recreated real life horrors mingled with the supernatural in The Devil's Doorway and the Pagan feminist fantasy of The Book Of Birdie. Welcome To Mercy has elements in common with all of these. It's firmly founded in the horror tradition but, given that, is relatively unusual in that it takes its religious themes seriously. If you are a member of the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church you will probably find it quite a bit more disturbing than if you are not.

Anybody with experience of childhood trauma will find the opening disturbing. Madaline (Kristen Ruhlin) has travelled to her home country of Latvia to say farewell to her father, who is on his deathbed. She has conflicted emotions about this and being there is plainly triggering a rush of negative emotions; yet although her mother begs her not to stay in the house she is reluctant to go to a hotel instead - the weather is fierce and she has her small daughter Willow (Sophia Massa) with her. So she stays; and then it begins. Wounds open on her palms - supposed stigmata recalling the crucifixion of Christ - and she falls into a sort of trance and throws Willow hard against the floor.

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The next day, as she takes in what has happened, local priest Father Joseph (Juris Strenga) tells her that the only answer is for her to spend time in the local convent where the nuns can help her. Once there, however, she discovers that visiting her mother or even contacting her daughter has become much more difficult than she anticipated, and what's more, she begins to suspect that the nuns' devotions are not wholly of the Christian kind. Some of them play cruel tricks on her, and young novice August (Lily Newmark), whose interest in her may run deeper than their superiors realise, hints at a secret hidden somewhere in the library that may help all these complex puzzles slot together and make sense. Stubbornly, against the odds, Madaline strives to take back control of her destiny - but will she be ready to live with the result?

There are moments of real brilliance in this film, taking viewers in unexpected directions emotionally as well as narratively, and the various little hints and clues we need to solve the central mystery are cleverly woven into the story without ever interrupting its momentum. The way that sound is used - especially ambient noise, with the weather and the waves around the island where the convent is located significant factors in creating an oppressive atmosphere - is really impressive, and although Igor Kropotov's cinematography can't quite compete, it still provides some luminous, enchanting moments. For long stretches, however, the film is simply too slow, and it doesn't use this to develop either atmosphere or character. It also suffers from reliance on the shock value of a transgression that simply won't register as a big deal to less religious viewers, and it spends too much time recreating occult horror scenes that we've all seen too many times before.

At his best when he has the confidence to speak with his own voice, director Tommy Bertelsen delivers a film whose unevenness is forgiveable in light of its underlying creative vision. Though it doesn't achieve its potential, there's a lot here to provoke the curiosity of the viewer and Ruhlin's committed performance provides the stormy narrative with a solid anchor.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2018
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Welcome To Mercy packshot
An American woman visiting family in Latvia is sent to a convent after she has a breakdown and attacks her young daughter - but all is not what it seems.

Director: Tommy Bertelsen

Writer: Kristen Ruhlin

Starring: Kristen Ruhlin, Lily Newmark, Eileen Davies, Sophia Massa

Year: 2018

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: US


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