Arts / Entertainment

Fascism and the eclipse of faith in “The Childhood of a Leader”

The new film "renews your hope in the future of American cinema."

The directorial debut of a 27-year-old actor might just become the standout film of the year.

Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader is a stunning effort from an auteur in the making, a direct descendant of Paul Thomas Anderson or even Stanley Kubrick that renews your hope in the future of American cinema.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

The film is based on a short story by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and follows a young boy and his diplomatic family in France during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The trailer (above) makes this look like a horror film, thanks in part to Scott Walker’s thunderous, Oscar-worthy score. And in a sense, it is. Because while the facts of the film are actually rather tame – a father (Liam Cunningham) who assists Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State is emotionally distant from his wife and son, a solemn, pallid boy who tests his limits in a series of “tantrums” – there’s still something really blood-curdling about this story.

There’s one obvious historical reason why. A future “leader” formed by the Treaty of Versailles can only embody all the impulses of fascism that overtook the world two decades later. “Calling the movie The Childhood of a Leader is like calling your movie The End of the World,” Corbet jokes. “You know where it’s going.” Every flash of egotism in the boy is a harbinger of dictatorship, and every flick of his finger portends bloodshed. Indeed, the last scenes of the film show the boy, now a man, spearheading a fictional fascist movement.  

But the truly scary question is this: What led him there? What leads a whole people there?

For Corbet, this “why” question comes down to the social and political facts of the period. “The idea was to make a film which was totally allegorical,” he says. “In fact, [the movie] avoids any literal psychological breakdown of this character. For me, this character is sort of the physical manifestation of what is happening around him, which is a combination of fairly ingratiating religious doctrine, the oppression of women during the period, and the incredibly naïve foreign policies that were established at that time.”

But the film doesn’t bear this out; in fact, the opposite is true. The few scenes involving politics are more stage-setters than anything, and any attempt at reading Germany’s experience (or America’s, for that matter) into the boy’s actions is a dead end. There just isn’t enough there.

Instead, what we see is the germination of the logic of fascism in one person’s psychology, and parallel to that, his fierce rejection of religious practice. Our first images of the boy are at a Christmas pageant, where he recites a Gospel reading about Christ, only to run outside afterward and (apparently for no reason) throw rocks at the parishioners. After that, his devout mother tries to guide him into the Catholic faith with Sunday Mass (where the priest preaches about why forgiveness is not the same as surrender), the prayer of St. Francis, the sign of ashes, a somber Lenten procession, etc., all of which humiliate and infuriate the boy. In the last scene of him as a boy, the mother asks him to recite a prayer at a diplomatic dinner, only to have him stage an open and ugly revolt. “I don’t believe in praying anymore!” he screams at her. “I don’t believe in praying anymore!”

Faith is more of a factor in this story than maybe even Corbet himself realizes – and not as a peripheral, “ingratiating” social fact, but as an everyday experience that the boy really and truly dreads. He dreads it because he dreads his mother (his father is noticeably absent from any and all religious activity), but mostly because he dreads its edicts of service and love for others. More than prayer, he wants power; more than the sacraments, he wants licentiousness. He will not serve – and he manipulates and acts out so that others will serve him instead.

We never really see what hidden experiences might’ve driven the boy to this rebellion – there are hints of a family secret bearing down on him – but maybe the point is that nothing drove him to it but his own boredom. Whatever it is, The Childhood of a Leader is a complex and timely portrait of the ugliness of ideology entering one man’s soul – not only by taking root in little ways, but by staving off big forces that threaten to deracinate it.

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Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.