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Mass

Mass

[…] The cinematic drama of «Mass» is all contained in the hesitation, the inhibition, the difficulty, and still the need to use words as if they were a therapeutic instrument.

[…] «Mass» is a sort of study both in facial expressions and in cinematic timing.

A room, four people; they speak with each other and this is already an exceptional event, for even if they are two couples that both mourn the loss of their child, the violent deed that traumatised them is also the reason for their division. Somewhere I read the synopsis of Mass, which is actually unusually short and lapidary: «The parents of a victim of a school shooting meet face-to-face with the parents of the perpetrator». This is not a story, not a plot, but a situation: a situation where the words will try to avoid (and finally need to say again) the unspeakable story of the shooting, will attempt to analyse the story of the childhood of the absent children, will express the story of the mourning process.

All these stories surface on the screen, bringing a sort of relief, while the cinematic drama of Mass is all contained in the hesitation, the inhibition, the difficulty, and still the need to use words as if they were a therapeutic instrument. Verbalising clearly has a healing function, at least insofar as words are forms through which we can put feelings, or the ghosts of the past, at a certain distance. They are shared, measured and measurable forms, they comprise meanings as well as any abstract idea and unseizable sensation, but their promise of solving any uncertainty and internal turmoil is not always kept, because they can also be inappropriate, badly chosen, misused. Fran Kranz’ film has the rare ability to focus entirely on this drama of words.

More precisely, the dialogue of the four characters oscillates between two irreconcilable poles: questioning and expressing. Do they speak simply to express their unbearable suffering or do they really question, claim, argue, blame, excuse, reproach, defend, interrogate? Do their words work as a solitary echo of their individual suffering, or are they really meant to be addressed to the Other? Are the four of them effectively in a dialogue? Are they constantly in contact with the Other? Are they hearing properly the words of the Other? This drama of words so becomes a way to convey the drama of a difficult, sometimes (apparently) impossible rapprochement, and this is achieved primarily through the work of prosody: not the words themselves but how they are spoken is the essence of Mass. To this end, the amazing bravura of the four actors – guided by an actor in his first experience as a director – and the precise choice of frames and tempi for the cameras is to be praised, highly praised. Mass is a sort of study both in facial expressions and in cinematic timing.

It is a social study too. The two couples exemplify two different “types” of middle-class Americans – the perpetrator’s parents being healthier than the victim’s ones. In this way, the psychological drama expands into a social drama, between the alleged authenticity of the lower classes and the cold puritanism of the higher ones. At stake is the role of reason and rational arguments as advocates of shared values or dealers of individual interests. The reason, a reason, some reasons are desperately needed when facing the unexplainable harshness of evil, yet they are not only hard to find but, even when found, they cannot give the expected satisfaction or relief. Even the best explanation, or the most accomplished repentance, will not compensate the tragic loss. The process of mourning, essentially oriented to healing, will remain in danger of sinking into the spiral of grieving, again and again. What if the only relief to one’s own suffering reveals itself to be the suffering of the Other? Is this the sad truth of the Christian crucifix?

A crucifix guards the four parents’ discourse, for the room where they discuss is part of the parish building. Both at the beginning and the end of Mass we see representants of the church and of the secular law in their being radically different, the first ones ostentatiously gentle and clumsy, the second one coldly respectful and factual. They draw the framework of what a community could be. The tentative reconciliation of the two sets of parents could then mean the ultimate condition of the possibility of any solid community that is able to overcome its internal evil. Will the words be enough to accomplish this difficult task? Or should we need something more, or less? A singing voice? A wordless hug?

First published: October 13, 2021

Mass | Film | Fran Kranz | USA 2021 | 110’ | Zurich Film Festival 2021

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