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The Complexity of Religion in Unreliable Narratives | A Review of the 2019 Thriller 'Saint Maud'

Saint Maud (dir. Rose Glass) is a 2019 psychological horror by A24 following a hospice nurse named Maud (played by Morfyyd Clark) recently converted to Catholicism. Taking on a new job after a catastrophic accident at her previous one, Maud finds herself in the presence of a dancer suffering from stage four lymphoma Amanda Köhl (played by Jennifer Ehle). After developing a close relationship with Amanda, Maud becomes obsessed with saving her patient’s soul by any means necessary.

Though the story is simple and the plot doesn’t base itself in horrifying imagery, death, or gore this psychological thriller discusses topics of religion which those in organized religion may find offensive or uncomfortable to discuss. For this, I believe it’s important to look exactly at the messages Saint Maud is attempting to send, even if it may be difficult. There is also much that can be discussed with Saint Maud, however this review will look at the unreliable narrator plot and the integration of religion.

Like with my previous review Skinamarink (2022, dir. Kyle Edward Ball), there seems to be a variety of interpretations and readings audiences can make of Saint Maud’s narrative. However, what makes Saint Maud unique is its use of the unreliable narrator in relation to religion. Throughout the film, audiences see the plot primarily through the eyes of Maud – we hear her thoughts, her prayers, and our reality of situations can sometimes become obscured by Maud’s belief system. For example, pain and self-harm are common themes used throughout the film and both are a relation to Maud’s dedication to God and as God’s love toward Maud. While a minor detail, the relation of self-harm and pleasure performs as a showcase for how the audience's perspective of the narrative is skewed. While the audience sees Maud walking on nails to prove devotion, an outsider might see a troubled woman harming herself. This warp of reality is present within the film’s conclusion especially. As Maud performs her final action of devotion to God, the audience watches a holy glow engulf her body and onlookers fall to their knees to see her saintly image. However, the final second before the credits gives audiences a peek at the grim reality taking place in Maud’s life, without the rose tinted glasses of her religion.

It’s evident through Maud’s interactions with an old coworker Joy (played by Lily Knight) that something in Maud’s past has caused some flare ups of delusions within her life. Or, if not completely delusions, then there is some type of severe mental unwellness showcased through Maud’s actions. Maud has several moments where she either shifts moods unexpectedly or becomes unavailable. She emotionally detaches easily, has stalker tendencies, regularly self-harms in the name of God, and frequently appears to be more of an empty vessel than a conscious human. While the audience does not get much insight into Maud’s past, it’s seen through her behaviors the trauma and/or mental unwellness she has been experiencing for the previous X amount of years. During a scene at Maud’s apartment, her old coworker Joy states, “I wanted to say that we should have been there before it all happened. We could see you were struggling for a while and no one did anything.” It’s unclear what “it” is that happened in Maud’s life and how it relates to the accident seen in the beginning of the film.

But, whatever “it” is has severely impacted Maud in a life changing way. Likewise, some of Maud’s health concerns are physical, as she constantly references her stomach as an area of constant pain and her stomach is shown having several cuts toward the pelvic bones. However, because Maud associates pain with the love of God it is never told or made clear what issue Maud is suffering from. I believe it could be argued that many of Maud’s sudden waves of pleasure and warmth she receives from God are a result of a physical medical condition and her reality has become diluted by her new-found faith in religion. With more research, it could also be argued from this pain and two unpleasant sexual encounters Maud has that perhaps Maud is suffering a miscarriage.

Because Maud is an unreliable narrator, Saint Maud raises several interesting, though at times uncomfortable, questions about religion and spirituality. Specifically, questions about the character of the Catholic God. As Maud is proven to have a warped sense of reality, the audience is not able to discern whether Maud’s interactions with God are real, if they’re delusional, or if her interactions are with some entity that is posing as God.

If one assumes Maud is not delusional and that the reality of the narrative is accurate to her perspective, then the topic of religion and what God is becomes a heavy focal point in this thriller. If we take Maud at her word, then what picture of God is painted within Saint Maud and what messages can be taken away from it? I have found the Catholic God in Saint Maud to be incredibly cruel, malevolent, spiteful, and vengeful – perhaps more akin to the Old Testament. He makes Maud harm herself as punishment but claims it's his love entering her body, plays with her emotional well-being, laughs at her as she falls only to give her a small pick me up and drop her again just for fun later.

Maud is also given a test of faith somewhat similar to the biblical character Abraham. In a last ditch effort to convert her patient Amanda to Catholicism, Maud begins placing holy water across Amanda’s forehead and sizzling can be heard as she does so. Up until this point, Amanda has been a symbol of sin and overindulgence in Maud’s life, to the point that Amanda attempts to make Maud “loosen up a little” so she doesn’t waste her youth. During this scene, Amanda transforms into a representation of the Devil attempting to convert Maud into a life of sin. Maud believes her test from God is to kill the Devil, or Amanda. And, if Maud’s perspective is true then the film is a simple battle between “good” and “evil” – although I believe audiences can decide who they wish believe is good and who is evil themselves.

But, if Maud is delusional and unreliable, as I believe her to be, the scene changes. Instead, an outsider might see a religious fanatic who faces criticisms of her beliefs and in turn responds in intense anger and violence. If the God in the story is real, then he’s malevolent; but if he isn’t, one of his several believers is depicted as crazy and unhinged. Personally, I found a lot of Maud’s actions with self-harm in her religious practices to be similar to how a cult member may act. Whenever she let God into her life was shortly after the accident when she was already at a low, vulnerable, struggling, and “lost.” Many cult leader techniques for recruiting new members involve finding those who are vulnerable and looking for answers in an impossible situation. While Maud isn’t a member of a cult, and practices Catholicism alone, I found it surprising that she had cult member-ed herself, by herself, and in the name of discovering God. This has also made me think about a quote early in the film involving the artist William Blake where his artwork is defined as a “rejection of organized religion. Which he claimed was an ugly distortion of a true spiritual life.” I wonder what questions could be discussed and shared in relation to Maud’s practices and if it’s still part of an organized religion, or if it’s spiritual – especially because audiences never see her performing traditional organized religion activities such as attending church.

I give Saint Maud 5 out of 5 coffins.

I feel as if I don’t see enough unreliable narratives that are truly interesting or unique, especially in the cinema. Saint Maud was not only stunning to look at, but held a narrative that felt very refreshing to see. I enjoyed the questions that I asked myself while watching this film, and I liked the ways in which religion and spirituality came into the picture.

Saint Maud is currently available to stream through Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Epix, Philo, Sling TV, and is available for rent at select Redbox locations starting at $3.99.


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