Bruno Dumont, Hadewijch, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Yassine and Céline vel Hadewijch (Yassine Salime and Julie Sokolowski).

TEENAGE CÉLINE VEL HADEWIJCH (Julie Sokolowski) lives in a rural nunnery where she expresses her devotion to God by eating virtually nothing and standing for hours in the pouring rain. After being expelled for her extreme renunciation and self-infliction, she flounders in the secular world: Her government official father’s palatial domicile and lack of parental affection leave her cold, while a friendship with impulsive juvenile delinquent Yassine (Yassine Salim) stops short at romance due to her “marriage” to Christ. A conspicuous emptiness consumes Céline until she meets Yassine’s older and more disciplined brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who schools the impressionable young woman in the horrors committed against the Muslim world by the West.

Arriving at this point via a slow-building series of carefully composed, taciturn images—including overcast landscapes and verdant refuges—French director Bruno Dumont constructs his latest film, Hadewijch (2009), in typically patient and ominous fashion, making the dramatic turn in his protagonist’s life plausible as well as palpable. And following the theme of the filmmaker’s American desert nightmare Twentynine Palms (2003) and battlefield psychodrama Flanders (2006), Hadewijch completes a sort of trilogy of brooding considerations of violence, faith, sexuality, and warring ideologies in the post-9/11 world. But Hadewijch is nonetheless a different beast from Dumont’s prior work, making muted sadness its dominant tone alongside the disturbing provocation carried over from Twentynine Palms and L’Humanité (1999).

A milder Dumont might be difficult to discern in a film that climaxes in a terrorist bombing and concludes with an oblique coda. But the understated mood is undeniable, and is perhaps most powerfully embodied in the performance of newcomer Sokolowski, who in moments of nervous vulnerability communicates the longing for and confusion of transcendence. The Mouchette-evoking Céline is by far Dumont’s most complex creation, an empathetic being who challenges popular notions of the spiritual personality and how it can be driven to perpetrate unforgivable acts. “Bressonian” is the adjective that continually sticks to Dumont, and Hadewijch once again proves he’s both earned the accolade and gone far beyond such a reductive category. In mysterious scenes that explicitly refer to biblical events like the banishment from the Garden and Christ’s baptism, the film operates on a symbolic level; in playing out amid the conflicting forces of contemporary global strife, Hadewijch’s political meaning is just as significant.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Hadewijch opens December 24 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.