"My brief to Michele was for him to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany being the beginning of a new Middle Ages [Ed.-an almost total loss-of-faith after WWI and II]. Michele made the Hitler references and evil allusions work." -----Dario Argento, from "Profundo Argento."
Director Michele Soavi's "The Church" is unlike any horror film you will ever watch. To say it is merely horror, however, is a mistake. This is an incisive-critique of the crimes of the Vatican over the centuries, their sins of intolerance, and the demons they have given rise to. Coupled with newer theories on magical geometry (in 1988, anyway), as well as the studies of European Cathedrals and their connections to occult-lore and symbology, Soavi, Franco Ferrini and Argento have woven an incredible allegory on how evil the roots of organized faith often are. One could say that this is a truly "Medieval" story within a Medieval universe. It's a model of the universe that is similar to the one held by the Manichean heresy (the Cathars or Albigensians), and much like the final image in his splendid "Cemetary Man."
Like in his other classic, "Cemetary Man" (1993, 1996 in the US), our Earth is portrayed as a dominion of evil, where mankind is unable to transcend an architecture that prohibits redemption at almost every turn. This is also similar to certain tenets of Buddhism. In this universe, the world is a trap, not made by God, but by a lower-detity (sometimes called "Ialdabaoth", "Saklas", "Belial", and even "YHWH"). This modeled world is a prison, created by greater powers and forces that are only semi-divine. Like the prison planet of Gnosticism, Soavi hints that we are prone to the Lords of this World ("the Archons"), and that human wisdom has been withheld--particularly feminine wisdom--which is frequently absent in most orthodox faiths. Soavi doesn't seem to hold-out much hope for redemption here, but I find that it is a theme in his early films as well. This connects him thematically with directors like Fritz Lang, who posit a fateful universe, and a terminal human condition that is deterministic, predetermined.
This is a very modern viewpoint, ironically, since he places it within a Medieval cosmology, a nice trick! If you are a student of occult-lore and its symbology, this film is a real treat. It's peppered with imagery that surely has an effect on viewers, and subconsciously. I found the symbols created a greater sense of dread when I watched it, and many scenarios and images are intentionally archetypal. Real Cathedral friezes are flashed throughout the film, and there is a genuine meaning in their placements that are realted to themes in the plot of the story. If you find the storyline a little meandering, this is why. Most of this film is about themes and symbolical meaning, rather than a linear-plot, though it does have that. This is a film whose fear creeps up on you.
A number of shots in the film demonstrate that some of the film was shot in Germany, but there are definitely images taken from a few other Cathedrals in Europe. Does the Church seem to be saying that the Catholic hierarchy has something to hide in her origins? Soavi shows them literally "covering-it-up" by building a Cathedral over the site of a massacre of a group of peaceful heretics by the Teutonic Knights (directed from above by the Medieval Church) . Soavi draws a parallel between the Teutonic knights and Hitler's SS that is both accurate and haunting, and it is well-known that Himmler's state-within-a-state did just that. Perhaps Soavi is telling us that history tends to repeat itself in human society so predictably that actual reincarnation is irrelevant.
Clearly, the sect represents the Albigensians/Manicheans/Cathars, but it can be generalized to the many faiths that were crushed by Christian orthodoxy, including esoteric Christian and numerous pagan ones. Because of this suppression, a valuable chunk of human thought, culture and experience has been hidden (the very definition of "occult") from the average person. The results have been unfortunate, with an anemic modern existence of meaninglessness, made worse when orthodox Christianity's dogma has fallen-away, particularly in Europe after the World Wars. What has Judeo-Christianity had to offer women that the cult of Isis did not? Nothing, as it is patriarchal, offering only the unnatural Mary as a mother-archetype, rather than a realistic image of motherhood and empathy.
Primitive Christian beliefs surrounding reincarnations are also present in the plot-line, most-particularly in Asia Argento's character, Lotte. All the principle characters in the Church are reincarnations from the Medieval prologue, nearly all being male-female couples! In Gnosticism and the Hermetic tradition, these are known as dyads. You can also find it in mystical Judaism, with ever-descending pairs of deities of different-sexes. It more resembles a metaphorical body of Deity, even resembling the cosmology of Simon Magus, the legendary archetype for Faust in the New Testament. To be sure, Michele Soavi's knowledge of the esoteric is very deep and wide-ranging.
Sometimes, once-crushed faiths reemerge to overtake the orthodox ones. Having little to offer, we can see why the Church (and Islam and Judaism) had to borrow from pagan religions--a barbaric tribal desert patriarchy didn't have much to offer nature worshiping people psychologically. Without feminine wisdom, Western culture has been fragmented, creating demons. This is a Jungian concept as well: when the gods of the old religions were repressed, they naturally became demons to the new faith. The comparison with psychological repression is apt, and not really separate from this phenomena. The ancients knew that the mind needs symbols that are healing, comforting, and empathetic. Human.
Between heaven-and-hell, there is man, their source. Hermetic wisdom teaches us that the universe and divinity are contained in-microcosm within mankind, and Soavi express this well. It seems likely that the wisdom cults of the Hellenistic age were well-aware that religion is symbology, and little else. Religion is psychology. Early psychoanalysts like Jung and Freud used mythological-metaphors and terms for good reason: they resonate with meaning over the ages and hit on eternal truths about humanity. Isis is ALL women, Zeus is an aspect of ALL men, and Apollo's androgynous wisdom represents aspects of both-sexes. They are the embodiment of all of our desires and yearnings.
Ignoring these aspects of humanity is what has bred demons. The Church stands-accused. Some would say this film (and review) are "anti-Catholic", but they would be wrong. The authors of The Church have stated that they are still Catholics (Argento is known to help the homeless in the streets of Rome), and this author was baptized as one. We just love what is constructive and human about faith and spirituality, and shun what is hateful about it. This is an incredible film, directed by a genius of cinema. The Church will terrify you. It should.