Netflix: The prodigy is a subtle approach to a world in which dogma conditions the truth

The Prodigy (The WonderIreland-United States-United Kingdom/2022). Address: Sebastian Lelio. Script: Emma Donoghue, Sebastián Lelio and Anne Birch, based on a novel by Emma Donoghue. Photography: Ari Wegner. Music: Matthew Herbert. Edition: Kristina Hetherington. Cast: Florence Pugh, Kila Lord Cassidy, Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, David Wilmot, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones. Duration: 108 minutes. Available in: Netflix. Our opinion: very good

In an Irish village, shortly after a gigantic famine that hit the region around 1860, lives Anne O’Donnell, a girl to whom her countrymen attribute a miracle: she has not eaten for several weeks without her body having accused of visibly this anomaly. The religious connotation that this behavior initially has leads the group of “notables” of the place to decide to summon a nun in order to observe the girl and understand, among other things, why she says that her only food is “manna”. from the sky”.

It’s not the only one. Along with her, Lib Wright (Florence Pugh), a professional nurse, also arrives at the place from London. In that committee that somehow directs the destinies of the place, in addition to the mayor, the parish priest and the owner of the only inn-hotel in the place, there is also a doctor. Some explanation from science seems necessary to complete the picture.

The girl and the nurse will begin to build a strange and uncomfortable bond based on the little they have in common: the pain of a loss, a feeling of guilt that does not stop growing, and the need for some kind of atonement. “Pain is the sword of God,” Anna muses at one point from her sickbed. The sacred representation that the girl makes in her prayers is the most lacerating. She constantly invokes the protection of the cross, which leaves visible the traces of “the precious blood of Jesus”.

Behind those words stands one of the favorite themes of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio: exacerbated, almost mystical religiosity, imposed as the governing mandate of daily life and a formula capable of replacing the truth. “His actions are faith and prayer,” he says at one point to explain his behavior. The entire film is dedicated to questioning these types of statements. First of all, he wonders about the meaning of sustaining a complete existence from a single foundation. A raison d’être based exclusively on religious precepts and the world understood as a painful path to the ultimate paradise.

Like in Disobedience, Lelio’s previous film, someone will have to come from outside to go down to a reality inhabited by beings of flesh and blood, earthly behaviors governed up to there by rather supernatural criteria, precepts and rules. The Chilean filmmaker takes us on a trip to that small rural world of the 19th century marked by isolation, mistrust and dogmatism through the eyes of the nurse, a character that confirms Pugh’s unusual talent for showing what happens inside the human being every time the discovery of an essential truth occurs.

The prodigy adapts the novel by Emma Donoghue

Lelio is also right in portraying the customs that govern human relations in that world so distant from ours, especially in how the handling of guilt is portrayed: the expiation rituals to which the girl’s family submits, the way in which the nurse herself lives her sexuality, the self-absorption that sometimes does not allow us to see the way out of that universe governed by such rigid precepts.

The start has to be slow, the Chilean filmmaker tells us. And it is only possible if, deep down, each character assumes belonging to that world, including someone who once left the town to escape a fate that seemed inevitable and now returns, summoned by the novel presence of an apparent miracle. All in all, Lelio is so aware of the connection between the nurse and the girl that he leaves the other characters in a highly visible background, taking advantage of the talents of great actors like Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Burke only in small amounts.

Beyond this slip, Lelio takes us with a firm hand towards a world in which life is lived as a succession of unalterable defeats. A way out is only possible from the awareness of the danger of an existence in which death is conceived as a triumph. This result is only possible to achieve if the characters face it with time and patience.

With the same purpose, Lelio invites the viewer to enter his new film from a rather risky and, to say the least, disconcerting starting point. The Prodigy it is set in motion by the deliberate breaking of some of the classic conventions of all fiction. The story is set in motion from a time and a place completely foreign to the setting of the narrative. It is up to the viewer to accept or not whether or not that beginning strengthens the commitment to a story that will later reveal all its strength.

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Netflix: The prodigy is a subtle approach to a world in which dogma conditions the truth