There’s a tantalizing intrigue to Switzerland’s Oscar entry, Thunder, that keeps the viewer engaged throughout its relatively short runtime. Like the most enticing yet cruelest tease, the 90-minute affair is slowly drawn out, begging for an almost orgasmic release, a catharsis in the form of satisfying answers to the heavy questions it poses. Is there a positive symbioses between sex and religion? Who should bear the burdens of a shared sin, and who gets to dictate that punishment? Why is it so hard to have empathy for how others lead their lives?
Debut writer-director Carmen Jaquier, basing the story on notebooks she found of her great-grandmother, comes right up to the brink of saying something truly profound on these issues. I’d say that she even delivers, to a point. But like a frustrating bit of sexual denial, the film lacks a true payoff for all its buildup. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time, but if you’re going in hoping for a complete experience, it might leave you wanting.
Lilith Grasmug stars as Elisabeth, the second of four daughter born to a Swiss farming family. At a young age, she was sent to live in a convent to train as a nun, as her parents couldn’t afford to raise four girls on their own. The film begins with Elisabeth, now 17, learning the tragic news that her older sister, Innocente, has died, and that she’s being released from her studies to go home, grieve, and help her folks with the summer field work. Absolutely beside herself, Elisabeth is practically dragged back to her village, meeting her younger sisters, Adèle and Paule (Diana Gervalla and Lou Iff), basically for the first time, as the former was a toddler and the latter was a newborn when she was sent away.
The adjustment to civilian and secular home life is difficult for Elisabeth, mostly because no one will tell her what happened to Innocent. Her sisters are forbidden to speak her name, her parents (Sabine Timoteo and François Revaclier) threaten her not to bring it up, and all but her father are forced to stand outside the church during services, as the town has decided that Innocente was a spawn of Satan, and that allowing the other girls in the family into the house of God might somehow cause the demon spirit to spread.
This makes for a compelling and devastating mystery that we see through Elisabeth’s eyes, because she’s essentially a stranger and an outsider in her own home. How did the apparently ironically-named Innocente die? Why did she die? What could she have possibly done to make even the utterance of her name a sin in the community? Elisabeth grew up with Innocente as her closest companion, and not only is she now gone, but no one is willing to give her any comfort or closure in this loss, as both her parents and the local priest (Marco Calamandrei) essentially tell her not to pray or mourn for her, because she was evil and doesn’t deserve it. What authority they’re given to make that determination about another person — especially one who committed no actual crimes — is never made clear other than nebulous church stuff, which only adds to Elisabeth’s consternation, as the vocation basically foisted upon her now demands she acquiesce to this lack of clarity.
It reminded me angrily of a situation that happened when I was in high school. My sophomore year, one of my former freshman year teachers, who had been fired midway through my spring term in 9th grade, committed suicide. I won’t share the details here, because they’re not relevant, but it hit a lot of the students quite hard, myself included. Whatever he did wrong, most of us still liked him as a person and as an educator, and we missed him after his dismissal. When he died, the local Catholic church (because he was Catholic, as was about 80% of the town, so it was the easiest venue) held a memorial service for us students. But you could tell quite quickly that it was done somewhat under protest, because the priest spent the bulk of the ceremony all but explicitly saying that he was in Hell, as suicide is a mortal sin in the Church. A hundred kids were gathered at a place we didn’t choose to collectively process our pain, and here was this so-called representative of God telling us not to because the subject of our sadness was burning for eternity. Way to read a room!
To a young mind, not to mention one swimming with hormones and trying to make sense of it all, this is objectively terrible. Rather than offer help or solace, you’re told to shun the dead? That’s almost impossible to process. It is to Grasmug’s extreme credit that she’s able to convey that angst and confusion through Elisabeth pretty much flawlessly. There are times where you want to just give her a big hug and try to tell her in passable French that everything’s going to be okay, but thankfully, you don’t need to, as her resolve only deepens with every roadblock.
While milling through Innocente’s belongings, she finds a thin diary sewn into the back of one of her dresses. Reading it, Elisabeth sees what amounts to a lengthy letter written to her from her lost sibling, detailing a massive sexual awakening. At first, Elisabeth is terrified, because while the adults will share nothing about Innocente’s fate, three local boys — played by Mermoz Melchior, Benjamin Python, and Noah Watzlawick — all taunt her with accusations that Innocente was the town whore, sleeping with anyone she could. Not only is such an assertion troubling, but in this particular context it’s overtly predatory, as Elisabeth first encounters the trio by accidentally catching them masturbating, and they use this knowledge to try to bully her and get similar access now that Elisabeth is of age.
Their aggression is concerning to say the least, but as the only ones who’ll even mention Innocente to her, Elisabeth is willing to hear them out in spite of their horny intentions. As she spends time with the boys, and as she delves deeper into her sister’s erotic records, she begins to question her own commitment to the Church, and whether she’s able to take her vows. Innocente’s writings stir up a heretofore unexplored question of whether our sexuality is itself a gift from God to be shared, rather than a sin of the flesh of which to be ashamed.
For me, this is where things start to drop off, because rather than truly examine such insightful ideas, the final act basically devolves into teen romance tropes. Everything is still quite well-acted and beautifully shot (seriously, these landscapes are gorgeous), but apart from two brief scenes where we see the boys beaten by their parents for succumbing to temptation while Elisabeth herself is actively made into an object of hatred like her sister, we don’t really commit to diving down the rabbit hole and seeing where these themes could potentially lead. Yes, the sexual act still happens, but the emotional and psychological quandaries remain despite momentary visual gratification. I’m okay with a bit of ambiguity, but to all but abandon the mystery and the thematic weight for a few pretty shots and open-ended narration feels like the cinematic equivalent of edging.
That said, I’m still glad I saw this. Even if Jaquier was unable (or unwilling) to answer the very questions she raises, I’m happy they were still raised. It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen this film, and the philosophical queries remain lodged in my head. In the moment it was frustrating to the point that this probably wouldn’t get my endorsement for an International Feature nomination, but there was certainly enough substance to keep my attention throughout — largely thanks to Grasmug’s performance — and I’ll never be that upset at something that really makes me think long after the credits roll.
Just finish the job next time. There’s only so much enjoyment to be had without a climax.
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