One of the scariest things about cults is that they can form right under our noses. Cult leaders need to psychologically isolate their followers in order to maintain control, but they don’t have to keep everyone on a remote island in order to do so. Still, perhaps the best way to illustrate the intense psychological control that cult leaders achieve is to tell a story about a cult that’s geographically isolated from the real world. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how a deeply disturbed man could earn the trust and respect of a whole community of devout followers is to confine that man and his followers to a remote location that seems to exist in a universe of its own. In Nikias Chryssos’s A Pure Place, a sickeningly imaginative film that he wrote with Lars Henning Jung, the entire population of a remote Greek island is under the spell of a charming and charismatic leader named Fust (Sam Louwyck). This deeply disturbed (but powerful) man is utterly obsessed with cleanliness, and he’s positioned himself as a savior who will lead the people to a pure place that’s free from man’s worst enemy: dirt. In addition to following Fust, the community also worships Hygeia, the Greek goddess of cleanliness. The cult is intense and otherworldly, so separated from the real world that Fust’s twisted desires have become the only law. The one thing connecting this mysterious island to the outside world is the product that Fust’s followers make in his factory: soap.
Every good story needs a hero. In the case of A Pure Place, Chryssos and Jung give us two: Paul (Claude Heinrich) and Irina (Greta Bohacek). The two siblings, along with the rest of the children and teenagers on the island, must work in the filthy factory to produce soap so that the others can stay clean. While these “firstlings” are forced to eat, sleep, and work in a disgusting environment, the adults on the island live alongside Fust in his pristine mansion. One day, when the children bring up a batch of soap for some kind of ceremony, Irina catches Fust’s eye. He soon invites her to leave her factory days behind her and join him in his house. Totally enchanted by Fust, Irina doesn’t hesitate to start her new life among the “pure” members of the community. Her brother, however, is skeptical. In an attempt to save his sister from Fust’s clutches, Paul begins to engage in small acts of rebellion.
A Pure Place is enchanting, thought-provoking, and visually impressive. Like any other movie, it has its strengths and weaknesses, and it won’t necessarily work for every viewer. However, there’s one glaring issue that needs to be discussed upfront. The issue is that Irina is put into very sexualized situations as part of her initiation into Fust’s household, and Greta Bohacek looks a lot younger than she is. It seems that this was a deliberate casting decision to create ambiguity around her age, blurring the lines of consent and, for better or worse, leaving the sexualized scenes open to interpretation. Chryssos can easily claim that the film does not depict minors inappropriately since Bohacek is an adult. However, certain details within the movie suggest that the character is supposed to be a young teen, making the initiation scene even more disturbing. Irina’s age is never explicitly discussed, but the factory workers are referred to as “children” several times. There’s also a repeated flashback that depicts younger versions of Paul and Irina (portrayed by different actors), and those younger versions of the siblings don’t appear to be very far apart in age. Since Paul is clearly still a child, it seems that Irina is only supposed to be 14 or 15 years old. So, when she’s initiated into Fust’s household, it’s very hard to get over the ick-factor. Granted, A Pure Place is supposed to be about the abuse that happens within cults, and it’s not meant to be a comfortable movie. However, the cinematography, staging, and overall tone of these scenes strays too far into the gray area between harsh realism and voyeurism.
A Pure Place is the kind of movie that requires us to suspend disbelief right from the start. It will take a while for viewers to put all the pieces together, and you have to make a lot of assumptions about the cult until further information is revealed. But if you have the patience, you’ll find that A Pure Place is a rich and enlightening film. The movie is deeply rooted in the folk-horror genre, filled with rituals, symbolism, and even a little magic. Much like a fairytale, it seems to be set in an obscure land that’s “far, far away,” removed from any definite time or place. The detailed but elusive island sets the stage for a mythic and grand-scale story with universal implications. Production designer Marcel Beranek uses just the right combination of real and fantastical elements, creating a space that could exist somewhere in the real world but is also distinctly metaphorical and imaginative. The firstlings’ living quarters are grimy, crowded, dim, and humid, recalling images of industrial-revolution-era factories. You can almost smell the filth just by looking at it. Fust’s house, on the other hand, is a combination of ancient Greek and Imperialist-era imagery, setting a mythical tone for the story while also highlighting Fust’s insatiable need for power and control. These influences extend to the costumes, with the adults on the island in long, flowing robes and Fust in a crisp white suit.
Despite his best attempts to be pure, Fust cannot escape the dirt and grime that clings to everything around him. While his home is nowhere near as dirty as the factory, it’s not the blinding-white temple of purity you might expect. It’s predominantly gray and dim, and there are subtle signs of decay in the architecture and furniture that reflect Fust’s crumbling psyche and his ever-fragile position as a cult leader. While A Pure Place is fairly tame in terms of violent images, Beranek and Chryssos do include a few bloody, visceral shots that break the spell of the ancient-Greek-inspired set. These carefully curated moments of gore bring a sense of reality to the story, slowly and steadily disrupting the pristine fantasy world that Fust has created.
With the stage set for a mythic story full of symbolism, the cast of A Pure Place brings everything together with their unwavering performances. Louwyck is frightening as the unstable and unpredictable Fust, embodying the showmanship and charisma that make real-life cult leaders so effective. Bohacek’s performance is honest and heartbreaking, and she successfully portrays someone who has been totally brainwashed. But the real star of the show is Heinrich, who demonstrates an emotional depth beyond his years as the young and fiery Paul. He’s completely natural in front of the camera, and he has the ability to captivate viewers with his intense but genuine emotions. Heinrich strikes the perfect balance between protective brother and indignant child, making his situation all the more heartbreaking. Together, Heinrich, Bohacek, and Louwyck tell a gripping and intense story that, despite taking place on a faraway island, is all too real.
Screening during the Chattanooga Film Festival, June 23-28, 2022.
For more information, head to the official A Pure Place festival webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.