In Thunder, Carmen Jaquier’s engrossing debut feature, a 17-year-old novitiate Elisabeth learns of her sister Innocente’s mysterious death and leaves the nunnery where she lives to return to her hometown, nestled in the golden meadows and shining peaks of the Swiss summer in the year 1900.
When Elisabeth, who has been away for five years, arrives to labour on her family’s farm, she is greeted by silence. Her deceased sister, Innocente, whose very name has become taboo, has been condemned to wander the afterlife. In the surreal summer months, Elisabeth gradually comes to learn of more of Innocente’s life and death, which fundamentally alters Elisabeth’s own relationship with faith and sensuality.
In the beginning of the film, the camera soars and twists rapidly over the Swiss mountaintops, blurring the division between land and sky. This disorientation is intentional; Thunder treats the natural world as one entity, twisting through the rivers and valleys while focusing on the smallest leaves, flowers, and bugs.
Elisabeth, played by Lilith Grasmug, can be seen as a small speck among the rivers and the meadows as she heads back to her family’s home. She prods further into the conditions of Innocente’s death, but the message in her hamlet is that her once devout sister has been reunited with the devil.
Elisabeth comes across Innocente’s ink-blotted diary, which reveals that she had undergone a radical transformation in her faith and had traced a connection between God and sensuality. God, according to Innocente, is a vibration. She had found a different type of God, a God that visits you in a cloud. A kind of God that is found in the eyes of a lover. Jaquier introduces this God to the audience through Innocente’s voice as Elisabeth reads her diary aloud. Innocente writes, “I won’t apologize for having become a woman of blood and lust.”
Elisabeth’s sister’s faith was carnal, full of beauty and possibility. Innocente wrote polemically and with a clarity that reaches across the boundary between life and death; she is never absent from the film. Instead, the God that Innocente found in lust is woven into the fabric of the film and its cinematography — rays of sunlight are polychromatic, bodies are entwined together among the roots of a tree and become one.
The silence of the film is punctuated by the sound of breath. Jaquier’s film attends to the minutiae of the body; soon after Elisabeth arrives home, she attends mass, where she exchanges quick glances and fleeting eye contact with three boys from her village. The camera moves with its own life, catching silhouettes flitting in and out of Elisabeth’s vision.
The movie’s perspective returns to close-ups of hands entwined, hands struggling with knots and brambles, and rough fingers with dirt under their fingernails. These closeups are contrasted, sometimes brutally, with scenes of the breathtaking Swiss landscape. The cinematography of Marine Atlan incites emotion on every scale and gives Thunder a mystical effect.
The hand of religion can be felt under the surface of every interaction, especially through the disciplining of the lives and bodies of women. Throughout the movie, you can feel the possibility of violence bubbling under the surface — and violence erupts suddenly and extremely.
Nicolas Rabaeus’ score plays into this consistent, underlying tension through religious choral music that rises and lowers in volume rapidly, and can be genuinely terrifying when paired with the mystical images in the film. At the same time, the rising and falling of the music lends itself to the ecstatic, revelatory moments of Elisabeth’s journey — she is often found wandering alone atop a lush mountain and reflecting on faith and life.
The motif of the natural world highlights how faith is separated from religion. Camera shots can be psychedelic and surreal; they are colorfully inflected with the emotion of the scene. Paired with the score, Elisabeth’s ability to talk to God by climbing a tree or God coming to visit Elisabeth in a cloud is not a great stretch for the audience to believe. Her relationship with God exists outside of the church’s strict rules.
In fact, God feels so close to nature and to life that you could reach out and touch Them. The film is imbued with romanticism and magic, while managing to address moments of a harsh reality and violence against women. While Thunder holds you in rapture, it still sincerely considers the spiritual and sensual possibilities of the body and of the world.