A Pure Place, the newest film from Greek-German writer/director Nikias Chryssos, takes viewers on a trip to a beautiful, and beautifully shot, island that serves as home to a cult obsessed with purity. However, unlike the focus on racial and/or sexual purity we’ve come to expect from any cult (or mainline religion) overly-interested in “purity,” the island’s cult, which is never named, is obsessed with literal cleanliness. In a song that the members sing to praise their leader Fust (Sam Louwyck), they sing of going to war against dirt.
The irony of the cult’s war on dirt, though, is that to fulfill their need for soap, they require other members to work in filthy conditions to make the soap. This creates an odd dichotomy on the island, whereby the members who live “upstairs” are only pure because of the work of the people “downstairs” who they look upon with disdain and disgust. It’s a wonder the system has lasted as long as it has. It seems the only reason the cult has had any success in this form is because the cult members who live and work downstairs are children, save for one adult whose job is to keep the children in line.
These children aren’t the offspring of the cult members though, at least not the brother and sister pair that the film centers on. Irina (Greta Bohacheck) and Paul (Claude Heinrich) are “saved” from their addict mother by Fust at the start of the film in a wordless cold open that serves to immediately set the audience on edge. The entirety of how Fust brought the siblings to the island is revealed through flashbacks over the course of the film, but from the start we know that these are children who have been taken from their mother to work in horrible conditions on the promise that they might one day be invited upstairs.
Unsurprisingly, the story is set off by exactly that. Irina, now a young teen, is invited to participate in the “mystery play” in the role of the goddess Hygeia, Greek goddess of good health and cleanliness. A teenage girl receiving an invitation to participate in an activity that she’s told will require her to give everything she has of course sets off alarm bells for most viewers, especially in the context of a cult, and those alarms are entirely warranted. This invitation leads to some of the fiml’s most disturbing moments, including Irina becoming physical with her co-star in the play Siegfried (Daniel Sträßer) and her joining the very erotically charged communal baths.
But the film never feels as though it’s attempting to shock, Chryssos and cinematographer Yoshi Heimrath make every scene as beautiful as possible with incredibly striking lighting that lends the film a sense of hyperreality. Every scene on the island is crisp and dowsed in hues of dark greens or glorious rays of sunshine, and in the few scenes we see of the outside world, our characters are in a club that offers peak bisexual lighting. The heightened reality of the lighting, and the equally matter of fact and otherworldly way the film is presented makes the shocking moments (which are not limited to Irina, as we see the unceremonious killing of a piglet that’s made it upstairs) somehow par for the course, which they indeed are given the film’s focus on a dangerous cult.
A Pure Place doesn’t offer anything entirely unique in the cult subgenre, but the focus on literal cleanliness as opposed to any metaphorical purity, truly gorgeous visual style, and strong performances (particularly from Bohacheck), make it worth seeking out; Whether you’re interested in stories about cults or simply seeing one of the most beautifully lit movies released in the last year.
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