At first sight, there seems to be an awkwardness about Confetti Harvest, a contradiction between its style and substance that threatens to render the whole thing a confused mess. The film, a debut theatrical feature from director Tallulah Hazenkamp Schwab, concerns a deeply religious family in the rural southern Netherlands in the 1980s, or more specifically, their only daughter Katelijne. Her brothers, young men down to a pair of infant twins, pious but affable grandparents, stern but kind father, and sour conservative mother, form an impregnably ‘safe’ religious unit. The Good Book, righteous fear of Satan, and disdain for outer society have moulded Katelijne into a model Protestant. As we see, however, her elder brother Christiaan’s growing disillusionment, and the inquisitive and ambitious nature which accompanies her own development from childhood, lead Katelijne to seek avenues for expressing herself, whether the Lord wants her to or not; she is told in no uncertain terms that it’s the latter.
Why, then, does the film take the time to make the Minderhoud family farm and its swathes of golden crops look so tantalisingly idyllic? Most significant scenes begin with standard establishing shots – of the farmhouse, a paddock, a sunrise – and Schwab uses long-shots from Katelijne’s perspective, spying on the family men at work, less than sparingly. The purity and rural communitarianism evoked in these shots seems at odds with a film ostensibly about repressive religious dogma. Which to me signifies that film is about something else – and is in truth all the better for it. Global cinema has little need for another entry in the pubescent-girl-coming-of-age-in-troubling circumstances subgenre, and Confetti Harvest seems aware of it. Instead, the tight script, adapted by Chris Westendorp from a semi-autobiographical novel by journalist Franca Treur, works to soften the characters’ harder edges, accentuate the genuine comfort and value to be found in pastoral life, and ultimately explore the relationship between virtue and judgment in modern Christian faith.
Katelijne and Christiaan’s mother (Suzan Boogaerdt) represents the kind of person for whom faith is both an escape from imprisonment, and the cage itself. She scolds all of the children constantly, reserving particular bile for her only daughter, a “hussy” for speaking to an unrelated adult man, and certainly (spiritually at least) “not one of ours”. Concerned by the children’s reading – “blessed are the ignorant”, she reminds them – she is the main driver, we sense, of the continued private evangelical schooling of the younger children, and of the decision to punish Christiaan for fraternising with the local girls too freely by pushing him into marriage with a churchgoer. The film, supported by Boogaerdt’s quietly nuanced performance, seems to view Mrs. Minderhoud’s venality with a hint of pity, positing that she is herself stultified by the cultish nature of her church, criticised even for growing flowers instead of useful, labour-intensive cabbages. The decision to marry off Christiaan, though, represents the breaking point for Katelijne, who so far has toed the boundaries provided to her by her parents but not crossed them.
This measured attitude to rebellion is what marks Confetti Harvest as a mature portrayal of religion. Katelijne experiments with the wider world tentatively throughout the film; initially shocked that her non-devout female cousins wear trousers, eventually she is visiting their neighbour for a game of dress-up which she must be aware her parents would be horrified by. She does dream of escape, but from a pragmatic point of view: Christiaan shares with her his desire to move to Canada where “the farms are much bigger,” and she comes to want to join him not because of awful abuse visited upon her, but simply because she is an intelligent girl who wants to be worldly. There are glimpses of discomfort1 with the strict gender binaries inherent in fundamentalist sects, too, when the fire-and-brimstone local minister reminds the congregation that women “must be silent”. A few scenes later, Katelijne yells out to a brother to call him back to the family car; scolded by her mother for using her voice in such a masculine way, she retorts that the Lord must want her to use what he gave her.
This tug-of-war between budding individuality and real connection with some of the tenets of faith are articulated beautifully by the film’s cinematography: those bucolic scenes of farm work are juxtaposed against tight camerawork emphasising the creaky, oppressive family home, all seven children living on top of one another with no hope of privacy. Saturated colour and an Eighties fashion palette imbue the Benelux countryside with a sense of picturesque pastel simplicity, while the film’s rare visits to town are depicted as though Katelijne suffers sensory overload: the electric lights and shopping strips are both exciting and terrifying to her. Furthermore, she and her brothers do seem to possess the basic decency embodied by many people of faith, regardless of the truth of its providence. Christiaan’s lack of interest in the churlish pursuits of local farm lads, brother Rogier’s infatuation with a pretty brunette his age who comes to stay with the family, and Katelijne’s continuing to read the Bible even as she becomes more cynical, all point to the film’s refusal to become a diatribe against the act of faith. Instead, the siblings are good young people, encouraged to be hateful but choosing to be welcoming.
In the end, the film suggests that Katelijne’s departure from religion is more a matter of personality than of awakening; she simply outgrows the need for devoutness which her family all possess, intrigued by the world instead of threatened by it as they are. The ‘confetti harvest’ of the film’s title, which forms the climax, is actually a disappointing expression of this sentiment, and Schwab fails to really conclude the Minderhoud family story, instead returning in the last few scenes to safer territory – put on a bus by her still-dour mother out of her bucolic home and towards the uncertainty and temptation that she craves, Katelijne may have found herself, but little is said about the path her brothers or father will choose to take as a result. Despite this misstep, Confetti Harvest works on several levels. Clever enough to be engaging and composed visually with a subtle touch, its final overreliance on narrative cliché cannot derail what is an intelligent study of faith and expression.