Review: Netflix’s “Midnight Mass” is a surprisingly thoughtful reflection on faith

Warning: This post contains mild spoilers. If you have not seen the programme, and plan to, then your best bet is to bookmark this piece, and come back to it later.

On its face, Netflix’s “Midnight Mass” is just another classic horror tale: Man arrives back to his community, encounters a handsome young priest with a sinister secret. Eventually, the secret seeps out, and horror, and carnage, ensues. If you dislike blood, or what you might call “jumpy bits”, the show is not really for you.

But it’s much more than the classic slash and rip horror show, and therein, at least for me, lies the charm.

Creator Mike Flanagan transports us to a word that is both sad, and yet, nostalgic. Crockett Island is a place of tranquility without hope. Unspoiled, except for a recent oil spill, by the modern world, but also lacking any of the opportunities that the modern world offers. The locals grind a living by fishing for crab and lobster. They live a simple life, without much in the way of material wealth. But the island’s true wealth lies elsewhere: It is a close knit, religious, and mostly tolerant community. The island’s Muslim Sheriff is regarded as a bit of an oddity, but broadly treated well. The resident doctor is an unbelieving lesbian, who dedicates herself to her patients, and her ailing mother. Even the local drunk is a mostly harmless crook, who loves his dog.

The focus of the tale is on the local Catholic church, which serves – as churches aspire to – as a beacon of hope for the community. From the very first episode, the importance of prayer in the lives of the local people is emphasised. And also, rarely enough for Hollywood, it is emphasised in a way that does not make them bad or suspect people. One character says a rosary every day for her imprisoned son. Another seeks help for his disabled daughter.

At its heart, however, this is a programme that provides a robust critique of faith, and yet, not one that is without compassion. The characters use their faith to explain that which they cannot explain – death, loss, miracles. We see, in a way we rarely see in Hollywood, just how valuable religion can be in moments of great pain, and the comfort that it can provide to those suffering from alcoholism, or bereavement, or economic misery. But of course, in the end, it is their faith that prevents them from recognising the threat growing in their midst until it is much too late. “How could God do this?” might be said to be the question at the heart of “Midnight Mass”.

But the show also provides an answer: People.

The true Villain of Midnight Mass is not the literal monster hiding in the shadows. The real villain is actually a person: A church sacristan who, despite all of her outward piety, embodies none of the characteristics of Jesus Christ. She is greedy, envious, filled with wrath and deceit, and willing to go to incredible lengths to preserve her own status. She stands as a contrast to the young Priest with his terrible secret: He, at least, is acting out of sincere faith. She, on the other hand, is a study in malevolence.

This is a valuable and watchable programme for people of faith, and people sympathetic to faith. At times, yes, it is openly blasphemous, and some people of deep faith may well be offended by the use of the sacraments to further the drama. But the message is not a cruel or a harsh one: It might be said to be a Catholic message, in fact, and a mild rebuke, whether intended or not, to Martin Luther. Salvation does not come, on Crockett Island, through faith alone. Faith alone is not enough. It also requires reason, and good works. In the tale, reason and good works take a back seat, and that is what leads to doom.

Midnight Mass is available on Netflix.

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