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Review: Dirty God

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Beauty is only skin deep.  This saying relates to the knowledge that the true goodness of a person, their true beauty, is inside, not based on their outer appearance.  Yet we are bombarded every day with pictures and video of societal norms suggesting what beauty should be.  Pop culture shapes our ideals, and shapes how we even see ourselves.  Image in the era of the selfie is increasingly important.  This struggle of inner and outer beauty and how that relates to self acceptance is core to director Sacha Polak‘s English language debut, Dirty God.

We meet Jade (Vicky Knight) as she is leaving a hospital having received what seems to be lengthy treatment for some significant burns.  These burns were created from a horrific acid attack that leaves her brutally scarred on much of her face, arms and chest, not to mention the emotional scars she now carries.  As she departs the hospital to return home to the flat she shares with her mother and young daughter, she has to face a new reality.  A young woman with limited resources, Jade was used to using her outer beauty to get by, but now she has to figure out how to rebuild her life with that currency having taken a perceived loss in value.

Jade’s daughter, calls her a ‘monster’ upon seeing her, crying and shying away from her mother.  Jade’s mother (Katherine Kelly) tries to go back to business as usual, selling stolen merchandise out of their apartment, but doesn’t know how to relate to her daughter’s emotional turmoil or changed appearance.  Her friends try to encourage her and stand by her, but Jade feels as if she is on the outside looking in.  She finds herself dealing with people’s stares, and tries everything she can to shield her face from judgement, finding intimacy online and feeling freedom while veiling her face wearing a niqab.  With memories of Jade’s old life surrounding her, she takes drastic measures to try and regain a sense of self, and self-acceptance.

Anchored by a powerful performance by newcomer Vicky Knight, herself a burn victim from a fire, Dirty God never shies away from the intimacies of Jade’s story.  From the opening scenes that pan over the scars on Knight’s body, something that must have felt exceedingly personal, we are privy to the experiences of the world through Jade’s new perspective.  Working from a script from director Polak and Susanne Farrell, it is hard to believe that this is Knight’s first acting role.  Though her own facial scars were augmented with prosthesis for the film, her portrayal of Jade feels nothing but authentic.

Dirty God is the third feature from Dutch director Sacha Polak, and was part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition selection at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.  Here, she creates a fearless film, a portrait of a young woman’s life altered by an exceptionally violent act.  She is especially unafraid to confront Jade’s sexuality and how her burns affect that aspect of her life, something that may have been left undiscovered in other filmmakers’ hands.

While Jade’s character arc doesn’t fully develop her eventual acceptance of self, Dirty God is still an impactful tale of resilience.  After such a physical and emotional transformation, Jade is left to wonder whether or not it is her scars that truly define her and to try and push past what society sees as conventional beauty.  As the audience, we should be looking at what defines our sense of self-worth.  In the Instagram age where filters create inaccurate portrayals of our outer selves, where we have the option of only choosing the best photo to share with the world, how authentic can we really be – both in our physical image and our inner beauty?  In a time where being a young woman is ever more fraught with pressure to be ‘pretty,’ Jade’s is a brave voice allowing us to question whether our ideals can move past the idea that who we are is governed by appearance alone.

Dirty God is available as a virtual release in limited theatres November 13th, and available on digital platforms and VOD on December 15th.

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