UNDER THE SUN OF SATAN
(Maurice Pialat, 1987).
A young priest (Gérard Depardieu), dissatisfied with himself
and doubting his fitness for parish work, asks his superior (played
by the director himself) to assign him to a monastery, but is refused.
Meanwhile, a troubled adolescent girl (Sandrine Bonnaire) confronts
her adult aristocratic lover, demanding that he go away with her. A
complex psychological struggle between them ends with her shooting him
to death on a sudden impulse.
Pialat and Sylvie Danton adapted George Bernanos' first novel, and
the picture has some of the stark symbolism and mythic tone of the Catholic
writer's work. A great sequence involving the priest's encounter meeting
with a stranger on the road--who turns out to be Satan--combines an
almost Gothic feeling of folk tale mystery with Pialat's characteristically
raw sense of the body and nature. But the overall direction of the film
does not seem spiritual in any usual sense of the word. Pialat uses
religious symbols to draw the basic personal assumptions of the characters
into question, and instead of resolution we experience a deepening of
The 19-year-old Bonnaire, in her second film with Pialat, is a riveting
presence. This proud, steely girl conceals a chaos of anger and despair.
The anguished doubt that arises after her conversation with Depardieu's
priest is conveyed with the power of an unexpected and painfully ambivalent
revelation. I cannot shake, however, the impression that Depardieu was
miscast in the film. Even allowing for the possibility that Pialat wanted
the actor to play against type, it seems to me that Depardieu's big
physical presence, with its sensous air, works against the resigned
ascetism of his character. It's not a bad performance at all, but there's
a rarefied element missing that was needed to make the role believable.
The film's visual style employs many hues of brown and black, the earth
colors of rural village life and the dark austerity of church and cassock.
In contrast, the scenes with Bonnaire's character and her lover are
brightly lit, but Under the Sun of Satan stays in the memory
as a film of twilight. Insight into the souls of others, Pialat seems
to be saying, can be a curse, and we might be better served blessing
the darkness that divides us.
LIFE IS SWEET (Mike Leigh, 1990).
A lower middle class family in a London suburb muddles its way through
life. Wendy (Alison Steadman) holds things together with her good-natured
energy, always laughing at everything and more than a trifle overbearing
as a mom. Her husband Andy (Jim Broadbent) hates his job managing a
kitchen at a restaurant, and he's a bit of an impractical dreamer, getting
suckered into buying a dilapidated snack wagon from a friend (Stephen
Rea). They have two daughters: Natalie (Claire Skinner), the one relatively
sane person in the film, who looks upon her family's antics with puzzled
bemusement, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), an angry, foul-mouthed bulimic
who spends her time moping indoors and playing weird sex games with
her secret boyfriend (David Thewlis).
Leigh pulls off the neat trick of making a comedy about wildly eccentric
characters without looking down on them. This is partly due, perhaps,
to his famously improvisatory methods, in which the cast members create
their characters and dialogue through extensive rehearsals. The people
are three-dimensional enough to make us feel as if we're simply sitting
among them as equals, and the laughter is therefore always tinged with
self-recognition, and sometimes with more than a little pain. An extensive
subplot features Timothy Spall as a friend of the family who attempts
to launch a French restaurant--one of the most ludicrous restaurants
ever conceived, with menu items so revolting that I was almost rolling
on the ground laughing. But the hilarity is tied up with failure and
a sad fit of self-destruction. Leigh's comic world view tends to wind
up on a serious note.
Everyone is in fine form, with Steadman and Broadbent anchoring the
show. But the funniest, most vivid, and at the same time the most cartoonish
performance is by Horrocks, with her rubbery, squinting little face,
screechy voice, and wild mess of hair, smoking furiously and telling
everyone off. She's wonderfully obnoxious, and then we get to see the
fear and self-hatred behind the rage. The film's ultimate simplicity
of feeling is its greatest strength. There's nothing trite about Nicola
finding some relief and healing through tears. Neither should the title
be taken as a joke. For Leigh, life really is sweet. And the mix of
humor and hurt helps make it so.
NOAH'S ARK (Michael Curtiz, 1928).
Two young Americans (George O'Brien and Guinn Williams) survive a massive
train wreck while traveling through France, rescuing Mary (Dolores Costello),
a German girl, whom Travis (O'Brien) eventually marries. His buddy goes
to fight in the Great War, and eventually Travis, shamed by his friend's
courage, joins him at the front. Meanwhile, Mary is accused by a lecherous
Russian officer (Noah Beery) of being a German spy. This modern story
is accompanied by the Biblical story of Noah, jazzed up to include a
story involving Noah's son Japeth (O'Brien), whose wife (Costello) is
kidnapped by the Akkadians to be sacrificed to their pagan god just
prior to the Flood.
Cecil B. DeMille had made a fortune for Paramount with his Biblical
epics, and he had scored more than once with the device (pioneered by
Griffith in Intolerance) of parallel modern and ancient stories,
most famously in 1923's The Ten Commandments. Warner Brothers
decided to try their hand at this formula, and they gave the assignment
to the recently hired Hungarian director Curtiz. Already a veteran who
had helmed over sixty pictures in Europe, this was his first major American
film, and he demonstrated the dedication and solid professionalism that
would keep him at the studio for the next three decades.
Like all such epics, Noah's Ark is short on character and long
on spectacle. The first two-thirds are actually quite engrossing, with
the great opening train wreck and the later war scenes skillfully done.
It doesn't hurt that Costello was easily one of the most beautiful actresses
of the silent era, bringing a certain glamor and tenderness to her role
in the modern story. (Myrna Loy is also on hand in a small role as a
dancer.) Sound came in during production, so there are a few talkie
sequences, mostly banter between the two male leads, inserted in the
middle of the picture. This is awkward, with that stiff quality typical
of early sound, so it's a relief when the movie goes back to intertitles.
Then, at the climax of the story, the film goes off into the tale of
Noah--a bizarre transition, any way you cut it. It's no sillier than
any other Biblical epic, however, and the direction is far more fluid
than anything DeMille ever did. Anton Grot's set design is awe-inspiring,
and of course the centerpiece of the whole thing is the Flood, which
is about as spectacular as it could be for that time. The backstory,
however is disturbing. Supposedly, cinematographer Hal Mohr quit the
production after his warnings about the danger to the extras from the
huge amount of water used in the flood scenes were ignored by Curtiz.
Curtiz went ahead with a new cameraman, and three extras were said to
have drowned in the sequence, and dozens injured. It's hard for me to
believe that such a thing could happen without criminal charges or scandal,
and Mohr went on to work with Curtiz again a couple times in the 30s,
yet all the sources seem certain that it really occurred.
In any case, Noah's Ark is an impressive piece of work, if you
can put up with the inevitable quality of hokum surrounding the genre.
But why is a World War One story juxtaposed with the Flood? There's
some rhetoric indicating that the modern world had reached a similar
low in sinfulness, due to love of gain, but this seems slipshod at best.
It turns out that the film's central metaphor concerns God's gift of
the rainbow after the Flood, signifying that he will never again destroy
all life on earth. Now, after the bloodiest and most horrifying war
ever fought, we are again promised that such destruction would never
happen again, that this was indeed "the war to end all wars."
Too bad that didn't work out.
THE MIRACLE WOMAN (Frank Capra, 1931).
Barbara Stanwyck plays an evangelist named Florence Fallon, whose fame
as a revivalist comes as a result of her thirst for revenge after her
small town's rejection of her father's ministry ends in his death. She
hooks up with an unscrupulous showman (Sam Hardy) and goes on the road
as "Sister" Faith Fallon, complete with phony healing powers and gimmicks
such as preaching from a cage containing wild animals to show that God
protects her. But when she meets and falls in love with a blind veteran
(David Manners) who appreciates her for herself, she decides that she
wants to go straight.
Based on a play co-authored by Robert Riskin, who went on to become
Capra's chief collaborator in the 30s, the film is obviously inspired
by the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, although it doesn't portray
the scandal of the evangelist's faked disappearance in 1926. Whatever
satire or social critique there is in the film is in fact almost entirely
sublimated. Faith healing is portrayed as a grotesque, dishonest racket,
but the dramatic focus is on the story of a basically sincere, decent
woman who gets caught up in dishonesty because of her greedy, amoral
Shot in just four weeks, the film has plenty of energy and verve, and
Stanwyck is wonderful. At this early stage in her career, she already
creates a special charm and intelligence on screen. On the downside,
the David Manners character is an insufferable love interest. Here's
a blind guy who's too shy to state his feelings--but wait, he brings
out a ventriloquist dummy to speak for him! Any sane woman would run
out the door at that point. Anyway, I dare you not to laugh derisively,
even though the idea might have been new at the time.
Still, the film's worth a look for Stanwyck's sake, and there's a good,
rip-roaring finale involving a fire.
LET'S GO WITH PANCHO VILLA
(Fernando de Fuentes, 1936).
Six peasants from a Mexican village, tired of cruel treatment from
their landlords, join up with the army of Pancho Villa, nicknaming themselves
"The Lions" and demonstrating reckless courage on the battlefields of
the revolution. But fighting is a dirty business, and the war takes
its toll on "The Lions," one by one.
Made at the dawn of the so-called "golden age" of Mexican cinema, and
only two decades after the revolution it depicts, the film is remarkable
for its scale and accuracy. Everything from the costumes to the weapons
and other equipment looks identical to photographs from the revolutionary
period--for all I know they are actual uniforms and guns from the fighting.
Budget constraints mean lower production values than the Hollywood films
of the time, and Fuentes' style is very simple, sometimes bordering
on the naive, but the battle scenes are great, with a raw energy missing
from more polished films.
One might expect such a film to have an unabashedly heroic point of
view, but instead we are presented with a painful, ambivalent portrait
of war. "The Lions" enjoy the adventure and camaraderie of Villa's army.
They also engage in a lot of masculine one-upmanship, which reaches
the height of absurdity in a game of chicken played with a loaded revolver
in a crowded bar. Villa himself, along with his evident courage and
determination, demonstrates a callousness towards human life that is
sometimes shocking. We see, mostly from the perspective of the band's
oldest and wisest member, a farmer named Don Tiburcio (Antonio R. Frausto),
the gradual disillusionment of the ordinary soldier. While recognizing
the justice of the cause, the film is wise enough to show that the experience
of war, however necessary, is ultimately sad, ugly, and wasteful. The
last shot is both poignant and utterly unromantic.
Let's Go With Pancho Villa has gained a reputation in Mexico
as the country's greatest film. This is quite an exaggeration--the picture
doesn't even approach the graceful style or distinguished acting of
the best work by Emilio Fernández, for instance. It is, however,
an unusual and important film, a sort of antidote to the cult of heroism,
hidden inside what appears to be a conventional war movie.
(Note: The ending that is mentioned in the IMDB plot summary is actually
a sequence that was cut from the final print, and for good reason--it's
both horrifying and dramatically nonsensical, and would have practically
ruined the film if retained.)
©2006 Chris Dashiell