Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - February 2006
Stray Dog (1949)
A Generation
Regeneration (1915)
Viva Villa! (1934)
Hearts and Minds (1974)

Why We Fight

Since Otar Left...
plus: Ballets Russes

 

 

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 dilemma.

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 manager.

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
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