Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

SUPERGIRL: THE HIPPEST DAMNED SUPERHERO SHOW ON TELEVISION

Melissa Benoist is indisputably the most perfect actor embodying the role of a comic-based character since Christopher Reeve donned the red and blue for Superman in 1978. Given all the competition since then, such a statement might prove controversial… to constipated Trump Toon comic geeks. But their opinion is as worthless as their Craven Cantaloupe Christ who currently resides at 1600 Penn Avenue (or rather, the golf course). Too, I need to alter the title a tad; it’s not only the hippest damned superhero show on TV, it’s hipper than any of the comic-inspired productions being offered in cinema, and the hippest genre series since the 1960s Adam West “Batman.”

Yet, Supergirl is also among the favorites of alt-right fanboys—favorite targets that is, joining the esteemed company of 2017’s Star Wars, The Last Jedi (how dare Rey—a girl–earn the role of a Jedi through work as opposed to being fathered in? Kinda the antithesis of President Oompa Loompa) and 2018’s Black Panther (for obvious reasons, despite the fact that the comic book on which it’s based is over 50 years old).

Let’s first address fanboy complaints from the yawn-inducing Goebbels Operational Playbook. Why? because it’s so damned fun to out them as the 19th century bigots and Neanderthals that they are. Naturally, they’re as predictable as a paint-by-number set; amusing in their ethical timidity and in the ease by which they are offended.

Complaint One: “GASP! Jimmy Olsen is black! That’s PC BS! “

Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen SupergirlNever mind that to complain about political correctness is politically correct in itself. In some of the complaints seen on various social media outlets, the mentally and ethically challenged alt-right don’t often come right out and say it’s because he’s “black.”  Rather, they say “Olsen is supposed to be a geeky redhead with freckles and Mehcad Brooks plays Olsen like a GQ model!”

Let’s call this lame BS spin-doctoring for what it is. No one complained when a freckle-less Olsen had black hair in “Lois and Clark.” They didn’t complain when Hack Snyder killed Olsen off in a war zone. No, this is just a smokescreen to mask the inherent bigotry of the Trump Toons.

Why? Because these are comic book fundamentalists. They have the same mindset as religious fundamentalists. Comic book characters are essentially gods to Trump Toons, and even though the fanboys know the characters to be fictional (we hope), they still attack literal portrayals of deities who wear underwear outside of their pants-WHEN it’s convenient for them to do so (like bible fundies, they pick and choose).

In the comics, Superman doesn’t kill. Trump Toons didn’t protest one bit about that deviation from this long-held tradition in the execrable Man of Steel (2013). Superman had a curl in his hairdo. Henry Continue reading SUPERGIRL: THE HIPPEST DAMNED SUPERHERO SHOW ON TELEVISION

GEORGES MELIES TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) FLICKER ALLEY BLU-RAY REVIEW

‘ “Trip To The Moon,” made in 1902, is, I believe, the oldest film covered on 366 Weird Movies. Yet, in many ways Melies was not only ahead of his time, he is still ahead of his time. Many have called this director “the first true artist of cinema,” and indeed his influence on the most significant art form of the 20th century cannot be overestimated. As a fantasist, he saw himself become unfashionable, and his descent into  poverty and bankruptcy is well-known. Although, Melies considered 1908’s “Humanity Through The Ages” (1908) to be his most ambitious and favorite film (unfortunately, it’s lost), it is “Trip To The Moon” that is his most iconic.

Given its age, this film has been consigned to subpar home video releases over the last two decades. That has changed with Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray release.

For years, there was no known copy of Melies’ hand-colored “Trip,” until a nitrate print was discovered in Spain in 1993. Its condition was so deteriorated that it was believed to be unworkable. However, in 2010, 108 years after its release, Lobster Films undertook one of its most ambitious film restorations to date. Working with 13,000 frames, they premiered their digitized reconstruction a year later at the Cannes Film Festival with a new soundtrack by Nicolas Godin and Jean Dunckel.

The Flicker release also features “The Extraordinary Voyage,” an informative and dramatic 65 minute documentary about the film’s labor-heavy restoration. It’s so well-constructed as to be almost mandatory after seeing the film.

Also included is:

  • The black and white version (the only one I saw in my youth) is well-restored, but surprisingly not quite to the level of the preferred (and much more surreal) hand-colored edition. The biggest attraction in this version is the alternative piano score by Frederick Hodges and a voice-over narration by Melies himself; oddly, neither are available in the color print.
  • A twelve-minute interview with the band AIR who provided a new musical score. It’s surprisingly effective in not being overcooked (as is often the case with restoring silent films). While the music is certainly postmodern, the band is sensitive and erudite in paying homage to Melies’ film.
  • Two Melies’ shorts: “The Astronomer’s Dream” (1898) and the surreally erotic “Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon” (1907). Neither film attains “Trip”‘s level of wonder, but both are recommendable in their own right. However, the latter does gives credence to period criticism that by this time Melies was repeating himself and a certain sense of fatigue was setting in.

Still from restored A Trip to the Moon (1902)The Flicker release comes with a gorgeous scholarly 25 page book that includes an essay, drawings, and stills.

New viewers may be surprised at the level of wit in “A Trip To the Moon.” The plot (based on elements of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne) is simple: European scientists (all dressed in wizard robes), aided by the army (all women in tight short shorts) shoot a rocket to the moon, land in its eye (the most famous image), and due to a storm on the surface, are forced underground where they encounter a crazed crab king and his bug-like subjects. The scientists fight off their attackers, the king gets whacked (by an umbrella/mushroom, which causes him to vanish in a puff of smoke), make it back to the rocket, and become heroes to their naysayers.

At roughly 15 minutes, it’s remarkable not for its plot (although it is one of the earliest  narrative films), but for its aesthetics, made all the more stunning in color. The rapid editing is a marvel, as are the hand-painted sets and the optical illusions typically found in Melies’ oeuvre.

Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is essential.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THE SILENCE (1963)

Throughout ‘s “Silence of God” trilogy, the divine voice becomes increasingly faint, until the vaguely concluding The Silence (1963), which is the world of a dead God. Whether or not The Silence is related to Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light is debatable. Bergman himself never referred to the films as being concretely connected. It was later film enthusiasts (and home video marketing) who alternately lumped them together (not altogether incorrectly).

Silence‘s anti-theology theology is prominent in the first lines, when ten-year old Johan (Jorgen Lindstorm) points to a sign in a train compartment and asks his aunt Ester (): “What does this mean?” Her answer is elusive—“I don’t know”—despite the fact that she is a translator. Johan is the son of Anna (), who sweats sensuality in the stifling heat of the train ride. This is in sharp contrast to the ill Ester. There is tension between the sisters, but we don’t know what birthed it or why it exists, even in the midst of Ester’s dying. Questions are asked for which no answers are given. “Tell me,” Anna asks Ester, “When father died, you said you didn’t want to go on living. So why are you still around?” The closest explanation Anna gives for her contempt for Ester is “Everything has to have desperate meaning for you,” which is telling, as no desperate meaning is given—not even the reason for the opening and closing train trips.

Additionally, there is an ambiguous incestuous relationship between the sisters. Anna taunts Ester with a lie about a sexual encounter, told as if flaunting infidelity. Yet, then she offers: “It just so happens that I was lying.” However, later, an actual sexual encounter is presented, and again Ester is taunted. She asks: ‘What have I done to deserve this?” “Nothing,” Anna answers.

Still from The Silence (1963)Torn between his reserved aunt and emotionally charged mother is Johan. He is much present. He bathes Anna and hovers over Ester’s death bed. Yet, what is his purpose in the narrative? He wanders the hotel having encounters, from a waiter to a group of dwarves (?); all of which are presented, then abandoned. He serves as a voyeur to Ester’s boozing, cigarette smoking, and reading, and then to Anna’s sexuality. He’s like a series of loosely connected, masturbatory vignettes; a kind of divine figure, and we’re never certain that he exists, even though the film is channeled through him.

Aesthetically, this psychodrama is the most surreal of the trilogy, but there’s precision in its clarity and absurdity. Only a self-assured director could pull it off. Bergman does.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: WINTER LIGHT (1963)

Winter Light was said to be ‘s favorite of his own works, and one is tempted to concur. Having read about it for years, I was hesitant to see it after reading it described as Bergman’s bleakest film. This surprised me, because what I saw was akin to a clerical farce. Perhaps one has to have degree of experience with and appreciation for the clerical model to appreciate the humor.

It’s icily humorous, similar to the way that monk/philosopher Thomas Merton is never funnier than when he shrieks at the bad taste of his Trappist fellows in his journals, replaces their kitschy holy cards with prints of better art, or maneuvers a bush to hide a hideous statue of a long dead saint until he can convince his superior to cart off the offending cheap plaster. I can relate, but—enveloped in a parish that looks like a precursor to those ghastly Bible bookstores that every rural mall is cursed with—Winter Light‘s Rev. Ericsson wouldn’t. However, the actor () playing Ericsson would. Per the norm, this Bergman regular completely embodies his character with a wit and physicality that hearkens back to the silent film acting style.

Bishop Fulton Sheen talked about joy in repetition, and used conducting Mass as an example; he thoroughly convinced us of his joy, giving enthusiastic, occasionally brilliant and just as occasionally ultra-conservative homilies. On the other hand, I recall a parish priest who whipped out the creed and “Our Father” at breakneck speed, almost like an auctioneer, and he could get through a mass in 40 minutes, tops. Later, we discovered it was because he liked to go fishing, and he liked his beer. Still, there was a rushed enthusiasm in his delivery, even if he had more important things to do. In contrast, sickly Rev. Ericsson barely gets through his Lutheran Masses to an ever-dwindling congregation: by the film’s end, he’s left with a single parishioner. His sermons are unconvincing and uninspiring because, now a widower, he’s lost faith in God.

Among Ericsson’s congregants are suicidal fisherman Jonas () and his schoolmarm mistress Marta (), who initially looks like she stepped out of an El Greco painting of a 1960s Euro suburbanite. She’s quite the contrast to Ericsson’s detachment (it’s called Winter Light for a reason). Later, Marta graduates to an emotive Picassoesque monster intent on bagging herself the reluctant preacher man for husband, despite her own atheism and his pining for his dead wife.

Ericsson proves useless to others as he is himself when he fails to prevent Jonas, obsessed with the ills of the world, from offing himself. Nor does the parson have any effective words of comfort for fisherman’s pregnant widow, Karin ().

Still from Winter Light (1963)Again, we have a disciple who, like Christ in the garden of Olives, suffers at the hands of a faceless deity. The silence is catching, only broken when Ericsson displays disgust for the devastated Marta. And everyone—from the organist to parishioners and pastor—wants to get out of this absurd liturgical scenario, made all the more humorous in the way its starkly filmed.

Like , Bergman’s long-claimed atheism is suspect, because although he doesn’t subscribe to belief per se (both filmmakers are intuitive and honest enough to know that belief is ultimately an abstraction), a pulse of seeking permeates his oeuvre. Like , Bergman finds an inherent absurdity in that seeking, but never at the expense of essaying the better part of our all-too human spirit.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

The first of ‘s scorching “Silence of God” chamber trilogy, Through A Glass Darkly (1961) takes its title from one of St. Paul’s most famous passages: “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” The key to Bergman’s film, and indeed to the trilogy, lies in this passage that is as much about alienation as faith. In some quarters, Bergman’s triptych has been inadequately referred to as a “Trilogy of Faith,” but faith is not tangible. One cannot see, touch, or smell belief, and the Pauline passage resonates with such widespread interior force for honest reasons. We may liken it to the Gospel’s passion drama: the eventual arrest and crucifixion of Christ is almost anti-climatic after the visceral anguish of the Gethsemane garden—the figure engulfed in oppressive silence after communication withdrawn. Paul identifies with the language of a vast chasm.

Through a Glass Darkly felicitously opens with Bach’s second violoncello suite, as Sven Nyqvist’s camera glides over a pearl-like body of water. Soon, a trio of figures emerge from the beach of the desolate Faro island. These are the witnesses: the glacially successful patriarch David (), the empathetic doctor and chaste husband Martin (), and the libidinous brother Minus (Lars Password). We then meet Karin (Harriet Andersson), and although the film becomes about her hour and her face, these men are no mere ciphers. Over the next 24 hours of family vacation, they express dread, lamentation, and pathos as they venerate Karin’s descent.

Karin has been recently released from a mental hospital. She finds a report diagnosing her as schizophrenic among David’s papers, and her dissipation intensifies upon finding herself utilized as a model for daddy’s new novel. The perennial voices in head further impede her mental health. Bergman takes a cue from in consistently choreographing her closeups to those of her witnesses; looking, but not at each other. She’s too caught up. Her obsessions locate God behind the wallpaper and then, tragically, in the attic, where the divine one is revealed to be a big black spider. Meltdown complete, but it’s not that simplistic. Bergman’s portraits are refreshingly mosaic, reminding us that even when he falters, as he occasionally does throughout his oeuvre, he presses on, gifting us well past the point where other filmmakers throw in the proverbial towel.

David’s narcissism is like Martin’s introspection gone fishing, while Minus absorbs Karin’s secrets and veers close to incest. When God is addressed and obsessed over, moral conflicts inevitably rear up.  The search for God is rendered akin to a shipwreck of futility. Casting herself upon an intimate sacrificial altar, Karin (the name was chosen after Bergman’s mother) will prefer the sanctuary of a cell as opposed to facing the silence of God.

Still from Through a Glass Darkly (1961)Through a Glass Darkly belongs as much to Nyqvist and its cast as it does Bergman (who is hyper-controlled here). Nyqvist composes an encompassing world (magnificently realized by art director P.A. Lindgren) that should be a Promised Land. But familial reconciliation is ultimately defeated by Martin’s understated shoulder sag; Minus’ creativity is hindered by awkward impetuousness; David’s echoing of that Father who knows best but turns his face away; and, above all, Karin’s provocative and frightening rapture. Andersson delivers a performance for the ages, and although she might equal it for Bergman in Cries and Whispers, she would not surpass it.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE SACRIFICE (1986)

was dying as he made his final film, The Sacrifice (1986). It can be likened to the epic last testaments of Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Luigi Nono, John Huston, and . Tarkovsky dedicated the film to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence.” Like Mahler, Tarkovsky exits in a universal communication: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Despite the milieu of finality that permeates The Sacrifice, it was a narrative that had long been percolating with Tarkovsky, who referred to it as a parable, open to multifarious interpretations. It should be noted it wasn’t intended as a coda, as he was planning a film version of “The Flying Dutchman.” The Sacrifice literally owes itself to , whose company financed it. Aesthetically,  Tarkovsky also dips into Bergman’s landscape, shooting on the island of Faro, where the Swede—possibly Tarkovsky’s only peer—lived and shot several films.

The Sacrifice stars Erland Josephson (from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander) as Alexander. It is a kind of extension of his role of the self-immolating Domenico in Tarkovsky’s previous film, Nostalghia. Dreaming of a birthday apocalypse, Alexander, the aged atheist professor, offers himself up to God as The Sacrifice so that his family be will spared. The film ends in another form of madness and  immolation, the burning of Alexander’s house. Unfortunately, the first take was ruined, necessitating a costly rebuilding of the house and a second shoot.

Despite such dark themes and the tumor that was killing him, Tarkovsky’s wit is in full force. It is a testament to the filmmaker’s spirit and, yes, his defiance remains wet. He dares to bravely state his spiritual beliefs in a spiritually bankrupt, materialistic era. Penance in isolation and self-martyrdom are prevailing themes; and, despite the inherent humor, it is a magnificently difficult viewing, as Tarkovsky intended.

It’s doubtful that much of the contemporary movie audience, spoon-fed on the fallacy that film is merely entertainment, will mantle the patience required here, but that is a considerable loss of the rich rewards offered. The Sacrifice revels in its quaint magical mysticism, amiably weaving Tarkovsky’s personal Catholicism with a Kierkegaardian existentialism.

This is not an apocalypse born of mushroom clouds and bomb shelters, but rather of a small family on a Swedish island replete with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Leonardo’s unfinished “Adoration of the Magi,” and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” along with a host of irregulars including an unfaithful wife, the pompous doctor she’s carrying on with, a daughter, a son (referred to as “Little Man”), an amusing necromantic bicycling mailman named Otto who loves his ghost stories, and a maid as sexual sacrifice for an Icelandic pagan fertility cult (echoing Andrei Rublev).

The dialogue is sparse and the camera work (by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer for The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander, among others) glides ponderously and memorably across the island terrain in stunning tracking shots; among the most memorable is the tree planting scene. At times, the film is almost inert and undeniably austere (the burning of that gorgeous house lasts almost seven minutes). Aptly, it’s one of the most challenging  and poignant of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre; a private annihilation.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)

is a staple at 366 Weird movies, so it’s only apt that we get around to what many believe to be his most personal film: The Mirror (1975). The title alone indicates as much. According to Tarkovsky’s memoir “Sculpting in Time” (an essential read), The Mirror began as a novella, reflecting on the artist’s years during the Second World War. He started the first of many script drafts a decade before filming commences, and with its pointed criticism of the Soviet Union, it’s remarkable that it was even produced, let alone distributed. Tarkovsky predictably found himself embroiled in intensive conflict with the Goskino film committee in pre-production, in production itself, and in post-production. The Mirror was given limited release in Moscow; Tarkovsky’s inevitable exile was a mere few years away. Post-production was reportedly a laborious process, going through approximately twenty extensive edits. Upon its release, both critical and audience assessments were sharply divided, with many finding it incomprehensible. Provoking much heated debate, The Mirror didn’t initially have the impact of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), or Stalker (1979). Yet, it has since become one of  the most referenced Tarkovsky works among cineastes, and made Sight and Sound’s list of the top fifty films of all time.

Originally titled both ‘Confession” and  “A White, White Day,”  that changed when Tarkovsky brought his (divorced) parents and wife into the project. Arseny Tarkovsky (the father) reads from his own established poetry. Maria Vishnyakova (Tarkovsky’s tenderhearted mother) lends her visual presence to the film.

Although The Mirror vaguely covers bullet points from Tarkovsky’s childhood (the evacuation, Arseny’s abandonment of family, Maria’s influence on her son), it is a motion biography that metaphorically weaves through pasts that are past only compared to the more recent. Heightening the dissonance, actors are perpetually in motion, shifting roles: i.e. Margarita Terekhova plays both Tarkovsky’s mother and his wife Natalya. Her vanity is not blanketed, but it is as a maternal influence, educating her son in the arts and sheltering him from the threat of military service, that her portrayal becomes resplendently Orphic. The terminally ill narrator Alex (Innokenty Smoktunovsky)—never seen—is the film’s protagonist.

Tarkovsky’s childhood is represented as a bucolic pastoral disrupted by his father’s abandonment, symbolized in a building aflame. Tellingly, and with aching honesty, it is this betrayal, more than the war, that shatters and decimates Tarkovsky’s childhood. Abandonment by a loved one is the proverbial expulsion from a spiritual paradise. Yet, an undeniable supplemental element, born from the loss of innocence, is the latent political rage directed at a monstrously inhuman war.

Still from The Mirror (1975)The film imprints startlingly incandescent, fervent images that remain long after: Natalya washing her hair in a basin as a building collapses; the Soviet army crossing Lake Sivash; the juxtaposition of black and white with sepia and color imagery along with newsreel footage; the palm print of child dissipating into a lustrous surface; repeated mirror imagery; the arcane return of the prodigal father; a hot air balloon; the absurd training of cadets in a snowy (emotionally bankrupt) horizon; the loneliness of a dejected wife; an apparently arid day revealed in a window to be a transcendental monsoon. The personal and intimate are juxtaposed with a collective people. Time is indeed pliably sculpted.

The Mirror is possibly the closest cinema has come to evoking modernist poetry.

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

Still from Day of Wrath (1943)In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.