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326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”–attributed to W.C. Fields

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edward F. Cline

FEATURING: , Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, , Susan Miller, Leon Errol

PLOT: W.C. Fields (playing himself) is pitching a new screenplay to Esoteric Pictures, while serving as temporary guardian to his niece, an up-and-coming actress. He describes his story—which begins with him falling out of an airplane and landing in a secluded mountaintop garden where he finds a beautiful virgin and her wealthy mother, and just gets stranger—to an increasingly skeptical producer. After the producer passes on the script, Fields and his niece leave the business, and he ends up rushing a woman to a maternity hospital.

Still from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was W.C. Fields’ final featured role. Both his health and his performances were suffering due to his alcoholism. In addition, Fields had long argued with Universal Studio executives, seeking more creative control over his projects. They finally granted his wishes in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Just like the producer within the film, they hated the result. Universal gave Sucker little promotion and decided not to renew Fields’ contract. He made a handful of smaller appearances in movies until 1944, then died on Christmas day in 1946 at the age of 66.
  • Fields didn’t write the screenplay, but is credited for the “original story” under the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis.
  • The title is taken from a line of dialogue from Fields’ play (later movie) Poppy, where he played a con man. Universal rejected his proposed title for the movie, The Great Man. Fields is listed as “the Great Man” in the credits.
  • The Hays office rejected Fields’ original script, objecting to  “jocular references to drinking and liquor,” the word “pansy,” scenes of Fields ogling women, and suggestive shots of bananas. A scene in a saloon was absurdly revised to take place in an ice cream parlor, which gave Fields an opportunity to make a jokes at the censors’ expense.
  • Despite promising Fields creative control, Universal reportedly re-cut the film and even reshot scenes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fields’ free-fall when he jumps off the airplane’s open observation deck (!) after accidentally knocking over his bottle of whiskey.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plummeting drunkard; fanged dog; pet mountain gorilla

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Considered in isolation, the middle section of Sucker—Fields’ fevered film-within-the-film—is as strange a comedy short as was ever greenlit by Hollywood in the studio system era. Interference from censors, both in the Hayes office and Universal boardrooms, resulted in the already stream-of-consciousness script being further chopped up into something that approached incoherence. Sucker was Fields’ “screw you” to the suits, a poison pill of bitter satire dissolved in a pint of gin, served on the rocks with a twist of absurdity. By a man in a gorilla suit.


Fan-made trailer for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

COMMENTS: In the early days of Hollywood, comedians established a persona and stuck to it, essentially playing the same character in movie after movie. While most comics adopted sympathetic Continue reading 324. NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941)

LIST CANDIDATE: AVIDA (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Benoît Delépine, Gustave de Kervern

FEATURING: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, Eric Martin, Velvet

PLOT: A simpleton stumbles into a job at a zoo and is conscripted into a heist involving the theft of a dog; through a mishap, the thieves end up leading the pet’s owner up the side of a mountain so that she may die there.

Still from Avida (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Avida is deliberately surreal, piling offbeat scenarios on top of mysterious images until they constitute a puzzle to be solved. Ironically, the film’s final image suggests a level of logic that is almost too sensible for all that has preceded it.

COMMENTS: Avida sets up a theme right from the get-go, as a picador psyches himself to go into the ring against a formidable opponent. Once his foe is revealed to be a rhinoceros, we get our first taste of the film’s surreal view of the battle between man and animal. From there, we meet our mute hero working as a dog trainer whose job seems to be primarily a target for the animals’ aggression. But when he is too distracted to help his employer in a moment of need, he finds himself adrift in the world. It’s like Being There, but with more barking.

Our theme quickly gives way to a picaresque journey in which the nameless protagonist reveals that he has no idea how to get on in the world. He attacks a golfer for his shoes, pushes down a woman to take her wristwatch (she seems disappointed that his intentions are not more lascivious), and raids a fancy restaurant to steal some lobsters. His visit to a ian job fair lands him at a zoo, where a new array of characters and settings emerges.

The film has the feel of a sketch show, with scenes careening from one to the other. Two men shooting each other with pellet guns give way to a restaurant where the zoo’s animals are on the menu. There’s a plot, but only just enough, and characters who are only germane insofar as their names give them purpose: the Distracted Nanny, the Benevolent Singer, the Man With the Head of Scotch Tape. Avida doesn’t think about these people for too long, and neither should you.

In its first half, Avida is frequently funny, with choices that amuse through surprise. The filmmakers clearly subscribe to the view that anything seen long enough will become amusing in time, as when a bodyguard who has failed to stop the dognapping calmly reaches into an unexpectedly deep arsenal to take aim at the perpetrators. Eventually, though, we meet up with the title character (the only one given a name) who demands that the Mute and his colleagues deliver to her death in a barren wasteland filled with mirrors and armoires, and the humor gives way to a look at humanity’s more pathetic traits.

What Avida is ultimately about is unclear and up for debate. The final image, and the only one in color, is a Dali-esque painting that seems to suggest that everything we have seen is the reasonable explanation for such an artwork, or perhaps that all Surrealist images have their origin in the kind of hijinks that have unfolded before us. The message is further muddied with an epigram from the Native American leader Chief Seattle that cautions against carelessness toward our animal friends—hearkening back to the early theme, but also reminding us that it hasn’t been relevant to the film for quite some time. Avida is idiosyncratic to a fault, and that fault seems to be a lack of trust. The movie bends over backwards to justify its quirks, rather than just letting them be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere between Monty Python, Jacques Tati and a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons, this critique of life’s cruel inconsistency confirms the French co-directors’ gift for reinterpreting surrealism in a humorously modern key. Though their often disgusting imagery may alienate the squeamish and send fans of conventional comedy running for the exit, pic’s very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.” – Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Donya, who deemed it “an intelligent beautiful poetic ‘weird” movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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.

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild Continue reading 320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

NOVEMBER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

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.