366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
DIRECTED BY: Johannes Schaaf
FEATURING: Radost Bokel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Leopoldo Trieste, Mario Adorf, Bruno Stori, John Huston
PLOT: The residents of a small town adopt Momo, a young girl found living in a cave, embracing her unusual ability to focus their minds; when the Grey Gentlemen arrive to steal the community’s time and put it on a course to unfettered production, Momo must work with the Master of Time to defeat them.
COMMENTS: The lovable moppet is a hallmark of storytelling. From Little Orphan Annie to Pippi Longstocking, we’ve got a thing for a girl with wild hair, wide-eyed optimism, and a knack for outwitting stuffy authorities. Based on those criteria, Momo is a worthy addition to their ranks. Radost Bokel looks perfect in the role, with her beaming eyes and radiant smile. It’s not hard to see why the townspeople are immediately drawn to her.
On the other hand, maybe she’s no great shakes, because these residents seem to be a pretty malleable lot. When the first of the Grey Gentlemen shows up at the barber shop to explain at length how time enjoyed is time wasted, the barber’s immediate buy-in suggests they’ve lucked into a particularly uncritical subject. But before long, everyone else has fallen under their sway, with a quick end to leisurely lunches at the local cafe, impromptu concerts by the neighborhood busker, and kids role-playing epic sea battles. It seems that only Momo could possibly turn things around.
This turns out to be true, but it’s not an especially dramatic standoff. Momo frustrates expectations by delivering so much of its conflict as exposition, rather than showing the tension at play. When one of the Gentlemen tries to buy Momo off with an increasing number of dolls, there’s never a moment’s hesitation as to whether she will be seduced by the crass commercial product; she just doesn’t like the dolls. We never see troubadour Gigi fall prey to the lure of fame; he just ends up there, and there’s not much to suggest he sees his own fate as tied up with that of the girl he lamely tries to save. And so it goes. The film has some extraordinary sets and settings, but so many of the critical twists and turns in the plot happen somewhere that we’re not looking.
The reason seems to lie at the feet of Michael Ende, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. (He also cameos in the movie’s opening minutes as the train passenger who “has plenty of time.”) Ende’s hands-on participation was due in no small part to his experience with The Neverending Story, a previous adaptation where he had little say and despised the end product. If Ende was happier with Momo, it’s probably because it has a very literary feel, dispensing with gaudy special effects and unfolding in scenes that feel like chapters. There is magic at play here, but no glitter and spark. Ende asks viewers to trust that there’s something special about Momo without the need to manufacture wonder. And that’s very mature and respectful, but the result is a movie that feels very much like… a book.
The most magical thing in the film turns out to be John Huston. In his last big screen appearance, the legendary actor/director turns on all the charm, going for maximum twinkle-in-the-eye warmth as he guides Momo through his realm. Even as he’s called upon to provide much of the explanation for what’s going on – he also serves as narrator – he carries an elegaic air that lends enormous power to the film. If Ende’s pages depict a tired but sage overseer of time, Huston is unquestionably what he had in mind. Appropriate that the only person able to slip free of Momo’s limitations is a great filmmaker himself.
Momo is a serviceable fable, with a valuable message about the corrupting influences of ambition, capitalism, and adulthood. But it’s dry and lacking in color, skeptical of the trappings of a fairy tale even as it relies upon them. The film ends with Momo and the townspeople in a raucous celebration, and it’s the most anyone has committed to anything in the film. Better to stick with John Huston and his precocious turtle. They really believe in something.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who used reverse psychology by suggesting ” don’t even think about adding Momo  onto that list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)