People are talking about Ken Russell these days because of a DVD release of his early biographical documentaries, so when I was frustrated at the video store (no Stuart Gordon! no Wizard of Gore!) I rented this on a whim. Oh boy am I glad I did. Don’t know what the modern critical consensus is (it’s on the They Shoot Pictures list and in D. Ehrenstein’s top ten, so probably pretty good) but to me, this is a masterpiece. Got to see it again, preferably in higher quality than this blurred DVD copy could provide.
UPDATE 2016: Watched this on 35mm, front row at the Alamo – a divine experience.

Vanessa Redgrave has spinal problems:
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It’s about the same 1600’s nun-mania incident in France that Mother Joan of the Angels covered very capably and artistically a decade earlier, but this one opens up the story, bringing in King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (who together strengthened the monarchy and centralized power in France), enlarging the town and creating amused mobs and public executions, and focusing mainly on a priest outside the convent, Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed, his favorite role), who seems corrupt at first but becomes the most noble character in the movie towards the end.

Grandier with one of his pre-marriage young conquests:
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The nuns (led by a hysterical Vanessa Redgrave of Blow-Up and Camelot) are shown to be repressed young bundles of hormones, stuck in the convent by circumstance and not by choice, who finally explode at the sight of Grandier glimpsed through their barred windows. The nuns request a father confessor but instead of Grandier they get stern, sexually ambiguous Mignon (Murray Melvin, who had a good year in ’75 with Lisztomania and Barry Lyndon) who calls in professional witch-hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard of Lifeforce, The Three Musketeers) to perform an embarrassing public exorcism. Meanwhile, Grandier has knocked up one girl and made a big deal of defending the city from the whims of central government, meets Madeleine (Gemma Jones, lately playing everyone’s mum in big-budget films) and dedicates himself to her in a private wedding ceremony. Richelieu and the fey King (hilariously shown in his garden shooting protestants dressed as birds) use the nun-mania to their political advantage, taking down Grandier, having him tortured and killed by the enthusuastic Father Barre. Grandier out of the way, the city’s protective walls are destroyed. Final awesome shot is of U.G.’s devastated wife walking out of town, surrounded by ruins of the wall and the bodies of protestants tied to wagon wheels atop unreasonably high poles.

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Derek Jarman, right at the start of his career, did the glorious sets and production design, and David Watkin (lots of Richard Lester movies, Out of Africa) was cinematographer. Two music people, one did period music and one did the discordant jazz that played over darker scenes. Russell wrote the screenplay based on a play and an Aldous Huxley novel. Pretty closely based on fact, if the Wikipedia article on Urbain Grandier is accurate (wow, it even has a graphic of U.G.’s “confession” co-signed by Satan himself).

As far as religious mania goes, I’ve lately seen Spanish Inquisition movies (Pit and the Pendulum, Goya’s Ghosts) a Boston Witch-hunt referencing movie (Ghosthouse) and other movies about religious conflict (Guelwaar, The Milky Way), and this tops ’em all. Of course, as a non-religious person I’m biased towards the extreme corrupt-church-hatin’, and as a guy I’m biased towards all the female nudity, but aside from all that, this is a scorching, beautiful, excellent movie.

a gem from Wikipedia:
“British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’ in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.”

King and Cardinal during the bird-shooting scene:
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Oliver Reed:

You would think from the critics’ hostility that Ken Russell had tried to pull off some obscene hoax. On the contrary, the film is, I think, an utterly serious attempt to understand the nature of religious and political persecution. It is not in any way exaggerated. If anything, the horrors perpetrated in Loudun in the 17th century were worse than Russell has chosen to show . . . the character of the priest was a marvelous one to act. Ken Russell’s brother-in-law is an historian and he helped me research Grandier’s life, with particular reference to his thesis in celibacy. The people of Loudun loved him. He walked among the plague victims and comforted them. I started to play him as a priest and realized that he was a politician.

[on criticism of The Devils] It was very disturbing to make. I still haven’t got over it… Where do you draw the line? This is the way it happened – those nuns were used for political ends, toted round France as a side show for a year. Do you ignore the actual historical accuracy and the fact that the Church, the politicians and the aristocracy were corrupt? I get so angry with the opinion makers who class it with the sex films. If we ignore history because it was unpleasant we’re going to end up with nothing but nature films.

Mignon, belatedly convinced of Grandier’s innocence, with the zealous Barre:
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D. Ehrlich: “Jarman’s neo-futurist design still gives the madness a divine scale. Any movie that ends with someone furiously masturbating as an expression of their own eternal misery is fine by me.”

This is one of Buñuel’s anarchic sketch films (see also: Simon of the Desert, Phantom of Liberty) which he made in between his relatively more normal, subversive upper-class films (in this case between Belle de Jour and Tristana). I still think I appreciate his films more than I enjoy them, but the more of them I watch, the more I feel that his career is unassailable, that his last twenty years of filmmaking produced one long masterpiece. It turns out I had seen this before, though I barely remembered it. Must’ve rented the tape from Videodrome. Don’t think I finished it last time, because it got foggier around the halfway point.

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Such a smart and well-researched movie, I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. I can discuss the cinematic aspects though. Good photography with no surprises, unusually long shots but not noticeably/showoffy long. Buñuel’s movies always feel the tiniest bit too slow for me, too perfectly calm and collected, the acting and sets and camerawork too high-quality for their content, which I suppose is the point.

The plot is a “picaresque”, two beggars wander into various scenarios during their long walk from Paris France to a holy pilgrimage spot in Santiago Spain – although it turns out they’re not on a pilgrimage themselves, they just heard there’s a huge crowd in Santiago where they can get rich on spare change. Different historical periods and bible stories blend into their present-day 1960’s voyage without anyone batting an eye. They meet Satan(?), the Whore of Babylon, and lots of people discussing the six central mysteries of Catholicism and their associated heresies. They do not meet Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Marquis de Sade or the Pope, but they’re all in the movie via sidetracks from the main action (though one could argue that it’s all sidetracks). Plenty of surreal moments keep the movie lively even when the dialogue is all obscure religious debate.

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French cinematographer Christian Matras was about Buñuel’s age, had also shot most of Max Ophüls’ best films, also The Eagle Has Two Heads with Cocteau and Grand Illusion with Renoir. Co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (also an occasional actor) worked on most of Bunuel’s 60’s-70’s stuff and over a hundred other movies, including recent ones like Chinese Box, Birth and Goya’s Ghosts. The guy who played Jesus starred in Rohmer’s sixth moral tale a couple years later. Virgin Mary Edith Scob was in Franju’s Judex in the 60’s, and lately in some Raoul Ruiz films and the newest by Olivier Assayas. Of the two tramps, the older would be in the next two of Buñuel’s French films, and the younger would star in Clouzot’s La Prisonnière and Godard’s Détective.

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In the DVD interviews, Ian Christie tries to make us feel better for not knowing the historical references – he says nobody knew them. He got a press kit. The film was influenced by The Saragossa Manuscript, which sounds cool. “What heresy means for him is a kind of metaphor, I think, for human beings’ fascination with arguing about the immaterial, the invisible, trying to bolt it down and make it literal.” Screening when it did, it was alternately seen as cleverly reflecting or having nothing to do with the political and social upheaval in late 60’s France. Interview with the writer and documentary on the DVD are both pretty alright, nothing that needs repeating here.

Our two bums with the whore of babylon:
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Michel Piccoli as the Marquis de Sade:
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Alain Cuny as the mysterious walkin’ guy:
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L’Age d’or reference:
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Commandment I: I Am the Lord Thy God

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Boy lives alone with his father. They love (erm, “worship”?) their all-knowing computer, which calculates that the ice outside is thick enough to skate on. Kid’s aunt thinks the kid should have a more spiritual education, but dad disagrees because science and computers are where it’s at. Needless to say, the ice was not thick enough to skate on.

Sad, cold, dreary, dark episode, opens with a sad man sitting in front of a fire by the lake. DVD extras say that we’ll see him again. Starts/ends with the aunt watching TV news broadcast showing the kid running through school hallway with other kids a few days before the ice incident. Maybe this was a fine episode to begin the series theatrically, when you’re sitting wondering what’s coming next, but on DVD, I was bummed by this one (and by the circumstances of trying to watch it) so it took over a month before I made it to part 2.

The sad man acted in Kieslowski’s No End. The kid is my age, appeared in Schindler’s List.

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Commandment II: Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Thy Lord God in Vain

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Sad woman’s husband is deathly sick, is neighbor to sad doctor whose family died in bombing years ago. Doctor does his best, but it’s not looking good for husband. Thing is, wife needs to know if he will live or die, because she’s pregnant from another man and wants to know whether to keep the baby.

The episode might’ve seemed grim and dreary if it hadn’t followed the dead-child segment. Both were pretty affecting, but this one sucked me right in. Kind of a soapy sounding plot, but Kieslowski obviously not a soapy director, so it works. Doctor warms up to the wife, finally tells her the husband will almost certainly die, she phones boyfriend and breaks up with him (more or less) but keeps the baby and stays with the husband, who improves against all odds. Lot of close-ups, more dead animals and warm clothes, no sign of the sad man by the lake who introduced the series.

The doctor (above) played lawyers in both White and No End. The woman (below) starred in Wajda’s Man of Iron and in something called Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease.

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Commandment III: Honor the Sabbath Day

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Cab driver’s ex shows up on Christmas eve and leads him on a wild goose chase, supposedly looking for her missing husband. In fact, her man left three years ago, and she is so lonely over the holidays that she tricks her ex into spending time with her. He catches on to some of the lies, maybe all of them, but he comes along anyway and returns to his own wife at daybreak.

A weird one, all deception with little truth about the background of these two and their former relationship… unless their past was mostly deception. I liked it, but not one of my favorites.

The woman is from No End. The cab driver appeared in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, currently a soap opera star.

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Commandment IV: Honor Thy Father and Mother

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When Anka’s dad Michal goes out of town, she opens a letter marked “to be opened after my death.” Dad comes home and she shows him the sealed letter inside, in her dead mother’s handwriting, telling Anka that Michal is not her real father. Anka says that she’s always felt this to be true, and suggests they could be lovers instead of father and daughter. He doesn’t go for it… but Anka is toying with him, having written the letter herself and never opened the real letter (although the real letter very likely says the same thing).

Oh good, a real crazy one. Was Anka serious about any of it or was she only trying to expose her father? I liked it, though I started pondering alternate titles for the Decalogue and came up with Sad People Telling Secrets & Lies In The Dark. Sums up the last three pretty well. Our mysterious young man makes an appearance, carrying a white canoe.

The “father” was third-billed in Kieslowski’s White.

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Commandment V: Thou Shalt Not Kill

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An antisocial youth, an antisocial taxi-driver and an idealistic young defense lawyer collide Crash-style. Youth is tired of dropping rocks off overpasses, damaging property and pushing men into urinals, decides to kill a taxi driver. Gets sent through the justice system, where our lawyer passionately but unsuccessfully defends him, finally hangs for his crime.

Good story, one of the more obvious and political ones. I mean, thou shalt not kill, you know? The sad young man shows up right before the murder, giving our antisocial youth a pleading look. I’d kinda prefer if this guy was obliviously walking through all ten tales, rather than acting like a helpless Wim Wenders angel all the time.

The cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who had worked with Kieslowski before on The Scar) went hog wild on this one, filming the whole first half in sepia tones with encroaching shadows around the edges. It worked out well for him – he was hired back for the gorgeous Double Life of Veronique and Blue, and later did Gattaca, Black Hawk Down and the latest Harry Potter.

The beginning of the young lawyer and criminal’s acting careers, but veteran actor Jan Tesarz (the murdered taxi driver) went on to appear with Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell in Hart’s War. I recognized the woman with the dying husband from episode 2 as a would-be customer from whom the taxi driver speeds away.

They arrested the wrong guy for the murder! Check out the white chalk “M” on the shoulder of the guard at Jacek’s right arm:
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Commandment VI: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

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A more conventionally shot episode, a voyeur movie that watches us watch it. Tomek, who lives with his “godmother” (his absent best friend’s mom) spies on Magda through a telescope every night, and stalks her in various other ways. She either warms up to the idea or decides to fuck with him, I haven’t figured which, and gets him over to her place one night for just a few minutes… after which he runs home and tries to kill himself. She is crazy with worry, finally he resurfaces and I guess he has gotten over her.

Extended version, A Short Film About Love, apparently has a different ending. This episode and the previous one (which also has an extended theatrical version) were both letterboxed.

Magda starred in No End, Tomek was Kieslowski’s assistant director on half the Decalogue episodes, and the godmother died in April ’88 – this was her last role.

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Commandment VII: Thou Shalt Not Steal

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Lot of close-ups in this one. Young mother Majka and daughter Ania live with Majka’s mother Ewa (Anna Polony) and father (Wladyslaw Kowalski, star of that ugly live-cartoon movie Avalon). Elder Ewa treats little Ania as if she was daughter, not granddaughter, and Ania doesn’t even know Majka is her real mother. Majka solves this by kidnapping her own six-yr-old daughter during an outing and running away to the house of her former lover & high school teacher, now a teddy bear maker, giving it a sort of fairy-tale edge from the kid’s perspective. In the end Ewa gets the kid back but Majka flees on a train, and we’re left wondering where the kid really belongs, and whether Majka somewhat succeeded by convincing the kid that she is the real mother.

I liked. Same kind of morally questionable situation as parts two and five, but without the sour death tone hanging over it. If I ever get around to showing Katy a Decalogue episode, this would be a good starting point. Most of it takes place away from the apartment complex, and I didn’t see our Observer or anyone from another episode.

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Commandment VIII: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

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“Why do some rescue others, while others can only be rescued?”

Opens with a memory/flashback. Not showy camerawork, some handheld, a few intense close-ups. Zbigniew Preisner’s musical style is easy to recognize. Listened to hours of his soundtracks between the last episode and this one. A very good episode.

Old woman Zofia (Maria Koscialkowska, above, appeared in famous unfinished Polish film Passenger 25 years earlier) keeps herself in shape while everything around her is falling apart – pictures won’t hang straight, lights won’t stay on and car sounds like it’s always on the verge of dying. Zofia teaches a college course on ethics, featuring an extended reference to episode two (“I can tell you that the child lives”), where she is visited by middle-aged interloper Elizabeth (Teresa Marczewska, below). E. claims that as a young Jewish girl during WWII, she came to Z.’s house for protection and was turned away. Later she studied Z. from afar, wrote books about her, but wants to know why. Turns out there was some bad info about the people with E. being nazi collaborators and Z. couldn’t risk it. The women seem to trust each other now, but there’s a shady, uneasy tone to the episode, somewhat lightened when Z. comes across a friendly contortionist during a jog. At the end, Z. takes E. to a man who did help her during the war, now a tailor (Tadeusz Lomnicki, narrated Passenger and appeared in Blind Chance and Man of Marble) but he won’t talk about the old days.

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Commandment IX: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife

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And now it’s the actual music from Blue, with heavy references to Double Life of Veronique in the story. A girl tells the surgeon “I’m not allowed to sing because my heart wouldn’t stand it” then recommends him some Von Den Budenmayer and adds “I know I’m someone else.” Cinematographer uses lots of light in almost every scene, a Decalogue rarity. Some lovely shots. Same cinematographer as part 3, later shot Red, then some random Hollywood stuff before his early death in 2001.

After former philanderer Roman learns he is impotent, he allows his wife to have affairs, but then becomes jealous and regretful. Roman hides, spies, believes that she loves the younger man more, when in fact she’s trying to get rid of him to stay with her husband. When she goes on a ski trip and Roman finds out the younger man is following her, he attempts suicide by bicycle, but survives for a tearful hospital reunion (and btw, he’s not impotent after all). Played a lot better than it sounds from my description.

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Commandment X: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods

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Involves death, robbery and deception, and does not end well for our heroes, but it seems lighthearted in comparison to the others, full of dark humor. One of the least believable of the series, which adds to the humor… these guys don’t quite seem real, so their loss isn’t as sad as it might be. Had the degree of obsession they show at the end (studying new stamps they bought for a few cents at the post office) been shown before the Scott Thompson guy opted for surgery to trade his kidney for a rare stamp, it might’ve turned more into a horrifying drama than a comedy.

Lead singer of a punk act Artur (Zbigniew Zamachowski, star of White) and family man Jerzy (Jerzy Stuhr, also of White and star of Camera Buff, who looks like Scott Thompson) are brothers who unknowingly inherit the largest, most valuable stamp collection in the country from their father. First they consider selling, but they’ve inherited their dad’s collector bug as well, so they move to protect and then to expand the collection (Jerzy trades a kidney for a one-of-a-kind stamp to complete a series). But all the stamps (except that one) are stolen while Jerzy is in the hospital.

Episode opens with Jerzy singing about breaking all the commandments. A kid who scams the brothers on behalf of other collectors was Tomek, the peeping tom from part six. Minimal music, uses drum rolls for punctuation, adding to the comic effect.

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I didn’t watch these all at once. Started this entry August 2007, posted June 2008, whew.

Kieslowski: “When you work with the ten best cinematographers in the country, a kind of contest develops. … We managed to avoid the rut you fall into when you make films that take longer than two or three months to shoot. Things were different all the time. … I gave great freedom to my coworkers and friends the cameramen.”

Here’s to the cameramen! Some more screenshots:

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Sembene’s third-to-final film, the one before Faat Kiné. His usual feminism is in effect here, but it’s mostly pushed to the background because he has more pressing issues to worry about.

Guelwaar (Thierno Ndiaye, below, also in Karmen Gei) has just died when the movie begins but we meet him in flashback. He has been killed because of his outspoken political beliefs, that it is better for a person or a nation to live poor than to accept handouts. He and his family are Catholic, and when his expatriate son Barthelemy goes to retrieve the body for the funeral, he finds that there has been a mix-up and Guelwaar was buried in a Muslim cemetery. A cop somewhat-assists, but when he finds out Bart lives in France he suggests that Bart appeal to his ambassador instead of asking the local police for help.

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Meanwhile at Guelwaar’s house, the funeral party drags on longer than anyone had anticipated. His widow Nogoy, younger crippled son Aloys, and prostitute daughter (the prime breadwinner of the family) socialize with the guests (who include the daughter’s coworker, actress who played Rama in Xala). When word gets out about the fate of Guelwaar’s body, the Catholic priest and Muslim imam have a showdown, each craving peace but backed by an angry and armed mob of their people. The Muslims only back down when a government man (on whom they depend for food) drives up and convinces them of their burial error. Guelwaar is returned to the Catholics for his funeral, Bart has a newfound patriotism, and on the way out, the Catholics, in solidarity with Guelwaar’s climactic flashback speech (and as an outlet for their pent-up rage) destroy the shipment of food headed for the Muslim town in a passing wagon.

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Interesting that Guelwaar defends the fact that his family lives off the daughter’s prostitution trade, over his wife’s protests. At least it is work, he argues, and they are not relying on handouts from others. This scene cuts down his noble martyr status by a couple notches. Nobody’s perfect. Also I like that the imam (above) is portrayed as a good man who listens to reason and tries to sway his angry followers to do the same. The only group that is portrayed as irredeemable is the corrupt government officials who silence Guelwaar’s voice that decries the handout system, since they skim a large share from foreign aid money before distributing it to their people, and they’d like to keep it that way.

Not in order: 1. Guy (Adam Brody) gets stuck in ground after bad parachute dive, achieves short-lived fame / 2. Woman on Mexican vacation (Gretchen Mol) has passionate affair with Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux) / 3. Guy (assistant chef in wet hot) skips church to stay home naked, invites over lots of other guys / 4. White mom confesses to black kids that their real dad wasn’t white, hires impersonator (Oliver Platt) / 5. Doctor (Ken Marino) leaves scissors inside patient “as a goof” / 6. Woman (Winona Ryder) leaves new husband for ventriloquist dummy / 7. Animated rhino (Jon Benjamin) lies until no one trusts him, then town is wiped out after not believing his warnings / 8. Prisoner (Marino again) being raped by cellmate wishes to be raped by a new cellmate (Rob Corddry) / 9. Neighbors (Liev Schreiber & Joe Lo Truglio) have rivalry over who owns more cat-scan machines / 10. Couple from framing device (Paul Rudd & Famke Janssen) meet years later and get back together

What humor there is gets stifled by the endless unfunny parts, a pained grin on my face, wanting to enjoy the movie but being horrified instead by its lameness. Parts 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 and the entire overlong Paul Rudd framing device pretty much suck, and that’s most of the movie. The others would be funny web sketches that I’d watch on YouTube (but probably turn ’em off before they were over) but they’re not movie-worthy… the thing doesn’t feel like a movie, like W.H.A.S. did, just a rough draft of a failed sketch show.

Jessica Alba and Janeane Garofalo and Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black knew better than to get deeply involved – they all have bit roles. Either replacing Showalter with Marino as co-writer was a bad idea, or the whole thing was doomed from the start. The trailer was funnier. Just glad I saw it for free.

A pretty well-composed movie, not bad overall. The artistic look, good framing, lavish sets & costumes all put indie-hack fare like “last king of scotland” to shame, so it’s a fine movie to watch, if nothing great is playing. No doubt that this one isn’t “great”… it’s too even, regular, plain… nothing daring, original or transcendent, just a big pretty movie. Director Forman only pops up every 4-7 years to make another biopic (amadeus, larry flynt, andy kaufman). IMDB says he’s working on another one already.

First, to get it out of the way, the bad. It’s one of those movies where you can play “spot the reshoots”, as newly-dubbed lines show up when characters’ backs are turned and they weren’t supposed to be speaking, or during another actor’s reaction shot, then they’ll cut back to the speaker (in long shot, preferably) and his lips don’t match up. It’s not like I’ve read that this was a troubled production that required reshoots… they’re right up there on the screen. That, and our theater smelled like Windex.

Then the good. I told Katy I hadn’t seen Javier Bardem since Before Night Falls (2000) but I forgot his small part in Collateral (and I missed Live Flesh at the Almodovar retrospective). Fun to watch him croak out his lines with that serious look on his face, but even more exciting is Michael Lonsdale (THOMAS from Out 1) as Bardem’s superior. That shouldn’t be so thrilling, since he’s in Munich and Ronin and other stuff, but maybe that should tell me something about “goya’s ghosts”, that the most engrossing moments were when I was imagining scenes from “out 1” instead.

Funny thing about Randy Quaid (played the king). He’s in nothing but the dumbest movies for twenty-five years, then he gets cast in Brokeback and now suddenly he’s “and featuring academy-award nominee randy quaid” in studio prestige pictures. the Oscar nom was from 1974, not from Brokeback. Heh, from Pioneer Press: “Swedish Stellan Skarsgard plays Spanish painter Goya and where a key theme is that the Spanish people hate their new king because he’s from France. Which is weird, because he’s played by Randy Quaid, whose accent evokes not Baroque Spain or France, but Houston, circa today.”

Yeah, uneven accents and just a not very great movie full of tragedy with sad ending, but there’s even more Natalie Portman torture/imprisonment than in “V For Vendetta”, so if that’s your thing, here’s your movie.

Bunuel’s brief return to Franco-era Spain before escaping back to Mexico and then heading to France. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal, Simon of the Desert‘s devil) is about to be a nun, but her superiors say that first she must visit her benefactor, her widower uncle Don Jaime. The trip seems to be going fine so far.

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But Viridiana is a crappy nun and gets tricked into wearing her aunt’s wedding gown, then gets drugged and put to bed. Don Jaime (Fernando Rey of That Obscure Object and Discreet Charm) tells her she was raped and now can’t return to the convent, but then confesses the truth… she flees and he kills himself.

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Viridiana gets to split the estate with her handsome cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal of L’Eclisse and Nazarin). She leaves the convent and attempts to make a home for a bunch of beggars. But she’s no good at that either… they take over the house and attack her.

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Viridiana finally accepts her fate and sits down with Jorge and the housekeeper in a menage-a-trois-suggestive final scene.

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Very interesting movie. Glad I played with all the DVD extras and read up a little on it. Not much to say about it, myself, except to repeat unimportant trivia I’ve learned (Sylvia and Juan Luis smuggled the film out of the country to Cannes, where it unexpectedly won).