Monday, February 25, 2013

Behind Convent Walls (1978)

It makes perfect sense that Walerian Borowczyk decided to try his hand within the field of nunsploitation, which had proven to be quite popular during the 70’s. Not that Borowczyk was a trend hopper, he was the furthest thing from it, it’s just that so many of the trappings that applied to the nunsploitation subgenre were prime for Boro’s touch. Inspired by Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome, Behind Convent Walls turned out a bit different that other films to have gotten the nunsploitation tag, which should come as no surprise when considering the director. After making it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to cater to what was expected of him from critics with Immoral Tales (1974) and having offended every uptight dweller of police society imaginable with The Beast (1975), Borowczyk had been virtually blacklisted from the good graces of critics (not that he cared at all), and Behind Convent Walls could be seen as yet another example of Borowczyk’s refusal to pander, essentially telling the “proper” critical and societal establishment to basically go fuck themselves. Behind Convent Walls was an interesting addition to Boro’s filmography in that it was an Itialian production, making it one of only two of his feature films to be shot outside of France. It’s also an important film as it was the first of his films to feature the amazing Marina Pierro, something myself and I’m sure many other fans are eternally grateful for.

Abbess Flavia Orsini rules her convent with a tyrannical iron fist, shielding her nuns from every possible form of temptation, dealing out harsh forms of punishment to any who disobey. The sisters however have grown increasingly resentful of their Mother Superior and her draconian ways and much to the dismay of Abbess Orsini begin acting out in even more rebellious fashions. The arrival of Rodrigo, the hunky nephew of the convents Father Confessor whom Abbess Orsini allows to study in the convent doesn’t help matters much, even causing Sister Clara (Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife) Abbess Orsini’s niece, considered by her aunt to be a shining example of piety to feel “impure” thoughts. Abbess Orgini cracks down on the sisters once again, although the sisters begin to fight back, taking things a bit too far prompting an intervention from higher up’s in the church, the consequences of which are rather sinful.

Borowczyk had taken not so subtle shots at the Catholic church in pervious works, perhaps most notably during the final segment of Immoral Tales, but with Behind Convent Walls (Interno di un convento) he dedicates an entire film to outright lampooning them. Lampoon is defiantly an appropriate word, as the film is more of an over the top parody rather than a serious critique of the church and indeed the films comedic elements are one the main selling points. Although it came as no shock to Boro fanatics, what may or may not surprise first timers is just how funny the film really is, especially if you share Borowczyk’s blasphemous sense of humor. Scenes such as Pierro’s Sister Veronica, who REALLY loves Jesus, ecstatically describing Christ’s psychical attributes to the Father Confessor or a nun physically demonstrating the usage of a certain wooden foreign object found in her room to an absolutely aghast Mother Superior had me in stitches, plus it’s really hard not to be in hysterics due to the overall absurdity of some of the situations the film presents,  not to mention the reactions of the church authorities to the happenings during the films hilariously chaotic finale. The film’s narrative is incredibly loose and while it technically doesn’t really tell a cohesive story, I don’t think Borowczyk intended it too. Had he tried to tie everything together more neatly the film had the potential to become convoluted, but as it stands, the episodic, dare I say liberated nature of the film is more than suitable.

There were many factors at work which resulted in Behind Convent Walls becoming not only one of the most gorgeous but also one of the most unique looking films in Borowczyk’s body of work. First, the cinematography, handled by the legendary Luciano Tovoli. The film makes prominent use of natural light, which along with being economical played a substantial part in the film looking the way it does, it really wouldn’t be the same without it. What’s also interesting about the photography in the film is the usage of filters in certain scenes. Tovoli is known for his hatred of filters, but compromised with Borowczyk which was a good thing as the filters, working hand and hand with the natural lighting and Borowczyk’s soft focus give the film an incredibly spellbinding effect, the way it makes the light from a window or the white on the nuns habit all the more radiant. One wonders if there was a bit of sarcasm on Borowczyk’s part in making sections of the convent and the nuns wardrobe more glowing, more “holy” looking so to speak. Borowczyk’s history as a painter is also on display here, most notably in terms of texture and color, the reds and greens in the film are particularly brilliant. The film also features a good amount of handheld camera work which fits in perfectly with the films fun and playful way of going about things, and to top it all off there is the mesmerizing organ dominated score sure to put you in a blissful daze.

Again, Behind Convent Walls marked the first time Borowczyk worked with Italian beauty Marina Pierro who would go on to become his muse for the next 10 years appearing in the films Immoral Women (1979), Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981), The Art of Love (1983), and Borowczyk’s final feature film Love Rites (1988). She also famously co-starred in Jean Rollin’s 1982 classic The Living Dead Girl. Although her role in Behind Convent Walls isn’t a staring one (I don’t really think you could describe any of the performers roles in the film to be “starring”), the scenes involving her character are certainly some of the most memorable. Behind Convent Walls is perhaps one of the easiest of Borowczyk’s films to get into for the uninitiated yet still remaining an acquired taste as most of Boro‘s polarizing body of work tends to be, and probably always will. It’s a film that is liable to surprise many a viewer that go in with preconceived notations on account of the “nunsploitation” label, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a nunsploiation film quite like this. It’s stunning direction, photography, hypnotizing use of music (which was something you could always count on Borowczyk for), bizarre and oftentimes side splitting humor mixed with eroticism make Behind Convent Walls the type of film that only Borowczyk could have made, and the most fun 95 minutes you could spend with a group of nuns. Absolutely essential.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I Confess (1953)

While not every film that Alfred Hitchcock ever made was a flawless masterpiece, if you ask me a good majority of them were, and the ones that aren’t are damn close to being so. That’s why the term “lesser Hitchcock” has always made me chuckle a bit. It’s been said numerous times over the years by many, myself on here included, that these so called “lesser” films of Hitchcock more often than not wipe the floor with the work of other directors considered to be their very best. Case in point, I Confess. Sandwiched in between the more popular Strangers On a Train (1951) and Dial M For Murder (1954), I wouldn’t go so far as to call I Confess “obscure”, but it does appear to be one of Hitchcock’s least discussed films, at least by more casual film fans that may only know of the bigger names in his body of work, which is a shame as I Confess deserves to be a part of any Hitchcock fans collection. Based on a play that Hitchcock first saw performed in the 1930’s, I Confess was a very personal project for Hitchcock considering the subject matter and his Catholic upbringing, Hitchcock had been toying with the idea of brining the play to the screen for at least 14 years before the project finally got the green light. Again, as is the case with a lot of the films to get the “lesser Hitchcock” tag, I Confess is a brilliant piece of work, exactly the type of film that dare I say only Hitchcock could have pulled off this effectively.

When an attempted robbery results in murder, the man responsible, Otto Keller,  immediately retreats to the church where he works as a caretaker/handyman of sorts and confesses the crime to Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). When the police begin to investigate the crime, all the circumstantial evidence points to Father Logan as the murderer, however do to the rules of the confessional privilege, that is a priest cannot divulge anything that is said during confession, Father Logan is unable to speak out in his own defense. When Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), an old flame goes to the police in an attempt to clear Father Logan’s name, her plan backfires as she not only fuels the police’s case against Father Logan, but implicates herself in scandal in the process.

I Confess may be one of Hitchcock’s more low key films but it quickly reveals itself to be no less gripping than his more widely seen works. All the classic Hitchcock elements are in play here. You’ve got murder, the wrong man accused, blackmail, scandal, and of course, repression. What makes I Confess a bit different from other Hitchcock films is the way Hitch puts all these devices to work. Not many filmmakers can get away with having all the seemingly crucial information regarding a murder spelled out for the audience within the first 10 minutes of the film, but Hitchcock uses the murder as a primer to build additional drama and keeps piling on intrigue after intrigue. In a way it’s somewhat similar to what he did 5 years earlier with Rope (1948). The suspense you’ve come to expect from Hitchcock is ever present, but it’s a different kind of suspense, if you will. Really an interesting way of telling a story, and in the wrong hands has the potential to horribly misfire. Hitchcock’s mastery of audience manipulation is on display beautifully here, tricking you into thinking the film is going in one direction than taking a sharp left turn so it’s hard to not be completely engaged for every frame. Another aspect of the film that makes it stand out  bit is the humor that Hitchcock was known for usually injecting into this films is all but gone here, although with the heaviness of the material, it might have seemed a tad out of place, so the absence is understandable.

One thing that’s apparent throughout the entirety of I Confess is nobody utilized the black and white medium quite like Hitchcock. Very much a film of shadows,  it’s obvious Hitch really had fun playing around with the lighting here, as evidenced in the films ominous noir-like opening complete with the aforementioned shadows, including a large silhouette projected on stone wall and the outline of a shady character walking down a dark alley in the night (wearing a black derby and long black coat of course). Other times Hitchcock will only light certain portions of a scene, such as focusing on Clift standing in the middle of an extravagantly decorated altar while also highlighting the section of the massive cathedral ceiling hovering above Clift in an otherwise pitch black church. Naturally the film is overflowing with Catholic iconography and visual metaphors which take center stage during a particular memorable sequence involving Father Logan contemplating his fate. The visuals in the film tell just as much a story as the actors, oftentimes representing the mood of the characters, which would account for the overt darkness on display. It’s as if Hitchcock wants that preverbal dark cloud following Father Logan around to follow the audience as well. In sharp contrast to this is the segment of Baxter’s character of Ruth reminiscing about the past, which has a very soft, light and romantic look. The film was mostly shot on location in the gorgeous city of Quebec, and as a much welcomed added visual bonus Hitchcock takes great pleasure in showcasing the cities old world-esque architecture.

For 1953, a lot of the film’s thematic elements were considered quite taboo, and indeed Hitchcock found himself at odds with not only the Hayes Production Code but also with some church officials where he originally had intended to shoot some of the film who had some major issues with the original script which was very faithful to the play and demanded changes be made. The film even found itself banned in Ireland. What’s also not surprising are the stories of Hitchcock constantly butting heads with star Montgomery Clift during the production as Clift was a method actor which drove Hitchcock nuts, something he would encounter again later in his career with Paul Newman during the production of the equally underrated Torn Curtain (1966). Probably the most famous anecdote involves the filming a scene which had Father Logan simply approaching another character taking well over 2 hours to shoot because Clift wanted to get the mannerisms just right. Whatever Clift’s methods were, they paid off big time, resulting in a phenomenal performance, really one of the best leading men Hitchcock ever had in a film that deserves way more recognition than it gets. I Confess might be missing Hitchcock’s unique brand of humor and while the film might not feature one stand out scene that has gone down in cinematic history ala North By Northwest (1959) or Psycho (1960), as it stands, the film really doesn’t need one. In the grand scheme of things, I Confess should be considered essential Hitchcock.