“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” - Sergio Leone (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, 1966) was the third installment of Sergio Leone’s famous Man with No Name Trilogy (aka Dollars Trilogy), whose earlier offerings were A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Although at the outset Leone did not have the intention of fashioning a trilogy and the plots of the three films were not serially connected, they all featured the same iconic lead – the laconic gunslinger, “The Man With No Name”, played by Clint Eastwood.  Also, because they were Italian productions and were all released in the US in a single year, 1967, American critics began referring to them (and their subsequent Italian progeny) collectively as “Spaghetti Westerns”.

Each successive film in the series was more grandiose and had more than double the budget of its predecessor.  But each one still had Leone’s distinctive cinematic stylistics:
  • wide-view long shots tightly intercut with sequences of extreme closeups.  These are used to orchestrate the numerous and deadly man-to-man confrontations in the story.
  • an episodic plot structure operating in the context of some predominant issue (usually money), with each episode culminating in a confrontation.
  • scenic landscapes and settings that immerse and isolate the viewer in an atmospheric context.
  • moody, evocative soundtrack music by Leone’s longtime friend and former classmate Ennio Morricone.
  • And always there is the Man with No Name, whose gunshot marksmanship (along with that of other key principals in the stories) is impossibly accurate at long distances, while there thuggish adversaries always miss.
All of these effects combine to establish a highly expressionistic interior landscape for the viewer, who becomes completely immersed in all the tense psychological confrontations that arise. In some respects we might refer to the whole collection of these effects as “operatic” and somehow appropriately Italianate, considering their source. In any case Leone was a master of this expression, and to see one of his films is to enjoy plunging deep into the emotion-laden waters he fashion. And with each successive output of the Dollars series, Leone went deeper and more emphatically into his form of orgiastic expressionism; so that with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly it was almost reaching self-parody. 

The film’s story concerns the efforts of three ruthless gunslingers who are independently seeking a cache of stolen money.  It was scripted by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni, with assistance from Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. The three desperados are

  • “Blondie” (The Man with No Name, played again by Cline Eastwood).  He is calm, calculating, and merciless.  Since among the three main characters he is the least evil, he represents “The Good” in this story.
     
  • “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef) is a cold-blooded and sadistic psychopath who, unlike Blondie, seems to take pleasure in carrying out his hired assassinations.  His nickname is a cynical reference, because his eyes are not so much angelic as they are demonic So he is “The Bad” in this story.
     
  • Tuco (Eli Wallach) is the stereotypical Mexican scoundrel. Although he is also a vicious criminal, he is not so cool and cold-blooded as Blondie and Angel Eyes.  He likes to ingratiate himself with others, but he is clearly a phony who will double-cross at the least opportunity.  He is also obsessed with his own low-standing dignity and is eager to take revenge when he feels insulted.  When he does take his revenge, he goes overboard in mocking and insulting his adversary.  At the same time he will try to take advantage of anything that could be of use, no matter what.  Thus whenever he is around death, he is reminded to make the Christian Sign of the Cross, just in case that gesture might gain him some protection from God. Thus he represents “The Ugly”.
Since Eastwood and Van Cleef appeared together in the preceding For a Few Dollars More, one is tempted to link the two stories, especially since both characters wear pretty much the same outfits in the two films (Van Cleef is always the “man in black”). However, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865), almost a decade earlier than the time setting of For a Few Dollars More, so at best it would have to be considered a prequel.  But even this linkage is weak, because the two characters played by Van Cleef are very different in the two films.  In For a Few Dollars More Van Cleef plays Colonel Douglas Mortimer, a former Confederate Army officer and a more principled individual; whereas in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Angel Eyes, he is a sometime officer in the opposing Union army and a cruel sadist.

In any case what distinguished The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the earlier films is the utterly uncool character of Tuco.  He occupies a considerable amount of the narrative, and his psychological vulnerability becomes a focus of the viewer’s attention as the story moves along.  Some people might be put off by the stock characterization of Tuco and see it as an example of ethnic bigotry.  It is interesting that the actor in this part, Eli Wallach, was Jewish and famous for playing stock characters of a number of different types.  On the whole I would say that Wallach’s performance here is very good, and even in spite of the oftentimes over-the-top characterization, his Tuco essentially energizes the entire story.  This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the film.

If there is an overriding theme to Leone’s tale, it might be about death, itself.  Throughout the story there are people being killed in a matter-of-fact fashion, and the total body count is very high.  This suggests a cavalier, even flippant, attitude towards death.  On the other hand, maybe that is the film’s sardonic and self-mocking point.  The artificial notion of the Western Hero is held up to ridicule in Leone’s films as merely a hollow justification for mindlessly lethal violence.  And this point is further hammered home by the film’s showing how still more absurd is the notion of war heroism and even the very idea that war has any justification at all.  The film is set in the midst of the US Civil War and provides a sample illustration of how a country with a population of less than 35 million could engage itself in the senseless process of self-mutilation that led to 750,000 war deaths.

The story of the film passes through roughly six episodic stages.
1.  Introducing the Three Principals
The film begins with a classic Leone opening scene showing a murderous confrontation without dialogue.  Three bounty hunters have come to kill the wanted criminal Tuco, but Tuco shoots them and manages to escape. 
Then in a separate episode, the deadly contract killer Angel Eyes confronts a man named Stevens.  Only via a lengthy process of slow disclosure will the viewer eventually learn that three men – Stevens, Baker, and Jackson, the latter of whom has changed his name to Bill Carson – stole a large sum of money from the Confederate Army. This money will be the target prize for the three principals of this story.  Angel Eyes has been contracted by Baker to kill Stevens and then coerces Stevens to contract him to kill Baker, after which he kills both of them and gets doubly paid.

The third episode of this act introduces Blondie.  The wanted man Tuco has at this point been captured by three more bounty hunters, but Blondie intervenes and kills them.  Then he captures Tuco and turns him in to the local sheriff to get his $2,000 reward.  But when Tuco is about to be publicly hanged in the center of town, the precision marksman Blondie shoots from a distance through the hangman’s rope, enabling Tuco to escape.  Blondie’s intention is to repeatedly run a scan operation, turning Tuco into the authorities to collect his reward and then freeing him at the hanging site so that they can split the reward and do it all over again.  However, Tuco proves to be too cantankerous for Blondie to tolerate, so he cold-bloodedly takes the still hand-cuffed Tuco out into the desert some 70 miles from town and leaves him there to die.

So at this point we know how vicious and cold-hearted each of the three protagonists is.

2.  Tuco’s Vengeful Pursuit
Tuco somehow manages to make it back to town alive, and he is determined to take out his revenge on Blondie.  This is the subject of the second act, with a considerable focus on Tuco.  Although Blondie kills the henchmen assassins Tuco hired, Tuco does capture Blondie in another confrontation, but his repeated attempts to execute Blondie are interrupted by extraneous war-related events.  Through one of these events, Tuco learns from the dying Bill Carson that there is a treasure buried under a grave at the Sad Hill Cemetery.  However, only Blondie, still Tuco’s  captive, manages to serendipitously find out under which of the many graves in the vast cemetery is the treasure buried.  Blondie, of course, refuses to tell Tuco what he knows, so the two of them have to work together from now on. Being unprincipled opportunists, these two once sworn enemies have no problems now becoming allies.

3.  War Interruption 1
Tuco and Blondie, now wearing stolen Confederate army uniforms, get captured by a passing Union army and placed in a prison camp, which, as it oddly turns out, happens to be overseen by Angel Eyes, who is now operating as a Union army officer.  Seeking information about the treasure, the sadistic Angel Eyes has Tuco cruelly tortured in a lengthy scene lasting eight minutes.  As in past Leone films, the torture portrayed would kill ordinary people.  Tuco survives, but reveals everything he knows.

Angel Eyes now dispatches his deputy to take Tuco on a train back to a town to be hanged.  Then he decides to team up with Blondie to find the buried treasure.  Again the unscrupulous scoundrels change partners at the first opportunity.

4.  Shifting Alliances
In the fourth act the alliances will shift once again.  Tuco manages to miraculously jump from his train, kill Angel Eyes’s deputy, and escape. He makes it to town and encounters a previously-seen bounty hunter who appears ready to kill him.  But in a memorable moment, the bounty hunter first taunts Tuco, who then shoots him dead, after which he admonishes the corpse,

    “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk.”

Meanwhile Blondie, not trusting Angel Eyes and his five henchmen, chooses to bolt.  He runs into the just-escaped Tuco, and the two of them decide to reunite and work against Angel Eyes.  In a typical Leone-styled shootout, they knock of Angel Eyes’s men one by one, but Angel Eyes, himself, gets away.  So they decide to head for the Sad Hill Cemetery.

5.  War Interruption 2
Before they can get to the cemetery, though, they are captured again by the Union army, and we come to Leone’s anti-war segment of the film.  The Union and Confederate armies are engaged in a mutually annihilating slaughter over the control of a bridge.  Blondie and Tuco need to get to the other side of the river, but they cannot go anywhere while the two armies are relentlessly engaged in suicide charges.  So they decide to blow up the bridge with stolen war explosives; and once they do so, the senseless killing stops, and the two armies withdraw.

6.  Finale at the Sad Hill Cemetery
The last act, for which the viewer has been waiting for more than two hours, takes place at the cemetery, where Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes converge.  And Leone plays it up for all it is worth.  When Tuco arrives at the cemetery, he begins running desperately, searching for what he thinks is the right grave (but, of course, he has been deceived by Blondie).  As he does so, the camera begins panning past the graves he is running past, and the swirling images lapse into a deliriously accelerating montage that lasts for three minutes.

When Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco finally confront each other and are ready to draw their guns, they move into a classic three-way Mexican standoff.  Nobody will die until somebody makes the first move, but each has to decide at whom he will take aim.  Leone builds up the tension by showing a shifting montage of momentary extreme closeups of the three desperados lasting more two minutes.  This is probably the most memorable sequence (among many candidates) of the film. Then the shootout ensues. In the end they do find the money, but you will have to see for yourself who winds up with it.
Perhaps the outstanding feature of the film is the way the cinematography and editing build up psychic tension throughout the tale.  Famed cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli was working on his first Leone film, but he would continue to do the cinematography for Leone’s three remaining features. One aspect of this camera work I particularly liked was the way the extreme closeups have the characters almost, but not quite, looking straight into the camera.  This has a slightly unnerving effect on the viewer that heightens the tension.  And all of these shots are tightly integrated into the flow by the editing of Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli. 


Perhaps because of this fascinating mise-en-scene, a number of reviewers rate The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as the best film of the Man with No Name trilogy [1,2].  However, although I think this is a good film, I still think For a Few Dollars More is a more tightly integrated and effective work.  The problem, for me, with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is its self-conscious indulgence in the comedic, and it all comes down to the Tuco character as presented by Eli Wallach. Admittedly Wallach’s performance provides vitality to the film, and his character of Tuco is one that we get to know much better than Blondie and Angel Eyes.  But this spoofing performance interferes with the suspension of disbelief, which is crucial for films of this nature. 

Comparatively speaking, in For a Few Dollars More, the viewer is immersed in a tense and constantly life-threatening world that holds together in the viewer’s mind.  Not so in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the coherence of such a tense world is constantly mocked.  In For a Few Dollars More death is a disturbing possibility that might appear at any time, but it is more often a threat and not always a desired goal.  In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, death becomes a joke, a game earnestly pursued by all three principal characters.  Depending on your tastes, you might buy into this spoofing, but such a flippant approach undermines the overall effectiveness of the expressionistic presentation.

Sergio Leone’s movement towards the self-parody seen here in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would not continue, however.  His best films, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), were still to come, and they presented further expansions of his expressionistic scope.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): Sergio Leone's Epic Tale of Greed and Betrayal”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (March 2012). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, Rogerebert.com, (3 August 2003).  

Ebrahim Golestan

About Ebrahim Golestan:


Films of Ebrahim Golestan:

"The Brick and the Mirror" - Ebrahim Golestan (1965)

Ebrahim Golestan’s remarkable first dramatic feature, The Brick and the Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965), is sometimes seen as a groundbreaking early work of modern Iranian cinema.  But I would go further and say it stands as one of the great films on any world stage. It certainly deserves a wider viewing audience if a digitally restored version of the print can be made available.

Golestan, born in 1922, established himself early on as a writer, translator, photographer, and documentary filmmaker [1,2]. He set up his own film production company in 1956, and in 1958 met and hired the brilliant young woman poet Forough Farrokhzad, who aspired to be a filmmaker and with whom he began a romantic and working partnership that continued until her tragic death nine years later [3].  They collaborated on her mesmerizing documentary film, The House is Black (Khaneh Syah Ast, 1962) and soon began working together on Golestan’s initial feature film, The Brick and the Mirror, in 1963.  They started production shooting with only the first nightmarish scene in script form, and they improvised the rest of the narrative as they went along [4]. Given some of the film’s interesting personal thematic elements, I suspect that Farrokzhad’s’ contributions to the story were significant [5].

The story of the film concerns a taxi driver in Tehran who discovers that a woman passenger (played by Forough Farrokhzad) has left a small baby in the backseat of his cab.  After his frantic attempts to track down the woman fail, he is faced with the problem of what to do with the child.  The rest of the film is concerned with his efforts to do the right thing and at the same time stay out of trouble.

The loneliness of the nocturnal urban milieu evoked in the early scenes of the film may remind some viewers of past American movies set in the “asphalt jungle”, and indeed Tehran was a rapidly growing metropolis going through the same depersonalization processes that had beset cities the world over. Given the city’s underdeveloped mass transit facilities at the time, the streets were crowded with cars and taxis, and being a taxidriver there was a reasonably lucrative, if exhausting, way for an uneducated man to make a living. But taxi drivers were also perpetual witnesses to the stress and alienation of the big city.

Perhaps from considerations along these lines, some reviewers see The Brick and the Mirror as being concerned with social issues in pre-revolutionary Iran [1].  But for me the film’s themes run more along existentialist lines, and a more interesting comparison would be to Taxi Driver (1976).  In fact given that both Taxi Driver’s director, Martin Scorcese, and its scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, were graduates of famous academic film schools, I wonder if they had been exposed to and influenced by The Brick and the Mirror prior to the making of their film.

In some ways, though, The Brick and the Mirror concerns more universal aspects of existence even than Taxi Driver, and to me it had perhaps greater affinities with Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). Both L’Avventura and The Brick and the Mirror are primarily concerned with love and what it means to love. And the ways they explore and engage us concerning this topic are what makes them both great films.

A key aspect to any love concerns commitment: to what extent is one going to permanently lock down his or her life and devote it to one person. Given the ephemerality of most love relationships, young people are understandably cautious on this score.  But commitment is not just something concerned with love; it is a major issue with respect to all of modern life.  Given the relatively higher degree of autonomy that modern people have, they need to consider their options carefully at all times.  Keeping one’s options open for as long as possible means keeping the door open to making a decision later in the day, when more information is available to make the right decision.  So delaying commitment is a recommended strategy in connection with many modern activities. In particular, the strategy of delaying commitment is a recognized optimal policy in the field of software engineering [6].  If we can build a software module with a minimally prescribed interface; then we are only committed to the interface, and we can change the module’s internals further on down the line.  Of course we can delay commitment, but we cannot avoid it forever.  At some point we must seize the opportunity and engage.

So young men, in particular, are often committed to delaying commitment, and this goes for romantic relationships as well as everything else in life.  The idea is to keep your options open and make sure that you do not get locked into a disastrous situation. Being a taxidriver is a perfect occupation along these lines.  The driver just takes on short transport jobs and is only committed for the term of that ride.  This way, he doesn’t get locked into an unbearable position.  This is the world view of the main character, Hashem, in The Brick and the Mirror.

The story of the film is told in ten scenes that can be grouped into four acts.  Acts 1 and 3 focus on the protagonist Hashem’s concerns about delaying commitment.  Acts 2 and 4, on the other hand, emphasize, by means of Hashem’s interactions with his girlfriend Taji, the importance of seizing the opportunity, which is the countervailing option to delaying the commitment.

1.  Hashem in the Night with an Unwanted Bundle

In the opening atmospheric night scene the taxidriver Hashem (played by Zackaria Hashemi) takes a woman wearing a chador (a full veil – many middle class women did not wear the chador at this time in Iran) to a dark urban area and drops her off.  After she disappears into the night, he realizes that the woman left a baby in the backseat of his cab.  He runs after her with the baby and comes upon an abandoned building project, but he cannot find her.   Instead he only encounters a couple of lost souls and a forsaken woman who seems to be on the edge of madness.

Not knowing what to do with the abandoned baby, Hashem visits his customary evening hangout, a local nightclub, where his usual drinking companions are gathered. This gang of Damon Runyonesque characters immediately offers him their views on what to do: disengage. They swaggeringly tell him the whole thing is likely to be a trap, and if he tries to find the baby’s mother, he will only get into trouble. One young pal, with a more intellectual bent, waxes eloquently on the virtues of concealing the truth with lies.  All in all, they are telling him to avoid commitment and to keep his options open.

So Hashem takes the baby to the police station, but the officers there offer him no support.  They are only committed to doing the minimal as defined by the law.  Doing the “right thing” is not their concern, it is only a matter of identifying and punishing who is guilty.

2.  Hashem with Taji
Coming out of the police station and still carrying the baby, Hashem meets his girlfriend Taji (Taji Ahmadi), who had been briefly seen earlier at the nightclub.  They argue about what to do with the baby, until Hashem finally accepts that she can come over to his flat for the evening and help him look after the baby.

The 32-minute scene in Hashem’s one-room apartment is beautifully done – it is shot mostly from a low angle and is a film highlight.  Here the story focusses on Taji’s compassionate engagement with the baby and with Hashem, and Taji Ahmadi’s performance in the role is beautiful.  Taji emerges as the narrative counterweight to Hashem and becomes an equal protagonist.  Hashem loves Taji, but it only for the present moment; there is no commitment for tomorrow.  He has too many practical concerns to worry about: his limited funds, the always-watchful and intrusive neighbors, and the dangers lurking around the next corner.  For her part, Taji loves Hashem, but for her it is different – it is all the way.  She wants to cast her fate to a life with him.  And she feels the baby offers them a heaven-sent opportunity to engage together deeply with life.

There is a beautiful two-minute shot of Taji, with Hashem’s help, attending to the baby.  Then there is an extended scene of the two of them in bed in the dark – wonderfully performed and unusual in Iranian cinema. Taji later tells Hashem that the baby watched them making love and approved, thereby confirming and sealing their family union.

In the morning Hashem is shown self-absorbedly doing his daily bodybuilding exercises by swinging traditional meel weights.  He then goes out with the baby, telling Taji not to go out of the apartment alone during daylight, when nosey neighbors might see her and draw dark conclusions. 

3.  Hashem at the Government Offices
Hashem takes the baby to a hospital, but they won’t accept her unless she is proven to have no identified parents. Like the police, they don’t want to engage with Hashem’s human problem; they already have too many problems with abandoned babies to deal with.  So he has to go to the government law offices and seek an affidavit verifying the baby’s parentless situation. 

At the government tribunal offices, there is an extended montage showing Hashem wandering from room to room looking for the right person to talk to.  He finally approaches a well-dressed and clearly lettered man filling out a form at a public writing stand, and he asks the man if he would write a letter for him.  It as at this point that Hashem is revealed to be functionally illiterate.  Hashem wants the man to write him a formal letter to the tribunal office requesting authority to adopt the baby. Being unmarried, he cannot mention Taji in the application letter, and so he has to ask if he can adopt the baby on his own.  Anyway, momentarily at least, he seems to have succumbed to Taji’s wishes.

However, the lettered man dismisses Hashem’s plans as foolhardy. Raising a baby is only trouble, he tells him, and it will diminish his freedom. Again, as in Act 1, Hashem gets a strong warning to avoid commitment.

4.  Hashem Returns to Taji

When Hashem returns to his flat, Taji tells him that she loves him and asks about the baby.  To her horror, he tells her that he just dropped the baby off at an orphanage. There is then another beautifully shot and extended scene showing the two of them arguing about the baby. To Taji the baby represented all of her dreams of being with Hashem. The baby was to be the seed and the bond of their married life together. To Hashem the baby only meant trouble and was a problem that he had now solved.  He did not want bad things to happen. But this is where Taji’s point is eloquently made, when she tells him,
“If you let things happen to you, you’re lost.”
In other words, you have to take action.  And when he dismisses her wacky dream of the two of them raising the baby together, she tells him,
“To be awake you must dream.”
Since he has so rudely thrown away her beautiful dream, she tells him that he is only a coward and that they should break up.  She asks him to take her to the orphanage to see the baby.

In the 12-minute scene in the orphanage, Taji, on her own now, sees all the innocent babies there looking to play and be hugged, and she becomes increasingly despondent. This is an emotive and rueful scene suggesting life’s always hopeful beginnings and rarely fulfilled outcomes. 

Meanwhile outside on the city street, Hashem is alone and wanders past a TV store showing on the TV screens inside the same lettered man he had seen earlier in the day at the government offices.  But now the lettered man is shown expressing the homily that the good life necessarily entails doing one’s duty to help his (or her) fellow man.  Engage with your brothers, he is effectively saying. This is just the opposite of what he had told Hashem privately at the government offices. 

The closing shot shows Hashem driving away into the soulless urban darkness.


When The Brick and the Mirror was released, it was not well received by either the critics or the Iranian viewing public [2].  Nevertheless, I think it is an outstanding film.  The wide-screen mise-en-scene of Golestan and cinematographer Soleiman Minassian has both an expressionistic presentation and an existentialist feel to it.  One feels while watching it that one has been projected into a Dostoevskian world, where people eloquently, but naturalistically, make comments of philosophical resonance. There are a number of brilliantly conceived shots that linger in the memory. I have only mentioned some of them. For examples, there is one shot sequence during Hashem’s and Taji’s final argument in a narrow alley when they actually come to blows. But this is interrupted when they have to make way for a funeral procession of men carrying a coffin that brushes past them.  There is another, three-minute, shot of them arguing in the taxi at the end.  And, of course, the orphanage scene is haunting.

Unfortunately, the visual quality of the version of the film that I saw was not of acceptable quality, and the soundtrack was not in sync with the visuals, either.  It is my understanding, however, that the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center has produced a digitally-remastered version of the film [7].  Hopefully this version of The Brick and the Mirror will soon be made available  to a wider audience.

Incidentally, the title of The Brick and the Mirror is said to have been inspired by a line from the great 12th-13th century Iranian Sufi poet Attar [8]:
"What the old can see in a mudbrick,
 The young can see in a mirror.”
You can decide for yourself how that relates to what is told in this film.
★★★★ 

Notes:
  1. Jean-Baptiste de Vaulx, “Viewing Diary: Brick and Mirror (1965, Ebrahim Golestan)”, Cinescope, (1 April 2015).      
  2. Parviz Jahed, “Directors, Ebrahim Golestan”, Directory of World Cinema: Iran, Parviz Jahed (ed.), Intellect, Chicago. (2012). 
  3. See Michael Hillmann, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (1987), Three Continents Press, cited in “Films/Theater”, Forugh Farrokhzad, (http://www.forughfarrokhzad.org/filmstheatre/films.htm). 
  4. Ehsan Khoshbakht, “Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1963-64)”, Notes on Cinematograph, (8 July 2016).  
  5. Forough Farrokhzad had been married at the age of sixteen into an unsatisfactory household, and she had later obtained a divorce at the expense of leaving her small son with his father.  She felt anguish about this lost motherhood for the rest of her remaining life.
  6. Harold Thimbleby, “Delaying Commitment”, IEEE Software, Volume 5 Issue 3, May 1988, pp. 78-86.  
  7. “Khesht va Ayeneh (The Brick and the Mirror). 1965. Written and directed by Ebrahim Golestan”, Calendar, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, (24 November 2015).  
  8. Ebrahim Golestan, “The Brick and the Mirror / Selected Answers from Ebrahim Golestan”, Sounds, Images, (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), (7 May 2007).  

Forough Farrokzhad

About Forough Farrokhzad:
Films of by Forough Farrokhzad:

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2013)

Mohammad Rasoulof’s searing drama Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa Nemisoozand, 2013) is not a political thriller, in the usual sense of that term, but is instead more of a sociopolitical nightmare – one that belongs in the same class as works by Orwell and Kafka.  Like the writings of those two authors, this film creates a haunting psychological tone and atmosphere that overhangs and dominates the proceedings depicted. Note however that in the case of Manuscripts Don’t Burn, it is not a matter of viewing some imagined dystopia, but instead a disturbing depiction of problems in present-day Iran.

In fact the current sociopolitical situation in Iran is an important backdrop to the recent films of both Mohammad Rasoulof and those of his friend and sometimes collaborator, Jafar Panahi.  Both Rasoulof and Panahi were arrested during the 2009 Iranian elections and given 6-year (later reduced to 1-year) prison sentences, 20-year bans from filmmaking, and prohibitions from speaking to the press and traveling abroad.  Nevertheless, they have so far defied the authorities and have managed to make films clandestinely.  In Rasoulof’s case he was able to spend some time outside Iran after the sentencing, and some of the indoor scenes of Manuscripts Don’t Burn were shot in Hamburg, Germany.  But since early 2014 he has had his passport confiscated by the Iranian authorities and cannot leave Iran [1].  His prison sentence is still threateningly on hold.

Basically, the Iranian government does not want Rasoulof to express his ideas publicly, and that is exactly what Manuscripts Don’t Burn is about: freedom of expression.  The story of the film follows the plight of some elderly intellectual writers whose works are always censored and who find themselves constantly under government surveillance.  One of these writers is suffering from some unspecified illness and would like to visit his daughter in France before he dies, but he cannot go, because he is under a travel ban (like Rasoulof).  So he has a plan to persuade the government to lift the ban.  He has prepared a manuscript describing in detail the government’s efforts in 1996 to kill 21 Iranian intellectuals traveling by bus to a conference in Armenia.  By a stroke of good fortune back then, the government’s treacherous scheme of having the bus driven over a mountain cliff failed, and the 21 writers survived but were warned to remain silent about the matter. The current manuscript’s writer was one of those survivors, and his secret (even to his fellow intellectual comrades) plan is to trade the manuscript to the government in return for an exit visa.

Actually, this 1996 attempt to murder 21 intellectuals by crashing their bus was indeed a real occurrence, and it is one of the documented events that were part of the notorious “Chain Murders” conducted by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (VAJA) to secretly murder political dissidents and intellectuals [2]. Rasoulof’s rehashing of this infamous event and making it a key feature of his story must undoubtedly be embarrassing to the Iranian government – a number of the Chain Murder perpetrators have never been held to account and still hold key governmental positions. In fact the entire film seems almost an instance of Rasoulof throwing down the gauntlet towards his despotic antagonists and exposing the perfidious nature of the VAJA ministry.  Because of these threatening political ramifications, then, all the people who worked on the production of Manuscripts Don’t Burn retained their anonymity.  The only screen credits listed on the film are just those showing Rasoulof as the writer, director and producer.

The secretive making of a film like this inside such a surveillance state must have been extremely difficult, and yet the production values of the film are very high.  This is not a quick-and-dirty production off a mobile phone camera.  The acting, presumably mostly by unknown actors, is subtle and convincing.  And the camera work and editing are very professional and smoothly done.  Even the sound editing is well performed. There are some instances of dialogue continuing after an actor has closed his mouth, and I am not sure if this is for intended effect or it was a case of Rasoulof finding it too difficult to reshoot a scene to include some added dialogue.  In any case these are not significant detractions from the film’s overall polished presentation.

The film’s story is told from multiple perspectives and features six principal characters:
  • The Intellectuals
    • Kasra, the writer of the hidden and sought-after manuscript.  He was formerly imprisoned for ten years and is now seeking permission to leave Iran.
    • Kian, a despairing poet
    • Forouzandeh, a wheel-chair-bound, but feisty, novelist
  •  The VAJA antagonists
    • The Commissioner.  He is a former dissident intellectual and prison-mate of Kasra.  He has since become a turncoat and is now the vindictive head of an Intelligence Ministry bureau and seeks to confiscate Kasra’s manuscript.
    • Khosrow, a low-level government hatchet-man
    • Morteza, a low-level government hatchet-man  
The story moves back and forth between these two groups, employing time shifts and slow disclosure along the way to keep the viewer somewhat in the dark and maintain the atmosphere of paranoia.  In fact the opening sequence shows Khosrow and Morteza involved in some kind of caper that foreshadows the closing scene of the film and only becomes clear at the end.

As the leisurely narrative unwinds over the rest of the opening one-third of the film, we see only the two VAJA hitmen, Khosrow and Morteza, and the two intellectuals Kian and Forouzandeh, all of whom seem to be real, ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives. Khosrow, for example, is married and has a seriously ill child who needs urgent hospitalization, for which the worried Khosrow doesn’t have the money.  Thus the viewer is quite likely to sympathize with Khosrow’s anxiety and distractedness.  It is only gradually that we learn that Khosrow is not only paid to murder people but that one of his early assignments was to be the driver of that bus back in 1996 that was supposed to be driven off the cliff and kill the 21 intellectuals inside.  (Note that the real driver of that bus was apparently identified as a person named “Khosrow Barati” [2]).

In the second third of the film, Kasra and The Commissioner come to the fore.  Both of them are pursuing what they believe is their moral duty, and yet they are both compromised individuals. The Commissioner, in particular, is a recreation of the darkly cold-blooded O’Brien from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He is shown to be now obsessively devoted to his relentless battle against  “NATO culture”. Meanwhile Khosrow and Morteza are driving up north and conveying a hooded and bound prisoner in the trunk of their car. One of the examples of slow disclosure in the film concerns the identity of this prisoner: he is introduced in the 13th minute of the film, but his identity is not revealed until 80 minutes later in the story.

It takes some time for us to learn that there were two extra (hard) copies of Kasra’s damning manuscript made, and they were individually secreted with Kasra’s friends Kian and Forouzandeh.  Thus those two latter individuals become targets of the government.  (Why there were no electronic copies made is not explained, but perhaps that was a product of the intellectuals’ paranoia over government electronic surveillance.)

So in the final third of the story, the narrative threads converge, and we come to its excruciatingly grisly finale. There is an agonizingly slow four-minute-long shot showing Khosrow nonchalantly raiding his poisoned victim’s fridge and making a sandwich for himself while he waits for his helpless quarry to die. And the closing sequence, connecting as it does with the film’s opening sequence, brought to my mind Panahi’s narrative arc in The Cycle (2000).

Note that while Kasra and The Commissioner are the inscrutable instigators of the key narrative machinery, it is really Kian and Khosrow who are at the psychological focus of the story.  They are down at the operational level and suffering the consequences of others’ schemes. This is what makes Rasoulof’s film unique. The focus on Kian and Khosrow shows them struggling to find their way in a corrupted social matrix. 

An effective social matrix, as I have commented in connection with my reviews of Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), is one that attends responsibly to the four pillars essential to a successful society, which I call RMDL:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc. They all relate to fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish.
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. Such laws provide for regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Some social advocates think that only Democracy is needed; once that is established, their story goes, then everything else will fix itself.  This was the position of the US Neocons who promoted the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  Others advocate only for free markets and that everything else is secondary.  This is the position of those supporting “Asian Values”, as represented by the views of past Singaporean President Lee Kuan Yew.  Still others, often coming from a religious background, insist only on the importance of a rigid notion of law and exclude consideration of R, M, and D. But in fact all four pillars of RMDL must be supported together in order to have a successful society, and the crucial one that is often neglected is R – human Rights.

Human rights have always been important, but their more explicit formulation that came to lie at the foundation of our modernist culture appeared in the 18th century during the rise of Rational Humanism (it is variously termed, but they are the principles behind the Enlightenment of the 18th century).  Rational Humanism asserted that human reason and human values, rather than so-called “revealed” texts, should be the foundation on which society is based.  This was an age when natural science was making tremendous strides concerning how we can understand the world and advance our welfare. Because of the verifiable success of natural science, many people nowadays think that Rational Humanism only relied on human reason. But Rational Humanism also relied on what we might say are heartfelt feelings [3].  That is, we need to consult the “god” within all of us rather than rely on the uncertain authority of ancient texts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading 18th century figure of Rational Humanism’s rise, called attention to this idea when he  asserted that his basis for moral action was not based on philosophical rules [4]:
"I do not derive these rules from the principles of the higher philosophy, I find them in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be right is right, what I feel to be wrong is wrong; conscience is the best casuist; and it is only when we haggle with conscience that we have recourse to the subtleties of argument."
Although out intuitive feelings can often lead us astray, there is now growing common agreement that certain heartfelt human rights – such as freedom of expression, assembly, movement, and privacy rights – are essential to all.  They are so essential, in fact, that I believe they must stand as one of the four pillars of RMDL.

There is nevertheless always a tension between heartfelt feelings (based on our consultation with the god inside us) and authoritative texts (whether from the exterior God or from external experts).  This tension exists inside most religions, too.  Thus within Sunni Islam there are two opposing tendencies: the Salafists, who are fundamentalists adhering to ancient texts, and the Sufis, who seek a mystical union with God.  The problem with fundamentalist adherence to ancient texts, though. is that they are still written by imperfect humans in a given context and are often outdated.  This means that they have to be interpreted by ecclesiastical “experts”, and this makes them subject to manipulation and exploitation. 

Thus during Manuscripts Don’t Burn Khosrow can be seen struggling internally with the moral rectitude of what he is doing.  He wonders if his son’s illness is the direct consequence of God’s punishment for his torturous murders.  Morteza blithely assures him, however, that the murders they are committing have been directly sanctioned by Sharia law.  This is how society’s foot soldiers can be manipulated into carrying out cruel actions and squashing human rights.  And this is how wars are justified, too. Indeed we can also see evidence of this kind of manipulation in the US today at the highest levels of government when torture has been permitted by manipulating the laws [5].  And nowadays torture can be justified, it seems, on utilitarian grounds alone according to the CIA [6].

So Khosrow, like everyone, has some humanity within him, but he does not have the strength to stand up to the text-based authoritarian social climate in which he lives. In fact human frailty is a key theme of Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The intellectuals are not shown as heroic crusaders, either.  Instead they are despondent idealists who have all but given up any hopes of social justice.  And they are easily silenced and crushed by their unfeeling oppressors.  As mentioned, Khosrow and Morteza are also being manipulated by the system.  They freely exchange religious homilies, such as “Trust in God”, “God is Great”, and “God Willing”, and in so doing reflect their abandonment of any real moral self-reflection.  They are content to just have faith in God’s unknowable plans (as articulated, of course, by the scheming theocratic experts). This is how text-based justifications can be used to manipulate the infantry pawns to carry out unsavory acts.

And today in Western modernist societies there is arising another text-based movement, “Dataism”, which further threatens the Rational Humanism’s advocacy of heartfelt humanism [7]:
According to this view, the entire universe, including biological organisms, consists of particles governed by mechanistic rules of interaction; and with our always accelerating data-processing capabilities, we are now approaching the point where we can participate most effectively in this cosmic system by processing vast amounts of collected data. As Yuval Noah Harari has commented, “given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves”. [8]
Following Dataism to its logical conclusions would mean eventually abandoning our heartfelt considerations and relying on utilitarian-based computer correlations of “Big Data” to make all of our decisions, including those with moral implications.  Thus we now have modern scientists discovering from their data-mining how many animals are eaten by domestic cats (Felis catus) and concluding that they should all be annihilated (“euthanized”), because they are deemed to be an invasive species (not considering the much greater degree to which human beings are an invasive species) [9].  In this respect Kian, in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, was demoralized by how computer technology and “the Cloud” is distracting everyone, too, when he observed that today’s younger generation in Iran is mindlessly immersed in Facebook and Twitter postings and is unaware of how the data from these interactions can be used against them.  What we really need to do in the face of all these tendencies to subvert our humanity is at least to ensure freedom of expression and other human rights so that we can share our heartfelt views and arrive at consensuses concerning common issues.

Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn reveals how basic human rights can be so ruthlessly violated by a system in Iran that manipulates text-based religious accounts for its own exploitative continuance. The individuals shown in the film are not inherently evil, but instead reveal the banality and wider scope of evil. To guard against these difficulties, the preservation of human rights such as freedom of expression enables us generally to share our heartfelt views and arrive at an agreed-upon and mutually beneficial course of action. Restricting public expression and demanding fealty to prejudicially interpreted orthodox texts only sustains the exploiters. Rasoulof offers no solution as to how to ensure human rights, but he does reveal the extent of the problem facing us.  It is not just a matter of dealing with a few troublemakers; it is more a matter of correcting a system that denies freedom of expression and thereby enables the troublemakers to perpetuate their exclusive control.  His film, which has received many positive reviews [10,11], is not likely to be a box-office crowd-pleaser, and it has so far mostly only gained film festival exposure (of course like most all of Rasoulof’s films, it is banned in Iran).  Nevertheless, this is a penetrating and thought-provoking work that should be seen by everyone.
★★★★
   
Notes:
  1. Sune Engel Rasmussen, “An Iranian Dissident Returns Home”, Aljazeera America, (3 July 2014). 
  2. Muhammad Sahimi, “The Chain Murders: Killing Dissidents and Intellectuals, 1988-1998", TehranBureau, Frontline, PBS: Public Broadcasting System, (5 January 2011). 
  3. See the comments in my review of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). 
  4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or Education [1762], Barbara Foxley (trans.), New York: E.P. Dutton, (1921), Online Library of Liberty
  5. Jed S. Rakoff, “‘Terror’ and Everybody’s Rights”, The New York Review of Books, (29 September 2016). 
  6. Spencer Ackerman, “No Looking Back: the CIA Torture Report's Aftermath”, The Guardian, (11 September 2016). 
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ - Stanley Kubrick (1968)”, The Film Sufi, (30 August 2016). 
  8. Yuval Noah Harari, "Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will”, Financial Times, (26 August 2016).    
  9. Natalie Angier, “The Killer Cats Are Winning!”, The New York Review of Books, (29 September 2016). 
  10. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Mohammad Rasoulof, Review”, The Vore, (n.d.).
  11. Godfrey Cheshire, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, Rogerebert.com, (13 June 2014).     

“Day of Wrath” - Carl Dreyer (1943)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), though esteemed by critics as one of the great filmmakers, is someone whose works are relatively unknown to modern audiences [1,2]. Over the last thirty-six years of his career, he directed only six films – notably The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964) – and they are all singular creations that defy easy categorization. Nevertheless, each has the common feature of being imbued with Dreyer’s uniquely expressive human focus that seems to point to some transcendent reality beyond everyday circumstances [3]. One might say his films are “spiritual”, but Dreyer’s films go beyond the usual religious connotations of that term (Dreyer, himself, was not particularly religious) and seem to probe the very nature of existence itself.  All of the five above-listed films are engaging in this manner, but there is one work that stands out as not only being Dreyer’s best film, but also one of the greatest films ever made – Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

The story of the film is based on the Norwegian play Anne Pedersdotter (1908) by Hans Wiers-Jensse, which was set in the late 16th century during the height of the witchcraft trial hysteria, when many women were burned at the stake for allegedly being witches under the influence of Satan.  In this story the principal character is accused of witchcraft.  Dreyer had wanted to make a film of this play since seeing it for the first time in 1925, and he was finally able to achieve his goal, resetting the film in Denmark, some twenty years later during the German occupation.  Many people have felt that the depiction of dogmatic oppression in the film alludes to the Nazi oppression of Jews of that time, but Dreyer always denied that Nazi oppression was a major theme of the film [4].

Dreyer was more concerned with existential themes, such as what can guide us towards a meaningful and compassionate path in life. Clearly there are multiple perspectives on something so general as this, but Dreyer, with his Day of Wrath, gives it one of its most poetic and poignant cinematic expressions.

A fascinating aspect of Dreyer’s films is his cinematic style of expression.  For one thing certainly all his films have an expressionistic flavor, and Day of Wrath is particularly seasoned with it. And yet his reserved human characterizations set in spare, conventional settings seem to offer an unusual psychological naturalism, too. He seems to achieve this compound of expressionism and naturalism by means of his characteristic mise-en-scene, involving
  • a steady diet of medium composition shots, often shot from a lower angle;
  • shadowy, chiaroscuro lighting with facial highlighting that enhances the atmosphere;
  • slow, deliberate tracking shots about a room, sometimes concurrently including a reverse pan;
  • emphasis on the light-sculpted human face – in particular there are many extended reaction shots of principal characters in response to a preceding remark or event.
Interestingly, Dreyer’s camera often lacks a consistent narrative point of view – as if the camera disavows standing in for a quasi-charatcterological “invisible witness”, as it does in many films, but instead takes on a more abstract narrative role.  This can sometimes be jarring, with camera-axis-crossing cuts cropping up in key scenes, but in Dreyer’s films it can somehow strangely add to the transcendental feeling of the viewing experience.

In Day of Wrath there are two main psychological perspectives (vital autonomy versus guilt-laden supervision), and they are presented by showing the characters who represent these two perspectives in parallel for much of the film.  This parallel presentation of two conflicting moods is a key aesthetic feature of the film. The story is not really partitioned into separate acts, but instead seems to have a continuous, dreamlike flow to it.  Nevertheless, we can identify three phases to the story.

1.  A Witch is Condemned
In the opening sequence an elderly woman, Herlofs Marte (movingly played by Anna Svierkier), is declared on 12 May 1623 to have been suitably denounced by three “upright” parishioners for being a witch and therefore must face trial. We will soon see that such church trials invariably entail extended torture, a forced confession, and then a public execution of being burned at the stake.  The first shot of Herlofs Marte, a tracking shot lasting 2:38, shows her apprehension at home when she overhears shouting outside on the street calling for her arrest.  She sneaks out the back way and off into the village outskirts.

In parallel with Herlofs Marte’s flight, the film introduces Anne Pedersdotter (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman in her twenties married to an elderly Christian pastor, Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose).  Absalon’s adult son, Martin (played by Preben Lerdorff Rye, who would later star in Ordet), who is the child of Absalon’s deceased first wife and is some years older than Anne, returns home from abroad and meets his new “mother” Anne for the first time. We are also introduced to Absalon’s stern mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who clearly disapproves of her son having married such a young and attractive woman as Anne. Throughout the film Merete is shown in scowling reaction shots silently expressing her disgust with Anne and everything she represents.

Shortly thereafter when Anne is alone at home, she is furtively approached by Herlofs Marte, who is seeking a place to hide from the punitive townspeople. Herlofs Marte desperately informs Anne that Anne’s now-deceased mother had once “confessed” to being a witch, but that the confession had been suppressed by Absalon so that he could marry Anne.  So it should be her moral duty to protect another woman from the accusation of witchcraft. 

Although Anne does help Herlofs Marte to hide, the poor woman is discovered and taken into custody to confess.  Subsequently in private, Herlofs Marte threatens Absalon that she will reveal his cover-up of Anne’s mother unless he helps her now.  Although Absalon is alarmed by this threat, he is too much a part of his authoritarian rule-governed system to help her (even though he helped another woman in such circumstances when it suited his purposes), and he merely tells the woman that he will assist her to find salvation in the afterlife.  She tells him, desperately,
“I fear neither Heaven nor Hell.  I am only afraid to die.”
Meanwhile Anne and Martin go walking out in the fields together and display a growing friendship.

Eventually Herlofs Marte is duly tortured until she confesses to being a witch.  Then in a truly memorable scene, with Anne (after an atmospheric 49-second tracking shot showing her wary approach   to her lookout) looking on in alarm from an upstairs window, the woman is bound to a stake and burned to death.  So this first third of the film has set up the forbidding social landscape in which of the rest of the story involving Anne, Absalon, and Martin will take place.

2.  Anne and Martin
The second phase of the film depicts the growing attraction between Anne and her stepson Martin.  In the background is the ever-scowling grandmother, Merete, who tells her son Absalon that he will finally have to choose between God and Anne.

Absalon, worryingly trying to mollify Anne’s anguish over Merete’s harshness, tells Anne about her mother’s confessed witchery.  In a moment of passion at this apparently rare moment of intimacy between the two of them, Anne embraces Absalon and tells him to express his passion for her:
“Hold me and make me happy”
But Absalon nervously withdraws from the embrace and tells her he has too many things to worry about now. 

Meanwhile Anne, far from being horrified by the revelation of her mother's presumed witchery, silently wonders if she herself has inherited some witchcraft powers to summon the living and the dead. After Absalon leaves the room, she quietly whispers to herself, “Martin, come.” And he does. And they kiss, thereby confirming their mutual passion.

There are now parallel cuts showing Absalon brooding inside alone while Anne and Martin are outside among the birches loving each other in another poetically beautiful scene.  Anne tells Martin, “Hold me tight. . . Make me happy.”  And he does.

From the earliest signs of the growing passion between Anne and Martin, the viewer knows that their forbidden love is an impossible dream.  We know it cannot survive and that it faces a doom that is the essence of tragedy.  But Anne’s growing glow is undeniable.  At a family Bible session, Anne quietly and joyfully reads a passage from the “Song of Songs” (a Biblical celebration of sensual love), much to the displeasure of the frowning Merete.

There is then a truly wonderful scene of Anne and Martin alone together outside in a rowboat and talking together.  Anne is joyful; Martin, like us, is worried;
Martin: How alive your hand are. . . your fingers. . . your wrist.
. . . . . . .  I can feel your pulse beating.

Anne: Beating for you!

Martin: The sun is coloring your cheeks. 

Anne: Not the sun, happiness!

Martin: Happiness? How long will it last?

Anne: Forever!

Martin: Anne, where will we end up?

Anne: Wherever the stream leads us!

Martin: One day. . .

Anne: Don’t think about it.  So much can happen.

Martin: I see my father before me all the time.

Anne: I see only you.
3.  Final Accusations
Absalon has gone out during stormy weather to conduct the last rights for a dying fellow church official.  At home, Anne is seen to be increasingly assertive, and her hair is correspondingly less covered.  Alone with Martin and thinking aloud about Absalon, she wonders, “I often think, if he were dead . . . “ That, of course, would change everything.  She further wonders to herself (and in a parallel cut to the home-returning Absalon, the unseen narrative witness wonders along with her) just what strange powers her human mind may actually possess.   

When Absalon finally returns, he is obsessed with death and sin.  After Martin retires for the night, Absalon confesses to Anne his sin of robbing her of her youth.  Anne responds vindictively, confirming his guilt and even accusing him of abandoning the marriage bed and leaving her childless.  She harshly tells him further that she has wished that he were dead and that she and Martin are now lovers.  With that Absalon cries out and falls down dead.

Did Anne cause Absalon’s death?  Martin is unsure, but after making Anne swear her innocence over Absalon’s coffin during the vigil, he promises to stand by his love if she is accused. Later, though, at Absalon’s funeral, Merete vengefully asserts that Anne did indeed kill Absalon and ensnared Martin with the help of the “Evil One”: she is denounced as a witch. Martin, weakening under the maternal social pressure of guilt, caves in and turns against Anne. 

Anne has now been abandoned by everyone, including the person to whom she had hitched her fate.  She is asked before the funeral congregation to avow her innocence, and in the film’s closing shot she tearfully succumbs and confesses that she must be a witch.


From the outset is was clear that theirs was a forbidden love over which was cast a dark shadow of impending tragedy.  Even so, Anne’s final submission to effectively self-immolation comes as a disturbing shock at the close of the film.

At the end of the film, we are left to contemplate what it is that drives so many people towards cruel punishment. Everyone errs, even Anne, but why must so many people be cruelly punished or executed for the sake of “justice”?  Although most of the characters in this story are obsessed about guilt, there are no clear identifications of the guilty and the innocent in this tale.  They are all too human.
  • Anne fell deliriously in love, but she also lied when the occasion suited.
  • Herlofs Marte did dabble in witchcraft, but she seems very human, too.
  • Merete, mostly concerned about scandal and her family name, was resentful, but she did love her son.
  • Absalon’s whole life was concerned with guiding people away from sin, and yet he is revealed to have sometimes been a hypocritical opportunist.  Nevertheless, he comes across as a basically well-meaning and innocent person.
  • Martin, like Absalon, was caught between love and loyalty to a doctrinaire ideology.
Religions and ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism have all been formulated with the intention of leading the human world to justice and optimal welfare. But all those ideologies that do not recognize the importance and rectitude of individual human rights can always serve as tyrannical instruments that justify cruelty [5]. So it was with Protestant Christianity in the witch-hunt era, and so it has continued ever since.  At the very heart of our salvation must be a social doctrine that emphasizes compassion and eliminates punitive resentment.

A connection can be made in this regard to our understandings (usually misunderstandings) of femininity. There is a mystery about life that far exceeds the capacity of our rational understanding, and women embody this mystery right in front of us. In light of these eternal mysteries, authoritarian communities in the past often attributed unknown causal powers to women and then blamed them for causing the inexplicable and unwanted.  Women were often the natural targets for blame concerning the otherwise unaccountable. Narrative accounts of this kind of persecution are what we see in Day of Wrath and also in Satyajit Ray’s similarly exquisite Devi (1960) [6].  But we must remember that women are not only naturally mysterious, they are also naturally compassionate.  And furthermore, perhaps that compassion and that mystery are inextricably parts of the same thing.

Dreyer’s films, especially here in “Day of Wrath”, show an appreciation for femininity unlike most filmmakers other than Kenji Mizoguchi and Satyajit Ray.  As I remarked in my review of Vampyr [7],
"Dreyer, like Mizoguchi, always had a fascination and sensitivity for the feminine role in human interactions . . . Like Kenji Mizoguchi, the feminine role is not an abstraction for Dreyer, but is always a very physical presence in his films. Yet it is far distanced from the typical male fantasy of a feminine abstraction. . . . Von Sternberg’s women are idealized and viewed from the man’s perspective. But throughout Dreyer’s career, his women, like Mizoguchi’s, are grounded in the physical world, and yet have some strangely 'spiritual' dimension, too."
Anne in Day of Wrath is full of life and sensuality – and full of the wonder for life, too.  Dreyer prohibited actress Lisbeth Movin, who played Anne, from wearing makeup in the film, in order to promote her natural feminine allure – not the abstract beauty of fantasy.  And sure enough, Movin is compellingly beautiful in the role.  Indeed, after their first kiss, Martin told Anne that her eyes were not childlike (as Absalon had described them), but “deep and mysterious”, in whose depths he saw “a trembling, quivering flame”. This is the mysterious feminine allure that in this film is crushed by resentment-filled dogma. For our future salvation we should not turn away from this feminine mystery, but instead look in its direction.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Derek Malcolm, “Carl Dreyer: Day of Wrath”, The Guardian, (6 April 2000).    
  2. Gary Morris, “Carl Dreyer: Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud on VHS”, Bright Lights Film  Journal, (1 July 2000). 
  3. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).
  4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Figuring Out Day of Wrath, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001). 
  5. Gary Saul Morson, “The House Is on Fire!”, The New Criterion, vol. 35, no. 1, (September 2016). 
  6. The Film Sufi, “‘Devi’ - Satyajit Ray (1960)”, The Film Sufi, (14 November 2013).  
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Vampyr’ - Carl Dreyer (1932)”, The Film Sufi, (8 October 2009).