Saturday, May 23, 2020
Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule #48 Under the Sun of Satan  ★★
Even a cursory glance at the year’s main competition slate raises eyebrows. Did the film truly deserve to win over Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen, one of the very greatest West African films ever made? Or Tengiz Abuladze’s maddeningly overlooked glasnost fantasia Repentance? Or, perhaps most infuriating of all, Wim Wenders’ transcendent Wings of Desire? The answer to all of these is, in this critic’s humble opinion, a resounding, definitive no.
Whatever truth, beauty, or meaning the jurists saw in Pialat’s ponderous religious drama in 1987 hasn’t survived to the present day. Based on a book by Roman Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, the film follows a priest played by Gérard Depardieu living in 1920s France who, in the midst of a crisis of faith, has an unexpected encounter with Satan while traveling down a country road. The experience leaves him shellshocked, but also capable of peering into the soul and inner thoughts of the people around him, powers which he uses in a disastrous attempt to save the soul of a pregnant teenager named Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) who murdered one of her lovers.
Unlike Robert Bresson who adapted two of Bernanos novels into two of the most starkly powerful theological dramas of mid-century European cinema—Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Mouchette (1967)—Pialat gets lost in sententious dialogue and philosophical ouroboroses, resulting in a film that glazes the eyes and numbs the mind despite its ravishing beauty. There’s little meaning, and even scarcer theological truth, in this confusing, opaque blob.