Sunday, August 27, 2017

209. French director Maurice Pialat’s French film “Sous le soleil de Satan” (Under the Sun of Satan) (1987) (France): Interacting with Satan when one is perplexed by the silence of God

Any review of the film Under the Sun of Satan ought to state the following factoid upfront.  When the movie was announced as the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (with the jury declaring that it was a unanimous vote), the audience whistled when the director Maurice Pialat made his way to the stage to receive the award. Pialat's response to this was to raise his fist, replying: "I won’t be untrue to my reputation. I am, above all, happy this evening for all the shouts and whistles you’ve directed at me; and, if you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either." That stated, this critic would have voted as the honourable jurors did, if he was hypothetically serving on that jury. It is an extraordinary film by a very important filmmaker—pugnacious and unsentimental. Pialat only made 11 feature films. Under the Sun of Satan would easily be among his best two films—the other being A Mouth Agape (1974). Pialat was critical of the French New Wave. He made his first film at age 43, and died at 77. He went on to influence filmmakers such as Leos Carax, Chantal Akerman and Catherine Briellat.  This critic, too, finds the work of Pialat superior and more satisfying compared to the films of Godard and Truffaut.

Under the Sun of Satan is admittedly not a film that can be appreciated by an average viewer.  It is a film that has commonalities with at least two masterpieces of world cinema: Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the French director Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951).  Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Seventh Seal are the live spoken and physical interactions of good Christian human beings with Satan and the perplexing silence of God. Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Diary of a Country Priest are that both films are based on books written by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) and both deal with idealistic and intensely spiritual Roman Catholic priests serving parishes in rural France frequently interacting with their senior colleagues. Much of the three films are both theological and dense for an average viewer to appreciate, all the more if the viewer is not familiar with Christian literature, especially Thomas à Kempis’ 15th Century book Imitation of Christ. Bernanos, in his book The Diary of a Country Priest, states that a mediocre priest is always sentimental and mediocrities are a trap set by Satan. In Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan, the troubled younger priest Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) is shown making notes of certain parts of Imitation of Christ, as he studies certain passages of the book.

All the above details would assume that Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan is a film where Satan is defeated. It is more a film where the filmmaker acknowledges the presence of Satan around the best of us and God appears to be a silent spectator. While the end of the film suggests the increasing public reverence of Donissan’s powers to bring the dead to life—the key question Pialat and Bernanos seem to be asking of the viewer (and the reader of the book) is whether the latter day powers of Donissan  to do miracles comes from God or from Satan. It is a film and book that describes a situation where Satan can influence the most well meaning and pious of Christian priests. Pialat’s film is more about Donissan being aware of the immediacy of the Devil than of God in life.

Satan (right)  meets Donissan (Depardieu) the priest

Satan's conversation with Donnisan

Pialat’s film goes not merely to the extent of depicting Satan as a fellow traveller following a tired and troubled priest on a long journey on foot in the night but ends the long peripatetic discourse between the two with a scene where the Devil even sexually harasses the priest when he lying on the ground to rest his tired legs. The Devil kisses the priest, but Pialat shows the Devil wiping his own mouth after that action, indicating perhaps the priest is still too holy for him to corrupt.
Richard Brody writing about the film in New Yorker (issue of 7 May 2013) assesses the film succinctly when he wrote “Pialat has made a nonbeliever’s film about the psychological, social, and metaphorical power of religion. He shows that if religion is anything at all, it’s tough stuff that gains its moral authority not by easing the fears of believers or reconciling them to evil but, rather, by imbuing them with the terrifying yet awe-inspiring sense that immense and cosmic powers are here at hand, to submit to or to wrestle with.

Donnisan (Depardieu) meets Mouchette (Bonnaire): devoid of carnal attraction

How did Pialat make monumental film of the first novel of Bernanos? First, he chose the actor Depardieu to play the tormented young priest. Depardieu is a giant of a man physically and Pialat gets him to essay a man burdened by an invisible cross, tiring himself by walking long distances day and night, scourging himself in self mortification, not seeing in 16-year-old Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) any carnal desire but concern of the evil that has overpowered her life and ways to absolve her sins. Pialat transforms Depardieu from a ladies’ man to a brooding monk who remarks “I am a zero, only useful when next to other numbers,” to his senior priest Menou-Segrais (Pialat himself). Pialat’s decision to play the senior priest to Depardieu’s junior priest is that of a Svengali of sorts, even though he too has his own problems with faith, drawing ironic parallels in film of a director and his actor, with both Donnisan exhibiting a constant love-hate relationship. The body language of Depardieu is amazing to note in this film, especially with the large-sized actor downsized to an ant-like figure in long shots of the countryside captured by cinematographer Willy Kurant.

The imposing physical stature of Depardieu metaphorically reduced in size  
by Pialat and his cinematographer Willy Kurant set against 
the natural grandeur of rural France 

The side-bar events of Mouchette’s young life exploited by evil men and Mouchette killing of one of her lovers are not important to the film compared to the priest’s unusual ability to see Mouchette’s amoral actions from afar and even talk to her after she has committed a murder. Another side-bar event of Donnisan reviving a dead child is more Pialat’s/Bernanos’ commentary on Satan allowing Donnisan to believe that he can achieve miracles by manipulating his spiritual pride.

Pialat's and Kurant's touches: Light and shadows;
reflecting Bernanos play of words on sun and Satan

Bernanos’ title “sun of Satan” is a clue. Can Satan provide light?  When Satan appears to Donnisan it is in the night. Pialat and Kurant show Donnisan towards the end of the film covered in shadows rather than in light.  

Director Maurice Pialat plays Menou-Segrais, the senior colleague
of Donnisan (Depardieu)

This is a film where Donnisan equates morality with "hygiene of the senses." It is a film which talks of inner life being a battle of instincts. It is no ordinary film, it is quite complex. Yet it is not a film that most viewers will comprehend and easily appreciate.  But then that is true of most works of director Pialat.

The enigmatic ending in the confession box:
"I didn't know evil--I learned it from the mouth of sinners."

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Pialat’s 1974 film The Mouth Agape earlier on this blog. (You can access the review by clicking on the name of the film). 

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