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Under the Sun of Satan
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by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

"Weighty yet well-made drama"
4 stars

Loaded with tormented priests, "fallen" women, and enough Catholic angst to submerge Sicily, UTSOS (as we'll call it) is about as serious-minded as films get. It is not a crowd-pleaser. Indeed, when it was announced as the winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, director Maurice Pialat was greeted with boos from the audience as he took the stage (he responded with an obscene gesture).

Gérard Depardieu plays a priest undergoing a spiritual crisis, who attempts to rescue a young murderess from the clutches of Satan. It's got that self-tortured Dostoevskian vibe running through it (though it's based on a novel by Georges Bernanos, a very similar novelist), except that Dosteoevsky knew how to make his characters colorful and interesting--a lesson seemingly lost on Pialat. This film regularly threatens to collapse under pure soul-searching gravity. When Depardieu stares out a window and muses "Does my life have a meaning?" or when Sandrine Bonnaire uncorks leaden dialogue like "Why aren't we like animals? They live and die unthinkingly," it very nearly turns into a stereotypically arid exercise in Euro-pretention. It does not, however, and the sum effect of UTSOS makes up for the laborious bits.

Even with its overlong scenes and existential posturing, UTSOS carries authentic weight. The dialogue is absorbingly dense, though admittedly sometimes stilted (I wonder if it sounds less so in French). What the characters say means something worth thinking about--they're not just talking to advance the plot.

Pialat has taken on a huge task in attempting to dramatize a priest's internal conflicts, and it's remarkable how close he comes in succeeding. Film is--as you've heard a thousand times before--a visual medium; it's hard to portray introspection on the silver screen. Pialat doesn't altogether pull it off; you can sense the gaps in Depardieu's priest, and it gives the character a certain fuzziness around the edges. And yet the film's climax has real power, as Depardieu calls on a seemingly absent God to revive a boy dying of meningitis. It is a strong, memorable scene, all the more so because Pialat doesn't force melodrama into it.

For all the film's defects, it contains a very pertinent question: is the world ruled by God or Satan? or, to give it a secular interpretation, by good or evil? The answer Pialat offers is very far from the New Age platitudes favored by Hollywood--and that's altogether to his credit.

The film's high seriousness will turn off many, but this is a thoughtful movie in the best sense of the word.

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originally posted: 02/24/03 13:03:30
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User Comments

3/21/03 Raphaela Monribot "fuzzy aroun the edges", yes. But some great dark scenes, and remarkable acting by Bonnaire 4 stars
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