Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review - The Priest and the Girl

May 2, 2019

The Priest and the Girl – Brazil, 1965

If I were a betting man, I’d wager quite a bit that Joaquim Pedro de Andrade‘s 1965 film The Priest and the Girl is a film that has been praised quite a bit for the very things that drove me crazy – the strangely undeveloped characters, the relationship that feels forced, and its atmosphere of deceit, because of which one can never truly be sure exactly who is telling the truth. In a way it reminded me a bit of a David Lynch film, the kind in which a reviewer praises the look, feel, and mystery of what they witnessed, but cannot adequately explain anything that happened in the film past the first five minutes. To be fair, The Priest and the Girl is not that ethereal, but it frustrates just the same.

For the first twenty minutes, though, The Priest and the Girl is set in a world that is remarkably straightforward. The film is set in a poor town which seems to be under the control of its richest merchant, Fortunato (Mario Lago). In the first opening moments, we watch as a priest (Paulo Jose) is escorted into the town and led to a room where the town’s vicar, Padre Antonio, lays dying. We watch as he whispers something in his replacement’s ear, his last confession perhaps. It is implied that he stared at a young girl (Helena Ignez) sitting on a bench as he did this.

The girl is, of course, a central figure in the film; in fact, she is the catalyst for much - if not all - of the chaos that follows. Like the female protagonist is Leon Morin, Priest, another film that is often overpraised, she will test the faith of the new priest, although her motives remain murky, and he starts acting as if he belongs in a Luis Bunuel film. During a conversation with the much older Fortunato, Mariana states that some time earlier Padre Antonio propositioned her, and that this is what he revealed in his last confession. As a result, Horatio begins to think that he should put a ring around her finger as a means of cementing her status as his possession. The two of them have a back story that is unnerving, yet entirely believable. Suffice to say, the new priest is asked to perform the ceremony, a request that begins his rather stunning fall from grace.

So, what exactly is my problem with the film? Well, for starters, the film becomes enamored with the nonsensical ramblings of one of its least developed characters, a pharmacist named Vitorino (Fauzi Arap), who at one point refers to Mariana as both “a demon sent by God” and “a saint sent by the devil.” Such monikers seem to suggest that she has some sort of unholy power that completely undoes men, removing their will and forcing them into a pursuit of her that will ultimately lead to their demise. To me, this was an excuse to explain away the willingness of men to initiate actions that their better angels should have successfully cautioned them against, but later in the film, I got the feeling that the film was buying into the idea that Mariana rendered men essentially defenseless.

This would not bother me so much were it not for the fact that the film also wants to present the film’s central storyline as a love story, one that includes two characters feeling content to die in each other’s arms – hardly the result of an attraction based solely on some preordained supernatural force. It made me recall Masahiro Shinoda’s masterful film Double Suicide, in which two characters are brought together and pulled toward death seemingly against their will. At times, they voiced their confusion at their own actions. Here, the priest just comes across as fighting temptation.

But what about Mariana? Is she really some curse sent by a higher or lower power, or is she simply a young woman trapped by circumstance and looking for someone – anyone – to take her away from the prison her life has or will become? I’m afraid the film can’t make up its mind, and the result is a muddle of a middle and a rather convenient finale. The middle sets it up as desperation and convenience; the finale put us on track for an ending befitting of Shakespeare, and rarely did Shakespeare have people resort to fraught acts out of anything less than true love. In The Priest and the Girl, such sentiments seem wholly unearned.

And yet, the film mesmerizes in several ways. First, de Andrade successfully created a noir-ish world in which darkness is ever-present, and men are doomed the moment that they are target by the film’s version of a femme fatale. Second, the film looks absolutely stunning. We feel the dusty, lonely existence of the town’s residents, as well as the momentary relief that a single look from a woman like Mariana would stir in people otherwise beaten down by inequity in a town in which medicine seems scarce and debt is crippling. We understand both the necessity of religion and the attractiveness of avarice.

Still, the film didn’t work for me. Once Mariana sets her sights on the young priest, the film loses its footing, becoming about… well, I’m not exactly sure what it is about. Young, forbidden love? A schemer using her sexual prowess to escape a domestic prison? A curse from heaven? By the end of the movie, I was nowhere closer to being able to put my finger on it. All I knew is that something felt off. Perhaps it was the quirky character whose every word and mannerism rang false. Maybe it was the way certain scenes were shot so safely that it was impossible to get a good read on what exactly had transpired in them. It could also have been the awkward way in which some of the dialogue is delivered or the unnatural behavior of some of the key characters during pivotal moments in the film. Whatever it was, it kept me distant from the film, unable to invest fully in its characters or their fates.

I suppose it would have been better narratively to have given the priest and Mariana a past connection, yet to do so would have utterly negated many of the attributes ascribed to Mariana. If Mariana is truly an unstoppable force of nature then she should have been clearly presented as one, and it should have been obvious that the priest was acting against his will instead of writhing on the floor as if he was merely torn between his oath to God and his newfound love for a vulnerable woman. He should have been cursing her for intentionally putting him on such a doomed path. Instead, he embraces her as Romeo would have Juliet had he delayed taking the elixir just a moment longer. By the time, the credits rolled I wasn’t sure what I had seen, and like Inland Empire, I had no desire to revisit the film to find out. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Kino Classics’s Joaqim Pedro De Andrade: The Complete Films)

2 and a half stars

*The Priest and the Girl is in Portuguese with English subtitles. 

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