This film opened the Cannes Film Festival Critics Week in 2017. It also received scripting support from the Sundance Festival. It has finally found its way into UK distribution via Altitude and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it. The festival links suggest an art film, but this is also a film that draws on popular film genres such as romance, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, it’s the kind of film that has received rave reviews and also some very negative ones – but here’s why it is definitely worth seeing.
The starting point for writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was a terrible event in 1993 which had an impact on most Sicilians. It involved the Mafia and led to much soul-searching across the population. But instead of attempting to tell the story in a realist, procedural manner, the filmmakers (from Palermo) decided to create a form of fantasy/ghost story because that seemed to be a more appropriate way of representing the impact of the events.
The narrative begins as children leave the elementary school in a village in the hills of Central Sicily. A rather beautiful young boy wanders into the woods and is followed by a girl from his class. She hides behind a tree watching him playing with a large colourful butterfly which rests on his hand. Around the girl’s feet a creature is snuffling, a mustelid of some kind (mink, pine marten?). Whatever it is, this is an animal usually very wary of humans. We seem to be in a fantasy situation. A little later the girl is frightened by an angry black dog. Hansel and Gretel in the woods? We will eventually discover that these thirteen year-olds are Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). Their day ends when Giuseppe, after showing his show-jumping skills on his horse at a remote stables, suddenly disappears. As Luna sits on a rock gazing into the distance, waiting for Giuseppe to emerge from the stables, we see behind her and slightly out of focus what appears to be a police car taking the boy away. When Luna goes to his house, she can’t find any reason why Giuseppe has disappeared.
I won’t spoil the narrative development. I’ll only note that while the rest of the village, including Luna’s parents and the village school, remain silent about the disappearance, Luna and her friend Loredana are determined to find him. Luna is a highly intelligent girl, a talented artist and someone who has the ability to investigate the disappearance in her dreams/nightmares as much as in her waking hours. In the still above she creates what might be an image from her dreams. The drawing reminded me of a recent Spanish-British film, A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016), though in Luna’s case she wants to rescue Giuseppe from his captors and not summon them. The director of A Monster Calls is J. A. Bayona, whose career took off with promotion by Guillermo del Toro and it is del Toro who is arguably the key reference here with the young girl, the fairy underworld and the all too human horrors of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain-Mexico 2006). There are a number of generic ‘fairy tale’ touches in Sicilian Ghost Story with a pet owl, a falcon and Luna’s rather grim mother (the Swiss actor Sabine Timoteo). One reviewer has described the overall look of the film as ‘gothic and oneiric’ [dreamlike], which feels like a good call. Luna’s red coat (and red jumper) have also been seen as a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now set in Venice – but ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ seems a better bet.
Luna’s searches, whether ‘real’ or dreamlike are accompanied by winds and especially by underwater scenes in a nearby lake. I thought the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi was excellent – and so it should be since he has been responsible for the look of many well-known Italian films by Paulo Sorrentino and other celebrated directors. Music and sound design is important too with a variety of sound effects enhancing the dreamlike qualities of Luna’s search. I’ve noted that there have been criticisms of the film. Some have complained that the dividing line between reality and fantasy is never clear, but that seems an odd argument since it is presumably the point of the narrative that the experience of the disappearance and its aftermath is difficult to understand and represent as a real event. The real events took place in 1993-5 but the film doesn’t mark this too carefully and it probably makes mistakes in presenting the period settings as eagle-eyed audiences have noted. I suspect the film’s ending will also cause problems for some audiences, but not for me. Overall I found the film to be an imaginative attempt to deal with a major social issue in ways which allowed me to think differently about how communities and individuals within them might respond to terrible events.
This is a tough film which disturbs but which has at its centre an extraordinary performance from Julia Jedlikowska in her first role. The narrative is fuelled by the determination of a single character to keep searching despite the collective hostility of an entire community, most of whose members are too frightened to take action themselves. Luna’s friend Loredana is a reliable friend but without Luna’s devotion to Giuseppe, she will eventually find that time will heal. But I’m wondering what will happen to Luna.
There is an interesting review of the film here.
This is a new title directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman which they have adapted from their original stage play. Andy Nyman also stars in the film as ‘Professor’ Goodman. He is actually an investigator with his own television show. His investigations are into fake spiritualist. His guru in this activity is Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) who apparently disappeared some years earlier. But Cameron re-appears and asks Goodman to look into three claims of mystery sighting of ghosts or equivalents. The three investigations occupy much of the film so it operates a little like a portmanteau film.
The BBFC advised that it was ‘strong horror [and] language’. In fact there were only a couple of serious shocks/surprises and the only amount of schlock is right at the end of the film. In between we see Goodman investigate by interviewing the subjects of these ghostly events. The witnesses never complete their stories as we face an abrupt cut at a moment of high tension. The third event is completed verbally after a similar cut.
Such ambiguities are deliberate because the way the narrative works leads up to an unexpected ending. In fact the publicity poster or the film requests audiences not to reveal the ‘secret’ of the ending. What I can note is that the film opens with Goodman’s voice-over narrating flashbacks to his childhood. And one of the aspects of the film is the way that experiences in childhood and at school haunt adults later in life.
I saw the film at a Picturehouse preview. It is fairly well done. The ghostly sequences are effective and not especially scary. The film uses the 2.35:1 frame and there are some well photographed exteriors. The sound adds to the atmosphere with both effects, noises and music. And there is a popular song which emphasises the resolution of the film. The cast also offer an effective representation of characters and events. Jeremy Dyson is from Leeds and there are a number of Yorkshire locations in the production.
The presentation was preceded by a publicity poster on-screen. The film does not quite justify the hype here. But what was slightly odd was that it contained deliberate misspellings [that are not in the standard poster] with reverse lettering and exchanged letters in some of the text. I could not figure how this related to the film. I had also seen the trailer earlier which contained one character who claimed the events were ‘unexplainable’. I found this inexplicable.
Spanish cinema has a high reputation for genres such as horror, fantasy and science fiction – whether the films are aimed at cinéphile audiences, mainstream Spanish audiences or more cultish followers. The Night of the Virgin, as the title perhaps indicates, is skewed towards the third option, though it perhaps has some pretensions to attract the first. This is a horror film trading in disgust, but also trying to make some political points – though whether these are accessible to audiences outside Spanish culture is debatable.
It’s New Years Eve and the film’s first trick is to invite us to a live Spanish TV programme preparing for the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bilbao – the extract is presented as a small 4:3 image within a CinemaScope frame. (IMDb suggests the film’s ratio is 2.70:1 ‘Ultra CinemaScope’.) Eventually the TV image expands to at least fill the frame vertically and then the image switches to the full ‘Scope frame to show a bar/night club where the titular character is attempting to find a woman to take away his virginity on the last night of the year. It looks like he will have no luck but at the last an attractive older woman invites him back to her apartment.
The virgin, Nico (Javier Bódalo) has borrowed a dress shirt and jacket to go out but he seems bewildered by the club. He’s also being goaded on by his mates and we see their text messages to him. Soon his hormones take over and a familiar scenario from teen horror emerges – he will seek a sexual adventure and something will go wrong. When he and the woman, Medea (Miriam Martín) reach her dingy apartment block, she warns him not to step on a cockroach as it will bring him bad luck – but, of course, he immediately does. We assume that he doesn’t know the story of Medea the sorceress. This Medea seems to have embraced sorcery from a different culture but she is certainly not to be messed with. What follows is a horror narrative with some comic elements which involves every kind of bodily fluids. It explores the desire for and fear of sexual acts and their place in rituals. Will Nico survive the night? What else goes on in this old apartment block? The narrative has a twist and the film ends with another TV broadcast which this time reports from outside the apartment block.
Would I recommend the film? I’m afraid that I don’t feel competent. I’ve seen enough Spanish horror and read enough Spanish history to know that there are some possible satirical/political points here but I can’t work out what they mean (apart from the attack on those idiotic New Year’s Eve TV programmes). This form of ‘body horror of disgust’ is not for the squeamish and unfortunately that includes me. The film has an 18 certificate for its UK release (strong violence, gore, sexual violence, sexual activity). Writer Guillermo Guerrero and director Roberto San Sebastián have produced a film that seems to have attracted extensive interest by specialist film festivals around the world. The film’s promotion cites many prizes and many glowing reviews from horror fans – “Disgustingly Unforgettable”, “Extreme, Grotesque and Gloriously Insane” are just a couple of them. The film is arguably too long but the music is entertaining.
It’s available from Matchbox Films, release date April 2 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK.
A film that ‘launched a thousand’ replicas: not quite but there are sixteen plus Japanese remakes or sequels. There are also numerous US versions: the original was re-edited and dubbed for the US market. Among the changes the US version downplayed the dangers of nuclear weapons, a key theme in the plot.
Beverley Bare Buehrer, in a commentary on the film recorded that:
“Toho executive producer, Tanaka Tomoyuki, saw the 1953 American film Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He liked the film and coupled it with an actual event which happened in March of that year, the exposure to radioactive fallout of Japanese fisherman on the tuna boat, Fukuryu Maru, sailing in an area too close to an H-bomb test America had used near the Marshall Islands.”
Forgiveness is obviously a Japanese characteristic since they have co-operated with the Yanks since then rather than initiating economic boycotts.
The film was an expensive production by Japanese standards of the time. The film’s special effects relied on a skilled specialist Tsuburaya Eiji. I found the design of the production by Chuko Satoshi still convincing last time I saw the print. Tamai Masao’s black and white cinematography is finely done, [academy ratio]. The film’ soundtrack by Shimonaga Hisashi uses special sound effects. And the music by Ifukube Akira is especially effective. Director Honda Inoshiro orchestrates these talents into an excellent 98 minutes of action.
Whilst techniques have moved on and developed in the intervening decades the film stands up really well. The script is by Murata Takeo and Honda Inoshiro and the plot develops at a fairly fast pace and offers character relations as well as a monster and large-scale destruction. It is also the type of film that looks better in a 35mm print. So happily Hebden Bridge Picture House is using this format for a ‘reel film’ screening on Saturday February 3rd. The last time I saw the film the print was in good shape.
We enjoyed a good-looking 35mm print. The visual and aural special effects stood up well as did the monster and its rampages. Some of the plot is conventional but the recurring references to the US nuclear bombing of Japan are powerful. There is a reference to Nagasaki and a number of sequences that recall the horrors of 1945. There is also an interesting debate amongst the scientific characters about what should be done about the monster. Definitely a classic.