by Freda Bruce Lockhart
FOUR new movies raise fundamental social and artistic problems of the visual media. Despite the camera's supposed incapacity to lie, shifting relations between fact and fiction. actuality and documentary, realistic history and myth, expose the spectator to the now acknowledged danger of confounding illusion with reality.
Pope Joan ("AA," Columbia from October 26) rakes up that old legend about a female Pope popularly supposed to have occupied the Holy See for a couple of years in the mid-ninth century, at a time when it was vacant only for ten weeks between the known papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III.
This discredited fable was for centuries a favourite figment of anti-Papal, antinon-history. But it offers a rich field for exploitation in any period of crisis and controversy in the Church.
It has medieval spectacle, the pseudo-religious "epic" (in the traditions of C. B. De Mille), Vatican pageantry familiar on the big screen since at least Holy Year 1950, all set in the context of fashionable fads and protests including "Women's Lib" ("There is nothing that says you cannot be ordained"), unisex. advocacy of using the Church's wealth to shelter the "homeless refugee children of Rome," and even a bathing scene with Pope Leo in a Roman bath.
Ac:ording to the film's producers, when they submitted
the screenplay (by John Briley) to Vatican officials, these stated they had "no objection provided the film was not treated sensationally." It's a fair standard. If we may compare "Pope Joan" with, say, "Camelot," this is. not an excessively sensational variation on the fable of the female Pope.
Opening and closing titles in ajropriate Gothic lettering attribute the story to legend. Liv Ullman gives a sober and sincere performance in her travesty role, first in peasant homespun and nun's habit (under Mother Superior Olivia de Havilland); then, when her hair has been shorn with a blunt ploughshare by a fellowrunaway. Brother Adrian (Maximilian Schell), in neat notary's garb, next as an elegant young cardinal and so to the full grandeur of papal robes.
Joan's end, when she appears to give birth on the steps of St. Peter's, and to be trampled to death by the indignant crowd, seems almost restrained compared with the sensational 13th century version (headed simply "QUERY") which has her dragged at a horse's tail for half a league while being stoned by the crowd.
For a Catholic to watch Vatican ceremonial re-enacted for such a mockery must be offensive. For anybody it is also sad to see Trevor Howard's superb sketch of a wise and wily old Pope (Leo IV) contributing to this circus.
The film is directed by Michael Anderson, who made a fairly good jai of "Shoes of the Fisherman." That however was recognisable as fiction from a familiar novel, conventionally reinforced by realistic Roman backgrounds. The danger now is that simple viewers might confuse the fable of "Pcipe Joan" with the historical truth of St. Joan, who has more than once suffered from similar film romanticisation.
Another victim of the cinema's dabbling in truth and tWs time in almost living history, is Trotsky in The Assassination of Trotsky ("AA," ABC 2). Nc of course that Lenin's partner in carrying out the Bolshevik Revolution is still alive, but it is only 32 years since he was assassinated in Mexico; and his assassin is understood to be still living in Prague. It is the past of the old revolutionary, whom many old comrades regard as the hero of the Russian Revolution which is quenched by a film strangely undistinguished considering it is directed by Joseph Losey.
Except for an opening sequence of single shots recalling Trotsky's celebrated occasions, en's is a picture of his last years in Mexico. There we see Trotsky (Richard Burton with grey hair and beard! living like any venerable professor except that his retreat is fortified by watch-towers and security guards against the terror and threat of Stalin's long arm of vengeance.
The dialogue is trite, and the confused action not clarified by the thick accent of the agent pressing Jacson (Alain Delon in dark glasses) to carry out the assassination. The strictly sensational central sequence is a more than usually revolting bullfight, irrelevant except as a crude symbol of Trotsky's death from the assassin's icenick, his head split like 'the hull's and uttering the same piteous moans as he staggers bleeding to the ambulance.
The most telling and moving thing in the film is Valentina Cortese's performance in the tiny part of Trotsky's wife.
The Candidate ("A," Bloomsbury Theatre) also deals with contemporary history, but it is a frankly fictitious illustration of American politics, however true a comment. Robert Redford stars for the same producer, Walter Coblenz, and director Michael Ritchie, with whom he made that exhilarating ski-movie, "Downhill Racer," and this "Redford-Ritchie production" (written by Jeremy Larnet) is at least as much their own movie.
Redford plays and convinces as John Mackay, a liberalminded young lawyer, involved in civil rights and all that, who is pressed by the Democratic Party's Californian campaign manager (Peter Boyle) into standing for election to th, Senate, despite John's mho.tance to follow his father, (Melvyn Douglas) a former party leader and State Governor into the rat-race of politics.
The picture takes McKay and us through the whole gruelling, alternately 'heady and degrading way from discomfiting failure, lack of confidence, disillusionment, flattery, cruel lessons from his conservative opponent (brilliantly played by Don Butler), humble pie from his father, relentless coaching from Lucas, adulation and antagonism from voters. all in the glare of publicity only a crowd can turn on.
The stages by which John is driven from his first protest against the cynicism of the system to the inevitable acceptance and mastery of the game is brilliantly written, devised and perfonmed. Whether English audiences will feel sufficiently involved in American politics to succumb I can't tell, but the film is first class, 'passionately felt and well worth while.
A fourth experiment with truth is in the very different Images ("X," Curzon), written and directed by Robert Altman. He makes an ambitious (some might say pretentious) attempt to show what goes on in the mind of a beautful young schizophrenic married woman (Susannah York). She sees what might in another context have been called ghosts —herself when young, a former lover she knows to be dead, another 1 was never sure whether she wanted to kill or to love, but whose daughter she sees as a young other self.
The preciousness sometimes runs riot, but Vilmos Szigman's camerawork and the Irish scenery are ravishing; the field of subjective truth is a legitimate one for film experiment; and Susannah York deserves the award she got as best actress at this year's Cannes Festival.
It is almost a solo performance (the first scene on the telephone. indeed, recalls Cocteau's monologue "La Voix Humaine"). But the prologue and epilogue with Miss York reading from a story she has written for children about unicorns, do add a superfluous layer of confusion.