Strange powers

Pub date May 20, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


Witch! The accusation — or is it rallying cry? — that slices through Goblin’s pounding score for Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria is newly pertinent. Witchery reigns within strains of black metal and the long-awaited third chapter in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (which began three decades earlier with Suspiria), this summer’s invigoratingly zany naked bloodbath Mother of Tears. It’s tempting to credit film curator Joel Shepard with a sorcerer’s clairvoyance, because the "Witchcraft Weekend" he has programmed for the screening room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is so damned prescient.

The centerpiece of "Witchcraft Weekend"<0x2009>‘s imaginatively and near-immaculately selected quartet of movies — the dark void or blinding light around which the other three orbit — is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath. I’ll be brazen enough to admit that my first encounter with this masterpiece occurred one evening while flipping channels, when its flaming dramatic core — a harsh counterpoint to the heroic final stakes of his peerless 1927 The Passion of Joan of Arc — flickered before my eyes and basically branded my psyche (and soul?) for eternity. There are few scenes in cinema as bluntly harrowing as the demise of accused witch Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier): her defiance and her fear of death — but not of God — rage as forcefully as the man-made inferno that consumes her.

Day of Wrath might be the most quietly terrifying or suspenseful art film ever made (though it shouldn’t be blamed for the form’s current crimes against patience or intelligence), because Dreyer seamlessly connects realism with a deeply ambiguous understanding of spirituality and fate. That is no small achievement, and one that’s been increasingly rare with the passage of time. The fate of Herlofs Marte is evident from the film’s first scene, where she hands herbs from a gallows garden to another woman, stating, "There is power in evil." Seconds later the bells begin to toll for her and — thinking of a past secret — she flees to seek refuge in the household of Absalon (Thorkild Rose); his bear of a mother, Marte (Sigrid Neiiendam); and his young wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), who seems to possess strange powers.

In the feline, fiery-eyed Movin, Dreyer finds this lonelier film’s answer to Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc: in other words, an actor whose face becomes (to paraphrase André Bazin quoting Béla Balasz) a timeless and more ambivalently transcendent "document." Critics have pointed out Day of Wrath‘s abundant visual similarities with Italian Renaissance and Flemish painting, particularly the works of Rembrandt (James Agee went so far as to point out one sequence’s resemblance to Rembrandt’s 1632 Lesson in Anatomy), and Bazin is intuitively and perhaps more insightfully correct in invoking the film’s influence on Robert Bresson’s equally classic 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. But it takes Pauline Kael to sympathetically hone in on the feminine "erotic tensions" of what she deems "the most intensely powerful film ever made on the subject of witchcraft." As she puts it, "Dreyer dissolves our terror" as characters are "purified beyond even fear." But the sense of fear and terror he instills is purer than that engendered by the horror genre’s gleeful scare tactics.

"Witchcraft Weekend"<0x2009>‘s trio of other films steer clear of Blair Witch and Harry Potter terrain as well as the easy, if extremely enjoyable, kitsch of Teen Witch (1989) or The Craft (1996) to explore and connect less obvious instances of celluloid sorcery. In a manner that magnifies the resonance of Day of Wrath‘s austere use of black and white, Shepard brings in a pair of contrasting Technicolor sights: the Queen or Witch (spine-chillingly vocalized by Lucille La Verne) from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the scorpio-rising bikini sacrifices of William O. Brown’s 1969 cult obscurity The Witchmaker. The program’s series of spells begins with the wicked Witchcraft Through the Ages, a 1968 abbreviated revision of Benjamin Christensen’s energetically episodic 1922 silent work Häxan, featuring a frenetic and playful jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty and mordantly misogynist narration by William S. Burroughs. *



Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787