"The Pentitent" (AMC Century 14) probably needed to be a masterpiece to impose itself in today's movie market. Serious, gently paced, it's a study of a curious religious tradition in the desert communities of New Mexico: The ceremonies of the Penitentes, which re-create flagellation and crucifixion. It's also a fiery romantic triangle drama that pits good against evil, instinct against repression, friend against friend.
It's not a masterpiece, or even close to one. But--as a first feature by actor-writer-director Cliff Osmond--it's unusual and commendable. It's a good-hearted film, sensitive and intelligent. And, if it doesn't get everything it tries for--if some of the film making is awkward or turgid, if the resolution seems miscalculated, if the separate strands of faith and desire aren't twisted together expertly enough--at least it's a movie that tries for something out of the ordinary, that shows a little idealism. It also has something special to offer its audiences: Two often splendid lead performances by Raul Julia and Armand Assante.
Assante has the showier part. He's Juan, the sexy scapegrace ex-convict bounder-buddy, who now descends on old friend Ramon (Julia) to accept his hospitality, and--utterly without malice--tear his life apart, by stealing his virginal wife, Celia (Rona Freed). Assante postures a little too much--darting his head around like a rooster in sunlight. But he has the soul of the character: the narcissism, the physicality, the animal high spirits.
Julia has the more internalized role. He's the sufferer, the good husband, the faithful friend. He's also a devout believer in the ritual of the Penitentes, where one villager is annually chosen as the Cristo--tied up to a cross on a hillside for a day, to live or die. It's a flaw that you become convinced so soon that Ramon is headed for a cross. But Julia--one of the best film actors in America right now--gives himself over to this role selflessly, saturating it with sad resignation.
The movie works on an interesting contradiction. Why should men this dissimilar be best friends? The answer--that they're more similar than they first appear, that Juan has a touch of Ramon's idealism, and Ramon a bit of Juan's hellion edge--is something Julia and Assante convey nonverbally.
Their scenes together aren't just naturalistic. They have a heightened theatricality. These characters are symbols as well as men--spirit and flesh--and the actors catch both sides. Unfortunately, there aren't enough strong complementary roles around them.
Osmond, once a Billy Wilder movie regular, is probably best remembered as the rotund, devious private eye Purkey in Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie." It's a surprise to see him trying a film like this: One basically without comedy, tackling weighty themes. And there's even a little internal evidence he may have intended the part of Ramon for himself. Assante keeps kidding the not particularly unsvelte Julia about his plump girth.
But, if Osmond isn't completely successful--if "The Penitent" (MPAA rated: PG-13, for sexual situations and language) remains earthbound and never really soars--at least it's a movie that takes chances, one that's willing to look at people, earth, life, even a bit of the sky.