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MOVIE REVIEW : Good Clashes With Evil Under the Punishing ‘Sun of Satan’

True grace is to forget. . . . The supreme grace would be to love ourselves. . . . Human agony is beyond all an act of love.”

--Georges Bernanos

In “Under the Sun of Satan” (opening today for one week at the Nuart), Maurice Pialat plunges us into a slate-gray world where good and evil, love and hate war implacably under a punishing sky.

The source of the film is the novel by Georges Bernanos, whose books also inspired Robert Bresson’s classic films “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Mouchette,” and it’s a story which Pialat, an unbeliever, has adapted with unusual devotion. He keeps the shiveringly pure line of the plot, strips the dialogues to a hard, blanched core.

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An ominous hush breathes over his landscape, with its steep hills, icy plains, tangled forests. The boundaries between the two contending forces become misty, confusing. The devil adopts the guise of a smiling Good Samaritan, plants a cold kiss on the hero’s lips. God seems distant, remote. The hapless people buffeted between them remind us of the mad howl of Shakespeare’s Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

The action, set in provincial France around the 1920s, revolves around two characters who, presumably, embody the extremes of good and evil. Father Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) is a young priest who mortifies his flesh in his quest for godliness--whipping himself, wearing a hair shirt. Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a wanton teen-ager who becomes pregnant, accidentally kills one rich lover, confesses her crime to another and is plunged into the abyss after a chance confrontation with the suddenly all-knowing Donissan.

It is Bernanos’ and Pialat’s point that the priest and murderess are not opposites, but spiritually akin: that Donissan, by revealing Mouchette, may be succumbing not to God’s will, but Satan’s. Donissan’s quest for absolute purity is, in its way, as terrifying as Mouchette’s reckless pursuit of desire. Both priest and girl search for something beyond the visible, mundane surface, and Satan loves Donissan, his mortal enemy, just as God loves the wayward, luckless Mouchette.

Depardieu and Bonnaire have done some of their best work for Pialat, and both achieve here, as before, an almost animalistic spontaneity, a holy on-screen savagery. But the crescendoes are all Bonnaire’s. Depardieu becomes like a wild animal trainer lashing the beast within his own bosom. Shambling, lurching painfully through sacristy, forest or farmyard, Donissan is a saint, clumsily tying himself to the stake.

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Pialat has cast himself as a kind of mediator, Donissan’s superior, the urbane Father Menou-Segrais, who knows his own carnality, sees the follies of both saintliness and sin. Good and evil are ultimately not incarnated in individual characters here but in the forces that gather around them, and the synthesis is aesthetic as well as moral.

Pialat has always had a style--restless, propulsive, fixated on the spontaneous truth of a scene--which suggests, more than any of his French colleagues, John Cassavetes. And two opposing cinematic streams seem to be merging here: on one hand, the rigor and crystalline grace of Bresson, who wants his actors never to express any visible emotion; on the other, the emotional explosiveness of Cassavetes, who wants his actors to prod, probe and tear themselves open. They coexist, eerily, in a tremulous balance. Once again, spirit and flesh.

Good and evil are subjects so vulgarized and cheapened by hordes of opportunistic, empty, un-moral movies that it may be hard for audiences to focus on them. For some, “Sun,” which was booed by the crowed when it won the Cannes Film Festival grand prize in 1987, will be a movie of punishing ambition, hammering severity.

Yet, Pialat and his two great actors, Depardieu and Bonnaire, make good on their ambition. They give mystery and power to a story of spiritual struggle. If the opening of “Sun” (Times-rated Mature for adult themes), in a succession of grisly interiors, casts an oppressive pall, the film begins to surge with emotion when Pialat moves Donissan to the hillsides, beneath the cold sky and under Satan’s dark and sinister sun.

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And it keeps moving inexorably to a splendid climax. That emotion is the blackened current that drives on to the end, toward death or grace, redemption or damnation, the occasional darkness of good, and evil’s bright illusions.


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