Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Movie Review: Leaves From Satan's Book

D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance, though a box office disappointment, did much to inspire many up-and-coming filmmakers across the world. New and undiscovered talent got a firsthand view of precisely what the discipline was capable of displaying visually and thematically to the audience. Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer found himself among the ranks of the awe-struck, seeing for himself the impressive impact of the multitude of technical innovations and expansive high production values used in the film. Accordingly, Dreyer's attempt to follow in the master's footsteps, the 1919 film Leaves from Satan's Book, owes much to American cinema and Griffith's unique penchant for historical reenactment and sweeping epic. The film is not without some flaws---Dreyer had to work within the financial limitations of the Scandinavian film industry and as such didn't have all the tools allotted to him that a comparable American director would have had at his disposal. Still, as rendered Leaves from Satan's Book is a competent, somewhat restrained work which, in spite of its shortcomings, still manages to be a bit of a minor gem.

Leaves from Satan's Book does suffer a bit from its creator's relative inexperience behind the lens and his well-meaning, but occasionally heavy-handed commentary. The picture is guilty of placing the sole burden of blame in very complex past events squarely on the shoulders of one or two supremely evil offenders, who if we would believe the damning intertitles, were acting directly in accordance with the wishes of Satan himself. A study of the historical record finds that many people were complicit in the regrettably extremely, fanatical travesties of the French Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition, to name but two. Griffith, too, had a tendency to embellish historical fact and resort to jingoistic hyperbole in his films when veracity would have been better served. A contemporary audience might find it interesting to ponder how little has changed over the years; films have often been known to moralize and preach to the crowds in a ham-fisted manner, much to the chagrin of reviewers and audience members alike. So in observing early cinema one can easily see that this is a phenomenon that didn't exactly start yesterday.

Some of the flaws in Leaves from Satan's Book should not be lain at the feet of its director. While it is true that at the end of the 1910's many advances in camera work and shot selection had been incorporated into the cinematic canon, it should also be noted that silent cinema still had a ways to go before it reached its zenith. Films of the mid-silent era, though more advanced and watchable than those of the early days, still at times appear deeply primitive to the naked eye when compared with modern cinema, requiring viewers to take on a healthy dose of patience. Leaves from Satan's Book, to its credit, does try to push past its weakness by utilizing a creative plot, incorporating a series of short vignettes and intensely wrought character studies all under the umbrella of aiming to explore the role of evil in the daily lives of significant persons over time. Dryer had yet to learn the essential rules of non-sound film---namely, one simply cannot portray life on celluloid exactly how it exists in reality. Rather than fighting against these limitations, work within the confines of pre-synchronized sound and accomplish cinematically something one could never achieve if sound was an option. In working within these parameters instead of against them, an enthralling alternate reality is created.

Eventually Dreyer would figure this out for himself, building upon on the success of this film in reaching his directorial apex eight years later in The Passion of Joan of Arc. That picture is still one of the most beautifully filmed movies ever created, so much so that some film historians consider it the best silent film ever created. Dreyer accomplished this substantial feat through the frequent use of distinct, singularly unique camera shots which presented the narrative of the work almost exclusively in a series of extreme facial closeups. Much of these highlight the torment and torture of the French patron saint herself, revealing with great emotional depth the desperation of the captured Joan.

That film was, however, still some time to come.

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