Wednesday, May 27, 2009
SAINT FRANCIS (2007) d. Ezra Allen Gould
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Art, sex, religion and depravity can often coexist, just ask the Ruling Theocrats of the Medieval Catholic church. Few denizens of the world have more grotesquely welded these ideals into a mantra of twisted existence better than the Borgia Family. Authors have more easily and acceptably wound the themes of art, sex, religion and depravity into novels both sacred and profane. Painters and photographers have also tried to combine these seemingly disparate elements with a degree of success as well. Putting four such powerful concepts together in a film can be done, but it is a daunting task. The brevity of a motion picture’s runtime and the need for narrative cohesiveness often precludes the chance of really tackling all of these ideas and there is a good reason why. A film can become of tad too “avant-garde” or far too lascivious if any part of the delicate equation becomes unbalanced, tipping the overloaded tale towards disaster. SAINT FRANCIS is an ambitious and somewhat artistic effort to tell a grim tale that fails of its promise in the end despite some strong qualities, all because it can’t quite get the balance right.
SAINT FRANCIS is the story of the Bernard Family. The father, Dr. P. Bernard, is a sleazy televangelist who is more interested in acquiring cash than saving souls and is also the likely cause of his wife’s suicide that occurred when their three children were young. The children are Francis, Soul and Sid, all of which are caught in a maelstrom of debauchery swirling towards a vortex of ruin. Francis is a mentally disturbed drug addict, while Soul is an introspective and glamorous flesh peddler, and then there is Sid, the boyish-looking drug dealer. Their ineffective machinations and self-destructive personal habits intertwine in such a way as to create a despicable and depraved dance of debauchery spinning steadily out of control. By the end of their tale, all three of the Bernard children have been victims of each other’s violent ways and whose names are etched farther down on the tablet of doomed spirits, while their father ignores their helpless declines and preaches an empty message that no one seems to hear.
From a narrative standpoint, the general premise of SAINT FRANCIS is somewhat compelling. The juxtaposition of a Holy Man who is neither holy nor human with his terrifically degenerate trinity of damaged children has an excellent idea at its core of showing how truly barren either end of the spectrum can be. Neither the preacher nor his thrill-seeking offspring have found anything lasting that buoys the spirit or have done anything that leaves an enduring legacy. Interweaving their miserable chronicles has benefit as well, for what emerges is akin to a sickening kaleidoscope of personal and societal misery that bewilders the mind and is crushing to the soul. Yes, this is a depressing yarn, but looking into the mouth of madness is a good thing sometimes. What shatters the plot on the anvil of its own simplicity though is that there isn’t enough depth to the story, complexity to the characters or profundity to the themes twined about them. Too often we are treated to characters interfacing inanely on their cell phones, looping back over old ground about topics that we have already visited to our profound boredom and that were thin to begin with and/or somewhat meaningless, or worse the dialogue just existed to pad out the length of a fairly short film. What makes these narrative weaknesses even more distressing was that a really good story can sometimes cover for the lack of acting talent. In the case of SAINT FRANCIS, the sparsely spun tale highlighted the poor acting and it was only the propensity of sordid and steamy scenes swollen with salacious skin that helped to distract the viewer from the lack of strong performers just like any good sleight of hand trick, but not quite. At least in the case of Dita Von Teese (Soul), one can say that her spectacular loveliness, elegance and barely contained sensuality makes up to a small degree for her inexperience and underwhelming portrayal of her character, but in the case of Charles Koutris (Francis) and Casey Anderson (Sid), their performances were either overblown and irritating (Mr. Koutris) or downright wooden (Mr. Anderson). On a final acting note, Zalman King (Dr. Bernard) has never been anything but a third-rate actor and while he may add some name recognition to a cast of relative unknowns, was the cost of adding a “lead balloon” worth it?
On the visual side, SAINT FRANCIS was a bit harder to call. In general, I am not usually a fan of “nouveau” visual effects and camera techniques, but in this case they seemed to almost work. There were constantly shifting panoplies of color, shade, lighting schemes and a contrasting chiaroscuro of bright and dark that added imagery similar to a collage to the attendant narrative mosaic. In addition, there were fades and dissolves, out of the ordinary shot compositions and angles as well as expressionistic additions of graininess, soft and stilted focus, quasi-fish eye or POV perspectives that kept the viewer’s gaze moving and the psyche engaged. The otherworldly effect of this miasma of stylishness was not as impressive as the Ken Russell-directed vignette from ARIA called “Nessun Dorma” but it seemed to be going for that same general effect. What it did find a way to improve upon was the morass that was IRREVERSIBLE with its unwatchable methods and mean-spirited mindset. While gloomy and brutal there was thought behind the visual design of SAINT FRANCIS and it nearly achieved what most low-budget modern film efforts are never even remotely able to approach, a degree of artistic success. The problem lay in the repetitive nature of some of the film segments like the heart surgery of Francis which was repeated over and over again. That concept worked in ALL THAT JAZZ for there was a payoff waiting in the wings, but that never had the same punch here. The other problem was the delightful but still somewhat unsuccessfully integrated naughty bits in SAINT FRANCIS. Being that this a Salvation Films release, one knows they are in for some sin and skin. Adding plenty of those elements wasn’t a bad thing but they felt a bit forced at times and rather than intensifying the “debauchery” category, it just seemed to keep the “art” side of the film from reaching consummation while never really delivering on the promise that one expects when watching something that is really going to be spicy. At least that was the case until one reached the extras menu and a bit more of a bang was delivered for the buck.
The supplements section of SAINT FRANCIS was reasonably strong as Redemption releases go. There were three “extended erotic scenes” of roughly 6-8 minutes each, which were the full scenes in finalized form before they were edited into the film sequence. For anyone looking for loads of sexy skin and gorgeous babes, these extended scenes are worth your time. There is a short music video called “The Devil is Laughing” that I found dull and dreary. More interesting were the two different SAINT FRANCIS trailers which were fascinating in how differently they were constructed and edited. The contrast between the two gives the astute film lover the chance to see how very diverse the methods are of marketing movies to the masses. While a tad short, the Stills Gallery has a very eclectic mix of screen captures presented in an artsy-classy manner that adds a degree of savoir-fare to the bonus features. Finally, there were a series of Redemption Trailers, all of which I had seen before in one way, shape or form. While not the “Tomb of the Pharaohs” when it comes to extras, I was pleasantly surprised by my ambles through this supplemental menu.
I have had the chance to view quite a few Redemption discs over the past few years and while not the joy that the Jean Rollin films are or the surprise of SLASHERS, at least SAINT FRANCIS was not a disaster like THE WITCHING HOUR or some of the other modern film releases. I found SAINT FRANCIS to be more like NATURE MORT, a sincere effort at a creative project with some praiseworthy elements that didn’t quite work. Given more resources, experience and practice, Ezra Allen Gould may be capable of bringing forth a motion picture of surpassing artistry and compelling nature someday, or maybe not. It will be interesting to see what happens.