Dir: Saverio Costanzo. Italy. 2007. 116 mins.
Slow-paced and austerely beautiful, the second feature by Italian auteur Saverio Costanzo takes on a subject that seems inherently uncinematic: the crisis of faith of a young man who is studying to become a priest in a Jesuit seminary in Venice. And yet Costanzo manages to turn Furio Monicelli's 1961 novel The Imperfect Jesuit - later republished under the title Impure Tears - into a compelling exploration of the mindset, and the spiritual and emotional pressures, of a world as sealed-off as the occupied Palestinian household of the director's impressive first film, Private.
It's not an easy ride for the audience: the film is so laconic that some will lose patience well before the end. Others will feel cheated by the ending
itself, which seems to shy away from a clear resolution of the homosexual subtext that runs through the film (and which was more
prominent, though never quite explicit, in Monicelli's novel).
But like another recent exploration of a closed monastic order - Philip Groning's documentary Into Great Silence - In Memory of Myself is unapologetic in the way it forces its viewers to buy into the values and rhythms of a life of contemplation, prayer, self-denial, and self-chastisement.
The muscle of Medusa, Italy's largest producer-distributor, will ensure a respectable domestic opening, and the controversy which is sure to be stirred by the film's timid forays into gay priest territory will stir media interest. But this is in no way a gorily-illustrated Medieval fresco like The Passion of The Christ; it's more an updated version of an austere spiritual autobiography like The Confessions of St Augustine - and as such will appeal more to the priestly caste than their flocks.
It's unlikely that congregations in the US Bible Belt will bus the faithful in to see this one. Costanzo's audience, in fact, lies as much outside the church as in, as the games it plays with its viewers on a purely cinematic level are as important as the troubled course of young Andrea's spiritual odyssey.
Christo Jivkov (who played John in The Passion of The Christ) does a more than creditable job of conveying the torments of a character whose emotions are registered on his face rather than in the words he says: behind his painfully controlled mask we read repressed anger, self-doubt and spritual ambition.
We know next to nothing about his former life when he enters the Venetian seminary, other then the few generalities about having lived a worldy life which he tells his cold-eyed father superior (an effectively gelid Andre Hennicke).
But we feel his struggle and also his isolation. The other seminarians barely talk to each other: emotions are expressed in glances and the occasional communal homily, which are full of coded rebukes and cries for help.
Gradually, two students stand out from the others: the troubled, inarticulate Fausto (Fausto Russo Alesi), and Zanna (Filippo Timi), a southern Italian whose instinctive, non- intellectual faith contrasts with Andrea's self-control and attempts to rationalise belief.
At the same time, the film appears to change register, shifting from spiritual odyssey to mystery. Why is Panella banging his head against the wall in the washroom' And who is the patient in the infirmary that Zanna goes to visit' What are the Father Master and the Father Superior trying to cover up'
Among contemporary Italian directors, perhaps only Marco Bellocchio - who is thanked at the end of the film - combines Costanzo's control over atmosphere with such a stubborn reluctance to offer explanations. Pacing, lighting (cold natural light and moonlight are the dominant modes, with one or two striking uses of warm sunlight) and a soundtrack of classics by Crivelli, Silvestrov and Strauss (whose waltzes seem to be used for some obscure purpose of ironic counterpoint).
But it's the meditative interior camerawork that really carries the authority and the suspense of the film: especially a recurring shot down through a dark corridor flanked by the seminarians' cells to the light of Venice and the lagoon outside the three windows at the end. Huge cruise liners gliding distorted past these windows with a low rumble act as symbols of worldy temptation, perhaps, or indifference.
By the end, the film has shifted from its minimalist-Hitchcock register to something else again. It's difficult to feel that there's not, ultimately, a cowardice of sorts in the film's failure to develop its hints of lies and cover-ups withing this closed religious community. But the sense of having beeen taken into another, less cluttered world for a couple of hours is what stays with us.
freely inspired by the novel 'Lacrime Impure' by Furio Monicelli
Fausto Russo Alesi