New York

“The Terence Davies Trilogy” and “Zappa”

"New Directors/New Films"

The Terence Davies Trilogy is a film in three parts, written and directed by Terence Davies. It tells of the effect of Catholicism on the life and death of Robert Tucker, a working-class man from Liverpool. Part One, “Children,” is told in a series of extended flashbacks showing us young Robby as he makes his way through the painful coercions of a Catholic education, an ordeal compounded by the brutality of his ailing father. Sullen and alienated, he is almost totally dependent on his mother, who offers him refuge from the malicious taunts of his classmates. Part Two, “Madonna and Child,” transports Robert into middle age, where we find him still leaving Mum in the morning and returning home to her at night (with a few detours to the local gay bars). The alternation between the routine of Tucker’s office job and heavily stylized erotic tableaux makes for a baroque but strict conflation, like a chorus of Hail Marys dubbed over black leather and hairy buttocks. “Death and Transfiguration,” the final installment, encapsulates Tucker’s life through an amalgam of remembered events and the death rattles of the present. Propped up in a hospital bed, bony visage aimed skyward, Tucker’s figure suggests that confluence of episodes and physiology that comprise a life. This final section combines searingly stark emotionalism with an exposition of how the trauma of death is easily subsumed by the clichés of religious imagery.

Ten years in the making, Trilogy projects Davies’ deep distrust of Catholicism and the repressive havoc he feels it plays with its members. It is also a more secular view of lives marked not only by spiritual dictation, but by the deprivations of the dying economy of Northern England. But perhaps foremost, it is a film about men and boys, the way gender is prescribed through stereotype, and the way the organizational mania of parochial education can serve as a model for a broader-based military construct. The sequential quality of Trilogy makes for a considered measurement of the moments of sex and death, removing them from their usual drenchings in melodramatic “significance.” Davies’ black and white images convey the necrophilic rigor of the Church with a brittle clarity and economy and suggest religion’s ability to define both the pleasures and repressions of sexual life.

This focus on a hierarchy constructed through threat and humiliation is continued in Zappa, directed by Bille August, which is set in the Denmark of the ’50s. The first scene is a boys’ gym class with students loping around in scant outfits, contesting bodily capability and athletic prowess. We watch as egos develop and diminish, producing a miniversion of global warfare: from slaphappy skirmishes to sadistic rites of passage leading nowhere. This violent maneuvering soon grows up and out of school, bursting into a real-world splurge of bluster and brute force showing us that these boys indeed have what it takes to be men.

Sten (Peter Reichhardt) is a manipulative sadist who stalks his upper-middle-class parents’ moderne abode like a lizard at happy hour. His father abandons his mother for a young mistress, leaving Sten stuck with his rejected, self-absorbed, yoga-mad Mom. His response is to vandalize his father’s love nest and to fiddle with his mother’s sunlamp, leaving her face scorched like a lasagna casserole. With time on his hands he whispers sweet nothings to his only real soulmate, his pet “killer” fish, Zappa, and tortures his classmates with the aplomb of a lounge singer. His friend Bjorn (Adam Tønsberg) is a sensitive chap who, although wary of Sten’s tyrannies, goes along with him and seems helplessly cathected to this affiliation with power and oppression. Mulle (Morton Hoff) is the overweight, lower-class hero who is stung and shredded by Sten’s cruelty. The son of a leftist worker, he grows tired of the spiteful treatment and abandons the “clubhouse” the group shares, leaving Bjorn to cope with the monstrous Sten and two newly recruited “members.” The tension escalates and ends with Bjorn’s radical rebellion, the only way he can leave Sten: he bashes his head in.

August’s narrative is a compelling one thanks to his troupe of strong young actors and a nice dose of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. Zappa is a thoughtfully paced glance at the tyrannies of adolescence as it unfolds amid the growing materialism of postwar Europe. Its relatively casual gaze soon transforms into an unrelenting stare at aggression, showing how violence is nurtured by a social life that measures virility by its authoritarian zeal and destructive powers.

Barbard Kruger