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Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

SEX AND VIOLENCE IN A MONASTERY

Love it, loathe it -- the film will run



Germania no Yoru

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tatsushi Omori
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Dec. 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

A full-frontal plunge into acts of depravity and violence, set in the faux idyllic confines of a rural Catholic monastery, "Germania no Yoru (The Whispering of the Gods)" falls squarely into the love-it-or-loathe-it category. Screened in competition at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival, Ta-tsushi Omori's debut feature evoked fervent praise from some -- Japanese film scholar Donald Richie called it the "the most powerful Japanese film I have seen during 2005" -- but equally fervent damnation from others. I'm with Richie -- especially about the "powerful" part.

News photo
Hirofumi Arai (left) and Renji Ishibashi in "Germania no Yoru"

"Germania" left TIFF without a prize, but producer Genjiro Arato plans to take it to other festivals, beginning with Berlin, and to open it in Tokyo Dec. 17. How confident is he that this film by a first-time director, which is guaranteed to produce walk-outs, can succeed? He has built a theater for it, the Ikkakuza, on the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno and vowed to keep it there for six months, come what may. He will also screen an English-subtitled print all day on Fridays, which must be a kind of first.

Is Arato deluded -- or a cock-eyed optimist? Neither -- beginning in 1980 with Seijun Suzuki's "Zigeunerweisen," which he screened in a tent, Arato has transformed a succession of art-house films into hits. He is also an acclaimed director, with his latest film, the 2003 drama "Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui (Akame 48 Waterfalls)," scooping nearly 30 domestic awards.

Though filmed in rural Iwate Prefecture and based on a prize-winning story by Mangetsu Hanamura, "Germania" has a borderless, timeless feel, relying more on iconic images and gestures than words for its impact. At the same time, it leaves its various acts open to interpretation -- suggesting, but not insisting. In other words, not only "The Passion of the Christ" fans -- but those who prefer clearly defined heroes, villains and resolutions had best give it a pass.

That said, Omori's visionary, uncompromising direction (actress Leona Hirota described the shoot to the press at TIFF as "hell" in which she came down with pneumonia, damaged her liver and broke two bones) has resulted in a film of rare beauty and force.

At its center is the unreadable face and explosive presence of Rou (Hirofumi Arai), a killer of two strangers, who escapes to the Catholic monastery and orphanage where he was raised. The head priest, Father Komiya (Renji Ishibashi), offers him refuge. In return Rou masturbates him while he reads the Bible in Latin -- and a dog looks on inquisitively.

Father Komiya, we are given to understand, has been abusing Rou since boyhood.

Rou is also asked to bring slops to the monastery's pigs and shovel the droppings of its hundreds of chickens. When the smarmy farm manager, Ukawa (Nao Omori), assigns Rou the former task and walks away whistling, Rou remembers -- and later beats Ukawa into a sniveling, broken-toothed heap.

More outrages follow, including Rou's naked romp with a young novice (Megumi Sawara) in the storehouse, sexual assault on a nun (Leona Hirota) in the kitchen and a teasing confession of future crimes that drives his elderly mentor, Father Togawa (Kei Sato), to despair.

Meanwhile, Rou stirs the desires of the angel-faced Toru (Keita Kimura), another of Father Komiya's teenage victims, and the pudgy pervert Scoutmaster (Genta Dairaku), who wants to lick . . . oh, let's leave it at that.

Rou, however, is not just another sociopath indulging appetites and urges at will, but a damaged seeker after a private truth, who no longer trusts words -- only deeds. He does not so much destroy as expose hidden desires -- and decay.

Telling this story with long cuts and a minimum of clutter, Omori gives each of his images a vivid presence and emotional weight. They are less heavy (or ponderous) than just there -- with depths and echoes that are less stated than felt. He adds underlayers of black humor (the antics of the Scoutmaster being the most risible), but the giggly had better beware -- their laughs may stick in their throats (as they suppress the gag reflex).

Also, though the pace is deliberate, like the black cattle that clump single file through the snow in the film's opening scene, the tension stays high -- mainly because Rou is such a volatile enigma. Arai plays him with little outward expression, but with a coiled power that makes his very blankness eloquent and, occasionally, threatening.

The photography by Ryo Otsuka ("Akame 48 Falls") has an Old Master richness, as in the scene of Sister Theresa cutting vegetables in the kitchen, looking like a subject for Vermeer. But when the violent or erotic occasion calls for it, beauty gives way to an appropriate starkness.

What are the gods whispering? Like every other element of this disturbing, provocative film, their message is ours for the parsing. But first, like Father Komiya's dog, we have to watch -- and listen.



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