The fecund Earth mother meets the ascetic Virgin Mary in Anchoress, and although the film is surely rooted in academic feminism’s current enthusiasm for paganism, its appeal is in the way it manages to seem both medieval and modern. The bygone era most strongly evoked by this taciturn, almost-black-and-white film is that of the silent cinema, but there are moments when the 14th century becomes palpable.
Inspired by a few surviving letters about the fate of a woman walled up in 1329 in a church in the small English town of Shere, screenwriters Judith Stanley-Smith and Christine Watkins and first-time feature director Chris Newby have imagined the tale of an adolescent girl, Christine Carpenter (Drowning by Numbers‘ Natalie Morse). She sees the church as a sanctuary from an unwanted marriage, but fails to grasp the doctrinal gap between the Virgin Mary and the Earth goddess still worshiped by her mother Pauline (former new waver Toyah Wilcox) and others in the town.
The film makes the confusion understandable: Christine first spies a new statue of Mary as it’s pulled to the church through a grain field, the statue appearing like a vision of a harvest goddess. Since she was easily identified with other maternal divinities, Mary was often the most accepted Christian figure in medieval peasant communities, and in Anchoress‘ Shere the Virgin doesn’t immediately seem opposed to the fertility goddess Christine’s mother propitiates by pouring ale into a hole in the ground.
In a gesture as pagan as it is Christian, Christine takes apples from the local manor and places them, in a serpentine pattern, at the statue’s base. The manor’s overseer (Eugene Bervoets) demands the apples back, but he’s disinclined to punish Christine, since he expects to marry her. Convinced that the Virgin has appeared to Christine, the local priest (Let Him Have It‘s Christopher Eccleston) has other plans: He wants to make her an anchoress, confining her for life in a tomblike space attached to the church. (This practice was not unusual during the period; one of the best-known Christian mystic writers of that era, Julian of Norwich, was an anchoress.) Having an anchoress will bring supplicants and pilgrims, the priest realizes, enhancing the reputation of the small parish.
Once imprisoned, however, Christine does not behave as the censorious priest wishes. He objects to her affectionate demeanor toward the people who come to her cell’s tiny window to seek her advice and blessing, and squabbles with her over minor theological points: She says the Virgin’s robes are red; he insists they must be blue. Deciding that Christine’s obstinacy results from her mother’s influence, the priest encourages Pauline’s husband (In the Name of the Father‘s Peter Postlethwaite) to accuse her of witchcraft. Since Pauline is a midwife and herbalist, the charge is given credence; Christine’s mother is pursued by a mob, and her fate complements her solitary daughter’s.
The parallelism of this sequence is powerfully evocative, even if the film’s actual ending is indifferent; what’s compelling about Anchoress is the circumstance, not its resolution. The film is ultimately about power, and how hierarchal Christianity transferred it from growers and healers (frequently female) to priests and bishops (exclusively male). Shere’s Virgin, it turns out, is not simply another face of the various goddesses peasants had worshiped for millennia—although to this day there are elements of her pagan precursors in popular conceptions of Mary—but instead a figurehead for a patriarchy still intent on punishing Eve.
Wisely, Newby doesn’t spell all this out. Shot in black-and-white that was printed to color stock, thus yielding a bluish and occasionally purplish tint, the film is austere rather than verbose, suggestive rather than didactic. Employing numerous shots of shadows and tight closeups that represent the walled-in woman’s limited view of the world, Anchoress suggests the work of such silent-film poets as F.W. Murnau and Carl Dreyer. It’s a piquant combination: The film takes the side of earthiness and sensuality, yet its style is stark and otherworldly.
Awillfully excessive mélange of drag show and Merchant Ivory, Amadeus and Dead Ringers, Orfeo and Spandau Ballet, Farinelli is, well, operatic. That’s both its basis and its excuse.
Born Carlo Broschi, Farinelli (Stéfano Dionisi) was the most famous castrato singer of his time, which was the mid-18th-century. No one today can know what he sounded like—for this film, his voice is represented by a digital blend of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska—but the music he sang survives. Much of it was written by his older brother Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso), and it’s the thesis of Belgian director Gérard Corbiau (The Music Teacher) and his wife Andree, who co-wrote the script, that Farinelli was Mozart to Riccardo’s Salieri—as well as a goad to Handel (Jeroen Krabbe, fresh from Immortal Beloved‘s fictionalizing of Beethoven), who was both the Broschis’ rival and Farinelli’s admirer.
Fraternal loyalty keeps the brothers together, and for them togetherness includes partaking equally of Farinelli’s female admirers, who are seduced by the singer’s voice and androgynous beauty, only to find themselves in bed with both brothers. (The film is somewhat discreet on the mechanics of this, but it suggests that the arrangement was for the satisfaction of Riccardo more than of the women.) It’s hard to say what’s creepier, the siblings’ Cronenbergian sexual time-sharing or Corbiau’s efforts to swathe the central mystery of their relationship in hallucinatory slo-mo.
Farinelli begins awkwardly, with not one but two prologues, and stumbles several times as it gradually discloses the secret that will tear the brothers apart. (The secret is not that Riccardo is a mediocre composer and that Farinelli would have preferred to sing Handel’s compositions; that’s quickly made clear.) After the singer’s early successes in his native Italy, the brothers are entreated to go to London by Alexandra (Elsa Zylberstein). She’s the niece of the woman who runs the Nobles Theater, which is in bitter competition with the Covent Garden Opera House overseen by Handel.
Once in London, the intrigues multiply semicoherently. Various people steal copies of a Handel score, Alexandra becomes intimate with the brothers, and Handel gives Riccardo compositional tips and so gets him to confide The Secret, which has something to do with arty flashbacks to the bleached-out mane of a galloping horse. Farinelli, meanwhile, takes opium, calls the Prince of Wales “an ass” to his face, and finally sings some Handel, causing the composer (in emulation of various women glimpsed in earlier scenes) to faint. “Your brother is a monster,” Handel tells Riccardo, but he just seems like Adam Ant on a bad day.
Or in a bad video. Flamboyantly overdecorated, Farinelli has as much to do with baroque 20th-century notions of vanished glamour as it does to do with the baroque period. The film is full of arch contrivances, such as the scene where Handel’s voice-over switches to live dialogue as Farinelli walks into the composer’s range, and proceeds at a hysterical pitch. Classical-music buffs may turn out for this, but they’ll be hard pressed to argue that the garish mise en scène and freak-show vocals are more refined than what’s on MTV.
Hard as it may be to imagine, Corbiau is capable of topping himself. The film ends with Farinelli in Spain, where he now sings only for the king and lives with Alexandra. (Only a lack of Broschi sperm stands between the couple and complete contentment.) Summoned for an eclipse party, the castrato trills to “bring back the sun” as a bystander slits his wrists—about as decadent a scenario as J.K. Huysmans (or Duran Duran) could devise, and one that’s impressive in its way. If Farinelli can almost be counted as a success, it’s because Corbiau is absolutely serious about its ridiculousness.