Secret Lives, Perceval, Lancelot of the Lake

Weekly Video/DVD Picks from Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com
by Steven D. Greydanus | Source:
Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII (2002)
“You can punish her, you can christen her, you can do what ever you want — only keep her alive.” With that heartbreaking plea, a Jewish mother in Poland left her three-year-old daughter in a Catholic household where, she hoped, the girl would go undetected by the Nazis and survive the coming holocaust. Secret Lives, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Aviva Slesin, herself a childhood Holocaust survivor who was hidden from the Nazis by a Lithuanian Christian family, is an uplifting, shattering, heartfelt tribute to the Gentile families across Europe from Poland to the Netherlands who risked their own lives to take in and hide Jewish children in their homes.

Based entirely on interviews with the Jewish survivors and with their rescuers and parents, Secret Lives explores the devastating impact of the Holocaust even on those who survived it, as well as the nobility and heroism displayed by many during one of the darkest chapters of human history. The stories are as varied as could be imagined, and not everything ends happily even when no one involved was killed. Yet lives were saved. It is an absolute good. The Nazi nightmare died the day a boy ran down a Dutch street jubilantly crying, “I’m a Jew! I’m a Jew!”

Content advisory: Frank discussion of Holocaust themes, complicated family situations, mixed religious opinions, etc.; an instance of objectionable language.

Perceval (1979)
The spirit of medieval drama lives in Eric Rohmer’s utterly unique, flagrantly theatrical adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th-century epic Arthurian poem, a film that will enchant medieval enthusiasts and bewilder others. The narration in verse has been set to music adapted from authentic medieval melodies, and is performed in the original old French by a chorus of minstrels playing traditional instruments, as well as by the players themselves. The players’ bright costumes and the overtly stagey sets — a grove of abstract sculpture-like trees for a forest; simple façade castles built of painted wood — were inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.

The result is something that might strike casual viewers as not wholly unlike a serious dramatic Monty Python production — a far from exact analogy that may nevertheless give viewers a rough idea of how likely they are to appreciate the film. Following Chrétien’s unfinished romance, Perceval is incomplete. In fact, it is three incomplete stories. The first is the dreamlike, naive tale of Perceval, the bumpkin knight whose ignorant innocence is rewarded, despite flaws and errors, with a vision of the Grail. Perceval’s story is abruptly interrupted by an adventure of Gawaine, and finally a moment of spiritual insight leads to a startling Passion-play finale.

Content advisory: Some mildly suggestive and sensual content including a forcibly obtained kiss and a rather innocent bedroom scene. Subtitles.

Lancelot of the Lake (1974)
For many people, the names of King Arthur and Camelot evoke romantic scenes from Arthur’s early exploits, such as the sword in the stone or the hand in the lake. But Malory’s tale, like earlier versions before it, is titled The Death of Arthur, and unlike the tales of such heroes as Robin Hood or Zorro is always fundamentally a tragedy. More, it is a tale of fellowship undone not first of all by the treachery of enemies but by the frailty of human nature itself, even of the most trusted intimates. Perhaps that’s partly why classic Hollywood forayed more successfully into Sherwood Forest and Zorro’s California than Camelot.

Robert Bresson’s challenging Lancelot du Lac cuts to the heart of the Arthurian tragedy. Bresson strips away all the early grandeur and glory of Camelot, leaving only the demoralized foundering in the wake of the failed Grail quest, the joyless struggles of Lancelot between his aspirations toward God and his adulterous love for Guinevere, the deadly banality of Mordred and Gawaine’s verbal skirmishes, and a mounting sense of hopeless foreboding. Like the last act of Malory’s tale, it’s a grim testament to the weakness of the flesh, of the fallenness of this world in which we can have no lasting city.

Content advisory: Highly stylized violence; brief rear nudity; adulterous themes; religious questioning. Subtitles.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register

To read more of his movie reviews, please visit his website at DecentFilms.com.

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