Music Box Home Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Valeria Sarmento
Writer: Carlos Saboga, from the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Stanislas Merhar, Niels Schneider, Jenna Thiam, David Caracol
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/13/20
Opens: December 8, 2020

The Black Book of Father Dinis

This is a costume drama whose slow, methodical pace and decorous set designs bring to fictional life the story centered on Laura (Lou de Laâge), a servant whose birth is other than what she and most others knew. The story, which opens in the year 1780 and proceeds toward the French Revolution of 1789 and the rule of Napoleon is based on a novel of the Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco—whose “Mysteries of Lisbon” follows a jealous countess, a wealthy businessman, and a young orphaned boy across Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil where they connect with a variety of mysterious individuals. There is considerable travel in “The Black Book” as well, London and Paris, for example, as in “A Tale of Two Cities” and Italy before that country’s unification.

As Laura/Leila (that second name becomes clear later in the drama), Laâge is both narrator and a refined, perhaps distant, woman with a maternal love of young orphan Sebastían (played by are different ages by Tiago Varela da Silva and Vasco Varela da Silva). She is in the employ of a count who leaves the film in a hurry, having been poisoned by a mean cardinal. Promising the count to take care of the boy, his friend the Marquis Lusault (Niels Schneider), becomes Laura’s boss with benefits, as a fairly erotic love scene makes clear. When he marries a woman of his own noble stature, Suzanne de Montfort (Jenna Thiam), Laura is crushed. In a scene that made me exclaim “male fantasy,” Laura screams with heartbreak and falls to the ground.

The second part of the drama comes across almost like a separate film, punctuating the life of Cardinal Rufo (Stanislas Merhar) whose black servant Antonio (David Caracol) tags around with him and with Laura like Mike Pence with Donald Trump. (Mike: Invoke the 25th amendment and all if forgiven.) Valeria Sarmento, the Chilean director based in France since 1974, is fond of the 18th century, as he “Lines of Wellington” considers the defeat of French troops in 1810 by an Anglo Portuguese army under Wellington. While there are no grand battles here, the melodrama consists of just a few assassinations including those of two counts, a near-murder of Napoleon himself, and true to the century’s love of tuberculosis, a near death from that disease and the almost campy way that Laura faints dead away whenever her emotions get the better of her rationality.

The film is a special treat for those who like period drama with its cool costumes (authentically mid- to late-18th century I’m guessing) and the use of candlelight, the kind that might get your imagination running as you read some Harlequin romances. Lou de Laâge anchors the movie quite effectively, making some of us wonder whether the erotic trysts of the time period are preferable to our own century’s passionless hookups.

In French with English Subtitles.

103 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

MAUDIE – movie review


    Sony Pictures Classics
    Director:  Aisling Walsh
    Screenwriter:  Sherry White
    Cast:  Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/25/17
    Opens: June 16, 2017.  Streaming October 10, 2017
    Maudie Movie Poster
    One might at first wonder why a biopic about a folk artist from a tiny town in Nova Scotia could be made into an involving drama.  Granted: the life of Maud Lewis might make for engaging documentaries, and sure enough the Film Board of Canada did release “Maud Lewis—A World Without Shadows,” “The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, and “I Can Make Art.”  If any other performer were chosen for a full-scale dramatic work on Maud Lewis, the film could be raising dust.  Consider that Aisling Walsh lucked out by putting Sally Hawkins in the lead with a performance that will be remembered well during awards season.  And pair her up with Ethan Hawke as her abusive husband, and you have a Hawke-Hawkins treat which serves to illuminate the life of a folk artist who is doubtless better known in her native Canada than here in New York.

    “Maudie” opens during the 1930s in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, a town so small that it probably could not support a store for selling fish.  No problem for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who peddles his fish door to door to people who earn so little money that he would be regularly owed.  His solitary life is about to change when he advertises for a maid, someone to clean and perhaps to cook, since he is out plying his trade fourteen hours a day.  Everett is a perennial grump who, after telling applicant Maude to “get out” later takes her on.  As for her part, she has had enough of living with a stern maiden aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), having managed to get stuck with her when her parents died, her cruel brother Charles Cowley (Zachary Bennett) inherits the house, and believes that his sister, afflicted with a serious case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, needs to be taken care of.

    Not only is Maud the independent sort but she chafes under Aunt Ida’s treatment of her, believing that her charge is feeble-minded.  Nor is Everett much better; he complains that his shack is not clean, regularly threatens to dismiss her, but begins to change when Maud takes up painting and brings money into the household.  That she and Everett would marry seems a long shot as she is considered a cripple, but stranger things go on in this remote corner of Canada.  Who would believe that Sandra (Kari Matchett),a sophisticated woman from New York who is spending time in the town, would take notice of the paintings, buy some, and allow Maud to begin the journey from a hunched over, wisp-talking and complaisant woman to a national celebrity.

    The film strips Maud’s life to essentials: she believes that her baby was deformed and buried; she chafes under the stern rule of her aunt; she meets a fish peddler who hires her as a housekeeper; she paints on the sly, at first, then is encouraged by Everett to continue as money is coming in.  Because of Sally Hawkins’s tour-de-force performance and her chemistry with Ethan Hawke, and against a background of  Nova Scotia winters and hardscrabble life, “Maudie” becomes a movie that could prompt its audience to take out the Kleenex while at the same time being engrossed in one of the year’s most powerful, though understated, performances.

    The film was shot in Newfoundland because the Stephen McNeil government eliminated the Nova Scotia’s film credit program.

    Rated PG-13.  115 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Grade – A-