Blu-Ray Review: The Legend of the Holy Drinker

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Based on Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella, Ermanno Olmi’s 1988 film, The Legend of the Holy Drinker is about as good as it gets if you’re looking for a bottle of melancholy to sip and sit with that’s also a fine whine of meditative work featuring a flawless performance by Rutger Hauer as the titular homeless drunkard, Andreas Kartack. The film’s somewhat romanticized but still realistically grimy Paris (which looks lovely that way) works well as a character of its own with a solid cast that helps create some of the drama and dilemmas Kartack faces after a stranger gives him 200 francs with the simple request that he repay it by donating the money to a local shrine.

Kartack ends up running into what could be called a run of really good luck for a homeless guy who sleeps under a bridge as in no short order he finds a temporary job, affords himself a few necessities such as a shave, decent food, and the company of women. But his drinking gets in the way of his quickly repaying the loan as does part of his past when he meets up with the lovely Gabby (Sandrine Dumas), a woman he’s got a particularly messy past with. Saying more would ruin the film’s quiet surprises, but Olmi’s assured direction flows along with the wine and supporting actors as Kartack’s luck swings in a few directions.

(Thanks, Lume Filmes!)

Flashbacks reveal Kartack’s past which catches up with his present circumstances (and seems to be the reason for his homeless state). Hauer’s work here is all understated yet speaks volumes as he uses his face and eyes to convey emotion. While Kartack is quite the boozer, he’s also a hard worker who shows up early to help out with a moving job. He’s also a bit of a gentleman, offering to buy his temporary employer a drink and later, waiting to meet up with him after a promise they’ll go for that drink (which doesn’t happen thanks to more circumstances). When he’s sober, it’s interesting to see the world through his eyes as he notices life’s small moments in scenes where he’s part observer and part of the events taking place.

In a way, the film is a sort of headier precursor to Leaving Las Vegas with lower key main and supporting performance that work better along with a setting that’s wistfully nostalgic yet tinged with the scent of impending crisis. I did get a chuckle at the beginning when Kartack gets his sudden loan because it reminded me of the time many years ago when I dropped a handful of coins into the cup of a shabby-looking guy outside a subway station, only to get cursed out afterward because I just plopped those coins into a freshly made cup of coffee and nope, that guy wasn’t homeless. Oops.

Special features are light (you could call them teetotalers, I guess?), with a solid Hauer interview where he discusses the film and Olmi’s direction to underplay the character and let his face do most of the work while also noting some of his favorite scenes. There’s also an interview with screenwriter Tullio Kezich that’s similar in tone for the way in which Kezich pays homage to the original work as well as Olmi’s recreation. The 4K restoration is superb overall and while this one’s a niche film, it’s a really great one that deserves to be seen. Chalk up another library addition from Arrow Academy and guess what? There’s another (and more recent) liquor-fueled flick from Arrow Academy sitting in my to-do queue that ends up being a great companion piece to this one. We’ll get to that next time, so stay tuned.

Score: A (95%)

-GW

Review copy provided by the publisher

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