The Brutal Nature Of Rauni Mollberg’s 1973 Film, “The Earth Is A Sinful Song”

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Niiles-Jouni Aikio and Maritta Viitamäki

One can only imagine the unsettling rural environment that Timo Mukka, the author of the novel that would become the film, Maa On Syntinen Laulu (The Earth Is A Sinful Song), was raised in during his short life. Born in Sweden, Mukka’s family migrated to the village of Orajärvi in Northern Finland during the last months of the Lapland War, a rarely spoken of conflict that was separate from World War Two which was fought between Finland and Germany from September 1944 to April 1945 in Finland’s northernmost Lapland Province. After fascism had been defeated, Mukka’s village was divided between conservative Lutheran Laestadianist Christians and communists, and it is in that kind of Lapland village with its diametrically opposed social and political attitudes that would become the setting for The Earth Is A Sinful Song.

The film follows a sexually awakening young woman named Martta Viitamäki (Martta Mäkelä) who lives in a one room farmhouse with her grandfather (Aimo Saukkoin a small village in Lapland. Though they share the room, Martta sleeps in the nude, which is a source of duress for her grandfather, who scolds her in a shockingly vulgar fashion. Soon, Martta is up and about, tending to her farming chores. Given the simplicity of these moments, I am immediately reminded of Liv Ullman’s 1995 adaptation of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Norwegian historical novel about the travails of a farmer’s daughter who grows up during the 14th Century, except The Earth Is A Sinful Song is set shortly after The Lapland War, in 1947. There is nary a modern element in this village, and this adds to the timeless naturalism of the film. This very well could be the Scandinavian village from Kristin Lavransdatter, not only due to the homes, wagons, and sleds, which appear to be those of a different century, but also, as we will soon find out, the primordial ways that the inhabitants behave behave towards each other.

This is a poor village village where Martta begins to explore her options for a man, but it is also brutal beyond the butchering of animals that is commonplace on a farm (not for the faint of heart as the beatings of horses, dogs and killings of animals are all real in a way that makes the electric hammer in a slaughterhouse seem like a kiss on the forehead). At the end of one day when the village gathers for a dance by the water, a drifter who is dancing with some of the local women gets murdered, which receives the reaction that one would expect when finding roadkill: “What was he?” “Oh well.” and life goes on. When Martta’s grandfather works all night to only end up delivering a stillborn calf of a woman’s prize cow, there is only a small moment of pause before the cow’s owner offers a fuck to grandpa as a form of payment. In fact, most of the film is delivered in such an unsentimental way, creating a harsh documentary-like feeling, which also borders on nihilism.  You await the moment when someone becomes affected by the grotesqueness around them, but rest assured, that will be a long wait. Adding into the daily atrocities towards animals throughout the film is the hideous response to Martta’s growing desires as a woman, which is met with the occasional grope and rape from the boorish men in the town. As horrible as all of this sounds, none of it is sensationalized, which is an excellent show of restraint by first time feature director Rauni Mollberg. Though tough to watch at times, the almost absurd nature of the goings on play into the overwhelmingly realistic and somewhat claustrophobic feeling of this town.

Needless to say that at this point the romantic prospects for Martta seem slim; that is until Oula (Niiles-Jouni Aikio), a boyishly handsome and sweet reindeer herder and salesman, comes to town. Oula also has an eye for Martta, and after a quick scene in which a group of reindeer are corralled and stabbed repeatedly in a scene reminiscent to many a drunken Memorial Day picnic in Philly gone wrong from my youth, they talk of sex. In fact after the Caligulaesque bloodletting of the reindeer sale, the whole town starts in on a bit of a bone sucking-marrow guzzling Roman-era orgy with its ferocious pairing off, which goes so off the rails that the other faction in town evokes the power of everyone’s favorite party killers, the clergy. In fact, this is the hardcore, one-room-God-forbid-you-fall asleep-for-a-second kind of sermon that scares everyone straight for a moment with the threat of hell fire. I write “just for a moment,” as Martta, who is now pregnant with someone’s child, turns her attention to Hannes, a young naive boy in the village who Martta seems intent on schooling in her favorite pastime while she awaits the return of Oula. With all that is happening in Martta’s sexual explorations, you await her grandfather’s reaction, which ends up being fairly passive, despite a few rude comments. It is only when Juhani, Martta’s usually absent father, comes into the picture that you see a day of reckoning looming over Martta and her illegitimate child. Juhani carries a level of self-loathing and violence that goes well beyond any of the rogues we have seen so far in the film. This will get even uglier quickly.

The Earth Is A Sinful Song is one of those rare films that manages to juggle intense drama with a naturally flowing storytelling style that keeps the viewer engaged in a way that you feel that you are watching a perfectly constructed documentary. Much of the success can be attributed to Mollberg’s cinéma vérité approach to the characters created by Mutta that offers a snapshot of the politically bipolar community where the author was raised. The town reveled in its post war sexual freedoms as much as it was repelled by them due to the teachings of their organized faith, creating an antithetical, passively brutal yet hedonistic society.

Famed Kubrick Producer James B. Harris Diffuses A Fetish in 1973’s “Some Call It Loving”

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“Some Call It Loving” Screened On Sept 23, 2015

Recently, on a very humid Wednesday night, my wife and I traveled to a unusually empty Cinefamily screening of a somewhat notoriously fetishistic and ethereal film by James B. Harris entitled “Some Kind Of Loving.” A few years earlier, I was in the midst of a obsession of the writings of James Ellroy and found a copy of “Cop,” a 1988 film that Harris directed, which was based on Ellroy’s novel , “Blood On The Moon.” I really loved the book and appreciated what Harris had done to bring it to the screen, but I later found out that the film had been mercilessly panned by critics on its release back in the day.

Before going out to see “Some Kind Of Loving,” I had read a few critiques of the film written shortly after its release in 1973 and found them to be equally vicious in their attacks, with many of the reviews simply calling it “pretentious.” I could shrug a few bad reviews off, but unlike “Cop,” the source material was a short story by John Collier whom I have never been that great of a fan of, and the film starred Zalman King, the softcore writer-director of the “Wild Orchid” films of the late 1980s and 1990s, which were one-dimensional twaddle as was his screenplay for the immensely popular Adrian Lyne sex film, “9 1/2 Weeks.” Still, with little else in the theaters, why not see “Some Call It Loving” to see if perhaps Harris had been onto something, directing his second feature film away from producing Kubrick’s brilliant early works;  “Lolita,” “Paths Of Glory,” and “The Killing?” After all, Harris’ directorial debut, 1965’s “The Bedford Incident” was a tightly told thriller starring Sidney Poitier that goes down as a lost action gem from a decade packed with excellent films in that genre. It should also be said that of Harris’ five directorial efforts, “Some Call It Loving” is the only non-action film with Harris’ last film being the very average Wesley Snipes police shoot em up, “Boiling Point.”

“Some Call It Loving” has for its center, an exquisitely bored, 70s natural looking adopted jazz saxophone player named Robert Troy (Zalman King giving a purposeful trance-like performance), who one evening attends a carnival to only be lured into the tent to witness an actual “Sleeping Beauty,” who our carny barker claims has been asleep for eight years. Our barker/carnival doctor begins charging a tent of overly creepy men a dollar a person to kiss our comatose yet seraphic maiden in the false hopes of awakening her, but our hero Robert chooses to not pay the dollar for the cheap thrill and instead opts to purchase Sleeping Beauty outright for twenty thousand dollars paired with what appears to be a beneficent set of motives. For his twenty Gs, Robert gets the entire carny act including the fair Sleeping Beauty and the good doctor’s Ford microbus, complete with a hippy’s painting of the act’s star attraction on the side of the vehicle. It is now back to his European-style villa where Robert sets Beauty up with elegant sleeping quarters, which doesn’t seem to phase the two women he lives with, who are coupled together in a bed of their own. One has to wonder from this point forward if Robert’s blasé countenance is due to a constant over-stimulation of libido and what role will Sleeping Beauty play in the further awakening of his own sexual malaise.

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Robert’s Goes Numb While Jennifer Awakens

Soon after, with Sleeping Beauty tucked away, Robert goes off to the local jazz bar where he plays a set for a posh audience and for a virtually incomprehensible blathering junkie called “Jeff,” whom Robert considers his best friend, played by none other than Richard Pryor, who had played alongside Zalman King two years earlier in the now forgotten 1971 comedy-drama, “You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat,” where Pryor plays another substance abusing character against King’s freewheeling hippy. To say that Pryor plays what Spike Lee normally refers to as “The Magical Negro” to King’s Robert in “Some Call It Loving” would be fairly accurate if it wasn’t for the fact that to assume that cliched role, the black character would have to say something that was somewhat philosophical or least coherent. Here Pryor takes his patented wino character to the ultimate extreme and makes him otherworldly in his inability to communicate any distinguishable word. I’m a lifelong Pryor fan, having listened to his albums all through my adolescence, but it was all beeps and buzzes to me here in this film. My best guess is that Pryor represents the unbridled soul that Robert represses with his stoic appearance.

Once back at home, Robert finds Jennifer (Sleeping Beauty’s actual name) awake and begins what would be a romantic and nurturing relationship, which by this point we can assume is less than what will be required based on the carrying on of Robert’s roommates. Bit by bit Jennifer embraces her freedom of sexual expression and becomes a willing participant in the fetishistic games that go on the mansion, which appears to disappoint Robert and his need to satisfy his voyeuristic desire to see her innocence corrupted, causing him to emotionally retreat and one one occasion, to even leave the mansion in order to seek out erotic stimulation from other women, which inevitably ends in failure as their willingness to participate through financial compensation only dampens his voyeuristic tendencies even more. With an acceptance that his sexual desires will not be fulfilled, Robert decides to flee the mansion and its ominous suggestions of depravity behind and takes Jennifer and the micro bus on a short road trip that eventually leads back to the mansion and to a scene of religious repression for the sake of the purification of all involved.

Though the plot of “Some Call It Loving” sounds a bit pretentious, I genuinely feel Harris’ intentions were to create an American version of the films that were successful in Europe during the late 1960s, as there are similar examinations of voyeurism in the Nouveau Roman novels and film work of French director Alain-Robbe Grillet for example. Past the issues mentioned before with a few of the performances, “Some Call It Loving” does possess great merit in its storytelling style and demands a second viewing. The intense diffusion used in the film was lensed by Italian cinematographer Mario Tosi, who a few years later would effectively layer diffusion all over Brian DePalma’s 1976 nightmarish horror classic, “Carrie.” It is clear that the deliberately slow pace of “Some Call It Loving” would not and did not go over well here in the USA, both with critics and audiences in 1973 as stated earlier, but the film was widely applauded in Europe as stated by Harris in this 2008 Q&A done with the director at Cinefamily:

The screening we attended last Wednesday was not a 35mm print, but a recently released Blu Ray from Etiquette Pictures, who did an excellent job with the transfer of this film. I personally am excited to pick up a copy as it possesses commentary and a featurette with director Harris and cinematographer Tosi, which I hope might shed more light on the low budget production of this misunderstood film that broke up a Wednesday evening and fostered an intense discussion and more than a few confused looks between my wife and I on trip home on that tepid evening last week.

The Political Grunts and Groans of Claude Faraldo’s 1973 Film, “Themroc “

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1973 Poster for “Themroc”

During the final two hours of Jacques Rivette’s four hour 1969 film “L’Amour Fou”, we see the dissolving marriage of two theatrical sophisticates, Claire and Sebastien, turn into an almost primitive sequestration whose sole purpose is to reject the intellectual ideals that have strangled their love. So, if the next step for the sophisticates in that Rivette film is a transformation into a state of small moments and music, combined with gentle moments of love making, then what is to become of our titular working-poor hero, “Themroc?”

Themroc (Michel Piccoli) lives with his widowed mother, his miserable wife, and his sister who saunters around the flat in various states of undress. Themroc also exists on the lowest rung of the proletariat ladder, a member of the “exterior maintenance crew” whose charge is to paint the outside of a fence while (you guessed it) the “interior maintenance crew” paints the inside of the same fence. Rarely has the stifling monotony of the working man been so aptly recognized. Though he is not happy, Themroc goes about his tedious job until one day when he witnesses his boss nuzzling the secretary of the company and is summarily dismissed. Themroc’s response to his sacking is a trip back home where he will begin his withdrawal from society but not in a “Neil Simon/Prisoner of Second Avenue” neurotic New Yorker kind of way. No, our Themroc sledgehammers a hole in his wall out into the street where he lobs the conveniences of modern society out for all to see while he turns his sexual frustrations away from his wife and towards his own sister (Beatrice Romand from Rohmer’s infinitely tamer masterpiece,  “Claire Knee”).

Now that Themroc has gone off the rails, he continues to turn his place into a sort of man cave but again not one with a hi-fi system and lava lamp or even the gentile “L’Amour Fou” kind; our Themroc is going back to the stone-age. Again, this would be fine normally sans the incest and the fact that he is living in a city where these kinds of things tend to be frowned upon. Eventually, his threatening actions will soon draw the attention of the police, and they come by to check on our man but because Themroc is unemployed, and no longer hitting the grocery shops, and the man who is playing him in the film, Michel Piccoli, appears somehow still hungry after starring in Marco Ferreri’s equally shocking glutton-a-thon from the same year (1973) “Le Grande Bouffe”, he (Themroc) turns our boys in blue into a barbeque dinner complete with rotating spit. Adding to the frenetic mood that takes over the second half of the film is that none of what has happened or will happen in this film is translated through a recognizable language. It will be all grunts and groans from here on out which adds to the primordial hostilities of the main character and just like Faraldo’s previous work, “La Jeune Morte,” this is a low-budget piece of guerrilla film-making that fits the harshness and in some ways the comedy that is coming through here in the same way that forces you to laugh in between the revulsion of non-stop eating and whore-screwing that is “Le Grande Bouffe.”

Added into the mix are the acting talents of Miou Miou and the late Patrick Dewaere, who would star two years later in Bertrand Blier’s breakthrough comedic classic of stunted sexuality, “Going Places.” With that, I must write that “Themroc” now seems like a harbinger for what would happen in European cinema over this decade. As exciting as the Italian Neo-Realist Movement, The French and British New Waves were to audiences in the 1950s and 1960s, there appears to have been a collection of young filmmakers who were poised to pull film into visceral and nasty place that would seem a natural response to the May 1968 riots.  The aforementioned Marco Ferreri and Betrand Blier, Alan Clarke, and the last films of Pier Paolo Pasolini would set standards of honesty and raw depravity that few filmmakers around the world would be able to match.

Themroc (1973) Full Movie:

Though it received mixed critical and box office reception upon its release in 1973, I feel that “Themroc” would have fit right in with the recent films from European filmmakers like Bruno Dumont, Catherine Breilliat, and Gaspar Noe who would emerge the malaise of the 1980s with the same-minded style of Claude Faraldo and Jean Pierre Mocky, whose primary purpose was to pull the politeness out of what was a tired medium for their generation.