Arrow Video: The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988) - Reviewed

Italian Neorealist auteur Ermanno Olmi never considered himself a member of the neorealism movement due in large part to his use of non-professional actors and often natural preexisting locations rather than a studio backlot.  His films are also noted for being independently financed.  With his 1988 studio financed and star studded Golden Lion winner The Legend of the Holy Drinker, however, the Palme d’Or winning filmmaker arguably made with it the very definition of the neorealist movement in Italian film while harkening back to flights of magical realism akin to Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan by mixing the impossible with the plausible, divinity with practicality, culminating in a quietly charming while ultimately profoundly moving spiritual experience. 

Based upon the novella of the same name by Joseph Roth and starring Rutger Hauer in one of his finest performances of subtlety and nuance yet, The Legend of the Holy Drinker follows perpetually intoxicated homeless man Andreas Kartack in Paris, France who is given a second chance at life when a random upper class stranger played by Lawrence of Arabia actor Anthony Quayle loans him 200 francs.   The man’s only request is that, when he is able, to repay the 200 francs to a local church.  Andreas agrees but when thrust back into upstanding society in a timeless Paris, the temptations of finding ordinary work, sleeping with women in finely sheeted beds and dining out in classy restaurants prove too difficult to resist.  It doesn’t help that his wallet is mysteriously replenished everytime he runs out of cash.

Told in minimalist, simplistic fashion with carefully prepared long takes while beset by ornate cinematography by soon to be Heat cinematographer Dante Spinotti and subtly haunting use of music by Igor Stravinsky, The Legend of the Holy Drinker is a quietly moving fable concerning man’s ongoing struggle to be good while living the life of a sinner.  Much of the film is anchored by Rutger Hauer who gives one of his finest performances to date, exuding a mixture of angst, longing and torment with his tear streaked eyes often times choosing his words carefully in between long stretches of silence.  Considering Hauer’s eclectic oeuvre with a wide range of performances from working with Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott, it was kind of a shock to see such a galvanizing performance delivered with such skillful subtlety, allowing viewers to peek inside the man’s soul while still remaining cloaked in mystery.

One of the virtues of Olmi’s film is how little we’re allowed to know about this man’s past, seen only through glimpses and flashbacks of his prior life as a miner in Poland before a traumatic event sets him on his self-made purgatory.  Though told in direct fashion, much of the introspection is asked of the audience to try and decipher if his internal struggle results in finding peace or more ongoing torment.  Some viewers may close their hands on air trying to determine just where the film’s hero goes spiritually but that’s part of the film’s wonderment, that you’re drawn into his craggy and sauntering broken worldview without having a clear picture of his denouement. 

What is obvious to anyone who sees it is that his struggle to live a life of virtue while drenched in a life of sin is instantly relatable.  We’ve all been there and somewhere in ourselves is an Andreas Kartack, desperately trying to do penance while the gift of life constantly distracts us from salvation.  For a film to deliver such a message with eloquent simplicity and tender quiet is a remarkable thing of beauty that simply doesn’t happen in the movies anymore.

- Andrew Kotwicki