Gilbey on Film: Hell on earth

The X-rated cut of Ken Russell's <em>The Devils</em> is released on DVD.

Now that every film ever made is available at any hour of the day or night to be delivered to your home in a vial and injected into your cerebral cortex while you sleep, the category of the hard-to-find, persistently-unseen, withdrawn or even banned movie is fast becoming extinct. (And please, don't talk to me about The Human Centipede II.) For many years we had A Clockwork Orange to cling to. Your choices, if you wanted to viddy Kubrick's film, were to get a pain in the gulliver watching a ropey VHS pirate copy with German subtitles, or to hop over to Paris to see it in a cinema. You had to actually, you know, try.

Even once A Clockwork Orange became as easily obtainable as an actual orange, we always had Ken Russell's The Devils to dream about, the director's cut tantalisingly beyond reach. Would it ever be commercially available?

Well, it still isn't. But the next best thing - the X-rated cut seen in UK cinemas in 1971 - is out next week on DVD for the first time in a handsome new BFI release. The most widely available version had hitherto been the butchered US cinema edit, so it's good to know that our eyeballs can now be scalded by images no less pure and scandalous than the ones which caused such uproar more than 40 years ago.

The film's story, rooted in historical fact, demands nothing less than a visual and sonic representation of hell. Russell obliges - and then some. The sexual hysteria of an entire convent in 17th-century Loudun, sparked by the repressed fantasies of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), coincides with the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to raze the fortified city's defences and dissolve its independent governance. The focus of these campaigns, one sexual and the other religio-political, falls coincidentally on a single man: Loudun's hulking, deeply flawed but principled priest Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). As the one persistent obstacle to Richelieu, as well as the unobtainable object of Sister Jeanne's desires, he is doubly vulnerable. The film's demonstration of how church and state do each other's bidding to bring down Grandier, and Loudun itself, is as compelling as it is appalling.

Back in 1971, there was a predictable brouhaha over the movie's sexual explicitness, violence and, most of all, depictions of blasphemy that led to the film itself being wrongly branded blasphemous. Even now the imagery is shocking. What's changed is that most audiences will accept the intentions behind it as entirely honourable. (Though before we congratulate ourselves too heartily on our sophisticated response, we should remember that a rescue attempt is unlikely to be made on behalf of Peter Greenaway's 1992 The Baby of Mâcon, a movie comparable in its conscientious horrors, but without a large and vocal following on its side.)

The chronology of the censorship battles over The Devils are documented in a booklet accompanying the DVD, and in the 2002 documentary, Hell on Earth, presented by Mark Kermode (who has been instrumental in gathering up censored footage presumed destroyed) and included among the disc's plentiful DVD extras. (Check out Kermode here discussing the absence from the current cut of the notorious "Rape of Christ" sequence, which was removed before the picture was ever exhibited publicly.)

That's the furore. What of the film? My immediate reaction, not having seen it before this week, is that it's Russell's strongest work by some distance, bolstered by its ferocious, articulate political passion and rendered with a perverse beauty.

To say it shows no sign of its age would be an understatement. The instincts of Russell and his set designer (then-newcomer Derek Jarman) in plumping for stylised expressionism over historical accuracy have been vindicated. The fresh, zinging white tiles and brickwork of the sets was designed both to reflect a phrase in The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley's book about the same historical events, which described what took place in the city as akin to "a rape in a public toilet", and to simultaneously insulate the picture from historical remoteness. The emphasis on the monochromatic led Russell to describe it as "a black and white film shot in colour"; it's interesting to note how the extensive use of white has protected both The Devils and George Lucas's THX 1138 (also released in 1971) from the ravages of four decades and all the intervening trends and fashions.

As promised by the brash opening sequence, depicting Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) dragged up as Venus in a cabaret floorshow, The Devils is a film about performance. Everyone here is putting on a show of some manner. From the King's pantomime cruelty (gunning down Protestants dressed as blackbirds) to Grandier's priapic, strutting vanity; from Sister Jeanne's writhing ecstasy to the grand and repellent orgies it fosters; from the lip-smacking opportunists performing public humiliations on Sister Jeanne to the rock-star-like Father Barre (Michael Gothard), preening in his Lennon specs; and, finally, to the gruelling public execution at the movie's climax, Russell shows torment and fallibility being exploited for political capital. Peter Maxwell Davies's wailing, abrasive score sounds suitably aggrieved by it all, as though the instruments themselves were being tortured along with Grandier.

"The Devils" is released by the BFI in a 2-disc special edition on 19 March.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser