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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Bent

Starring: Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau
Director: Sean Mathias
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genres: Drama, Gay/Lesbian

*Also starring: Brian Webber, Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The best thing about "Bent" is that it adds to the wealth of material available on the screen about the Holocaust. Focusing strictly on the Nazi purge of homosexuals which occurred early on, in 1934, just after the election of Hitler to power in 1933 and five years before the opening of World War 2, "Bent" does for gays what the play "Good" did for old people. It reveals the intolerance which the Aryan mentality had for people it considered weak, immoral, or sick. That its principal character is also a Jew becomes relevant in the final scene and has some resonance throughout, as Max (Clive Owen), adamantly denying his homosexuality, has no problem wearing the yellow star when he might have opted for the pink triangle.

Unlike "The Substance of Fire," a play which was quite successfully and movingly translated into celluloid, "Bent" appears difficult to decode from stage to screen, though perhaps in the hands of another director, the technical problems could have been resolved. When Martin Sherman's drama opened on Broadway seventeen years back, it moved many in the audience to tears and elicited a review from the New York Times 'Powerful and provocative," while Women's Wear Daily called it "an explosive, overpowering experience. The power is lost in a naturalistic medium like the movies. As Greta, Mick Jagger sits on a large brass ring high above the crowd of the cabaret belting out a mournful song about how the city of Berlin will eat up its denizens--the kind of mise en scene absolutely made for the stage but banal, even unbelievable, on the big screen. The one element of the story which is improved by filming is the chase scene, though Sean Mathias directs the panorama as a generic event.

The opening scene at the cabaret is the movie's most lavish, one designed to contrast with the bleakness of the proceedings which occur later in a concentration camp. Max is pictured as a charismatic fellow whose presence electrifies those around him, as he works the room kissing several of the people seated at one table, and attracts the attention of a Nazi S.A. officer. "Bent" touches upon an activity reminiscent of big city bath-house exercises during the 1970s, as several gays in the audience retreat to a dimly lit area for anonymous sex--a grunt and groan escapade probably responsible for earning the movie an NC-17 rating.

When German officials, tipped off by Greta, raid Max's loft, they slit the throat of their fellow officer who has besmirched the uniform by engaging in homosexual activity and pursue the fleeing Max and his partner Rudy (Brian Webber) into the forest. Captured and put on a train to Dachau, Max shows his determination to survive by denying his friendship with Rudy and beating him to death when so ordered. At the camp he meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who declares his love for Max, and scoffs at Max's refusal to wear the pink triangle.

What is meant to elicit tears from the audience comes across inadvertently as near-camp. When Max and Horst take their allowed three-minute break after a two-hour period of moving rocks from one pile to another, they stand side to side imagining what sex would be like. Without even brushing fingertips--two guards are constantly watching from the tower- -they reach simultaneous orgasm.

During the entire time Max and Horst move rocks meaninglessly from one side of an outdoor area to another--a scenario which takes up half the story--we get the impression that Dachau was a camp built almost exclusively for them. There are virtually no other prisoners in sight: the cubicles in which the doomed are allowed to sleep are populated by only a handful of men. Once again, this absence of population would work just fine on the stage, where an audience can easily suspend disbelief, but comes across as claustrophobic on the movie screen.

Ian McKellen is underutilized in the role of Max's uncle, a homosexual who is married and urges Max to do the same to put up a front during these repressive times. Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau do display a chemistry that convinces us that they are lovers in spirit in this British production, filmed largely in Scotland, about a little-known aspect of intolerance. The final tableau should please particularly the gays among the viewers, Max's spectacular proclamation of pride in his true identity.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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