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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Edward Johnson-Ott review follows movie reviewvideo review
2.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---
3.  Harvey Karten read the review ---

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1½ stars out of 4

In 1979, Martin Sherman's "Bent" broke new ground. His play boldly addressed Nazi persecution of homosexuals during World War II, with a strong subtext about gay pride. At a pivotal moment, a character comes to terms with his homosexuality, saying "What's wrong with it?" That statement may have shocked audience members in those days, but that was then and this is now. Nearly twenty years later, "Bent" has finally hit the big screen and the film, while certainly admirable, feels more than a little dated. Through "Schindler's List" and many other fine works, the nightmares of the Holocaust are well documented. The goal of the survivors has been realized: we will never forget. The battle for societal acceptance and equal civil rights for gays continues, but few will argue that tremendous progress has been made. As for the fundamental message of gay pride, one has only to flip on a television to see dozens of positive gay role models on popular shows. So where does this leave "Bent?" In an awkward position, to say the least. The people who still need to be exposed to the film's message generally don't attend gay-themed movies, while many of those sympathetic to the concept will likely think "been there, done that," and opt not to attend.

It's a shame, really, because there are some good moments in "Bent." The film begins at a gay cabaret, as young men cavort under the watchful eye of the club's owner, Greta, a haggard drag queen played by Mick Jagger. The sight of Jagger in women's clothing is startling. Remember the episode of the Andy Griffith Show when Barney Fife went undercover dressed as a woman? That's exactly what Jagger looks like here. But I digress. At the club, Max (Clive Owen) picks up the wrong man, a Nazi Stormtrooper, at the wrong time, the Night of the Long Knives, which marked the beginning of the Nazi's antigay campaign. After a night of sex, Max wakes to the sight his irate lover Rudy (Brian Webber) staring at the drunken soldier in Max's bed. Their quarrel is interrupted when Nazis burst into the room to execute the soldier. Max and Rudy barely escape and find scant help. Greta offers a little cash and Max's uncle (Ian McKellen, who played Max in the original London production of the play) does what little he can. Eventually, the two are arrested and thrown on a train to Dachau. Rudy quickly falls victim to the Nazis, but Max, who prides himself on being a shrewd deal-maker, survives by "proving" to the soldiers he's not gay by having sex with the corpse of a Jewish girl (off- screen, thankfully.) He is rewarded with an upgrade to a yellow star (the designation for Jews) rather than a pink triangle (the gay symbol) for his prison uniform. While traveling to the prison camp, Max meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau,) a gay prisoner who detests Max for denying who he is. The two end up assigned to the same task: moving rocks from one pile to another, then back again. The chore is designed to drive the men to madness, but as they labor, they gradually grow closer. The men are afforded a short break every two hours. During this time they must stand at attention side by side, forbidden to touch, or even look at one another. The centerpiece of the film comes during one of those breaks, when the men talk each other to orgasm. At its core, "Bent" is a love story set against a nightmare. Owen does a fine job portraying Max's growth from a callow, self-centered hedonist to a man who puts love ahead of his own safety. Bluteau is effective as Horst, whose pride and defiance balance his sanctimonious outbursts, and Webber convinces as the fragile Rudy. Director Sean Mathias tries to open up the play for film, with mixed results. The early scenes at the cabaret are excessive, but credible enough and the young men's flight from the Nazis is believable, but once the story moves to Dachau, things change. Max and Horst are always shown isolated from the other prisoners, in settings that look overly theatrical. Too often, the characters fall into that clipped, rapid exchange of dialogue that one only hears during plays. And the ending, while certainly true to the original, comes off like the overwrought climax of a high school drama production. As a play, "Bent" was a landmark. As a movie, it's an anachronism. The years have not been kind to Sherman's work. The lessons of his story remain vital, but over the ensuing years we've seen them presented in better forms. All good intentions aside, "Bent" is a classic example of too little, too late.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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