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The Ninth Gate

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Ninth Gate

Starring: Johnny Depp, Lena Olin
Director: Roman Polanski
Rated: R
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: March 2000
Genres: Horror, Thriller

*Also starring: Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner, James Russo

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The public fascination with movies on occult themes is bottomless. Given the general routines of our lives--our daily trips to work, shopping for this and that, suburban barbecues on weekends while city people go to the zoo--we seek out drama and conflict more exotic than that of ritual battles between political candidates who debate such trivial matters as whether a building on a deserted street should be seized and destroyed to make room for a wider road. In short, we look for battles that have higher stakes than squabbles within cities or a discordant national dialogue or even rows between nations. We want nothing less than a clash between good and evil, in which selling your soul to the devil does not mean taking bribes to award a contract to x or y construction company but a literal conjuring up of the Lucifer to achieve power beyond ordinary human scope.

Few directors can comply with audience demands to be pulled out of their mundane worlds better than the sixty-six year old Roman Polanski. We can understand Polanski's interest in the obsessions of the principal characters of his absorbing new movie "The Ninth Gate" when we grasp his difficult youth. Polanski had a terrifying childhood. At the age of eight, his parents were shipped off from Krakow, Poland, to a Nazi concentration camp where his mother died. Roman escaped from the Jewish quarters (ghetto) of Krakow before its destruction, was hidden by Catholic families as he wandered the Polish countryside, and in more than one instance became the victim of a sadistic game by Germans: They used him for target practice, watching Polanski dodge bullets by soldiers who used him for target practice in much the way that Ralph Fiennes' character exercised his power in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster, "Schindler's List." His early childhood, then, was given over to more fear than perhaps the most abused kids in the U.S. today experience. This anxiety translates to his films, and though Polanski is capable of breaking loose from his characteristic style with an exquisitely literary and cinematic "Tess," he is best known today for his adaptation of Ira Levin's modern thriller, "Rosemary's Baby"--in which an innocent woman does not suspect the bargain that her husband has made with satanic forces.

Something of "Rosemary's Baby" comes forth in "The Ninth Gate," though not until the penultimate scene. Most of the lengthy--but not overlong--drama accommodates a supernatural tone, but happily, no ridiculous aliens burst from the abdomens of human beings and no stereotypical bloodsuckers seduce their victims into eternal, if profane, life. Polanski relies on a noir inflection, shooting many of his scenes in dimly lit interiors and displaying his central character as a chain smoker with scholarly, owlish glasses who becomes involved with two fetching women that could have come from a Hammett novel.

The talented and diversified Johnny Depp performs in the role of Dean Corso, a man with an enormous knowledge of rare books who is also a mercenary willing to sell his talents to the highest bidder. Essentially a book detective, he takes on a commission from the fabulously rich collector Boris Balkan, Ph.D. (Frank Langella), whose vast personal library includes the exceedingly rare "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" published during the 1600s and allegedly co-authored by Lucifer himself. Balkan offers a huge sum to Corso, who must travel to Portugal and France to find the other two copies of this rare book, presumably to determine whether Balkan's copy is authentic or a forgery. In the course of his investigation he interviews the sinuous Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), recently widowed from the previous owner of the book, and is followed everywhere by a mysterious, green-eyed blonde whose name is not revealed (Emmanuelle Seigner) but whose identity becomes clearer in the concluding scenes.

Frank Langella, not unaccustomed to villainous roles during his career on stage and screen, looms physically large in this production. Wearing an unusual rug on his head, an expensive pin-striped suit on his body, and a heavy pair of eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose, Langella is convincing as a man whose millions do not provide what he is really after--more power than that enjoyed by any human being. Since the engravings in the books he seeks would complete a set of illustrations he already owns and allow him to conjure the devil--much as Rabbi Loew animates an avenging monster in Paul Wegener's 1920 film "The Golem"--Balkan will stop at nothing to gain possession of the volumes.

Whether you think the film comes apart near the finish as many critics have offered depends really on your age. A youthful audience may turn on from the unleashing of psychic energy as black-robed men listen to a sinister supplication in Latin, while a more enlightened crowd will appreciate the human aspects of the drama, especially the remarkably adept performance by Depp. "The Ninth Gate" is far and away superior to the blatantly exploitative "End of Days," avoiding most of the special effects beloved of Peter Hyams while displaying a humorous scene involving Jose Lopez Rodero who is f/x'd as a pair of twins, Pablo and Pedro Ceniza. Though the final minute of the film will have most of the audience scratching their heads and wondering "Is that all?" despite its generous 132 minutes, "The Ninth Gate" is for the most part an appropriately restrained, deftly acted and smartly stylized with a dynamite score by Wojciech Kilar.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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