Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira, a festival favorite who's now in his late 80s, crafts long, impenetrable films that inch forward at a snail's pace. Oliviera's latest work, "The Covenant," marks a change of pace for the filmmaker: It's a short, impenetrable film that inches forward at a snail's pace. A mere 90 minutes by the old sundial, scarcely enough to accomodate a decent nap--although after about 25 uneventful minutes I curled up and closed my eyes.
The story's set-up is intriguing: American professor John Malkovich and his chilly French wife Catherine Deneuve arrive at a Spanish convent. He is on a mission, looking for a key document that will prove his theory that Shakespeare was in fact of Spanish ancestry. A fascinating premise, but the follow-through is a massive yawn.
The convent's guardian, and Michael and Helen's host, is a creepy Christopher Walken-type character with bushy eyebrows named Balthar. This bizarre man, who dresses mostly in black and looks like a faded disco king, instantly falls for Helen. Balthar clears his path to Helen by assigning a beautiful, pure and slightly seductive creature as Michael's devoted assistant in the convent's musty library. We've also got a pair of servants who pop up periodically to tell us things we already know, slowing down the story even more.
Basically, "The Convent" is a take on Goethe's "Faust," and you know how pretentious and fascinating a literary, oh-so-symbolic adaptation of a fable can be. The good news is Deneuve still looks ravishing, almost too much so, like a bright color figure in the middle of a black-and-white photograph.
As for Malkovich, well, he's one of the most intense theater actors I've ever had the pleasure of seeing onstage, but his movie work--especially with European directors--is a complete yawn. From "Dangerous Liaisons" to "The Sheltering Sky" to his episode in Michelangelo Antonioni's new "Beyond the Clouds," Malkovich is the epitome of passionless, distanced existentialism. Don't get me wrong: Existentialism is a wonderful philosophy and a fabulous attitude--hey kids, try it today--but there's nothing more boring to watch, especially in movies. There may be something more going on in "The Convent," some humor perhaps, but if there is, I missed it.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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