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We Are The Flesh    2016     Arrow Video Blu ray / DVD

                                                Life, sex and death. Three of the most primal and fundamental experiences that human beings have. One leads to

                                      another and then back again--at least that’s how transgressive Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter (Inside, 2013; not to

                                      be confused with Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s 2007 French film of the same name) sees things in this often-bizarre,

                                      controversial, repugnant and deeply layered film. It’s an unsettling mélange of art house, porno theater, avant-garde and

                                      psychological character study.

                                                We Are the Flesh is not for the faint-hearted, easily offended, or those looking for a traditional narrative. The story—

                                      extremely difficult to follow and continually reshaping itself—begins with Mariano (Noé Hernández; Sin Nombre, 2009), a homeless man squatting in a dilapidated house. He drags in bundles of cardboard, takes some sort of drug from an eye dropper, and beats on a drum when not making gasoline or trading for food from an unseen source. Mariano is a complete nut job and basket case. After watching him descend into a frenzy of percussive exhaustion, viewers can be forgiven for wondering so early on just where in hell this is headed.

            Enter Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), siblings in search of food. The oddball hermit takes them in and puts them to work building a structural framework from timber, old chairs and other bits of detritus, all held together by an endless supply of packing tape. The superstructure is then covered in cardboard. The rooms of the old building become a series of womb-like caves--stages upon which dark things are going to happen. After watching Mariano force vegetarian Lucio to eat a steak in order to save Fauna’s life (perhaps influenced by Anthony DiBlasi’s Dread, 2009), viewers can be forgiven for wondering just what the hell all of this is supposed to mean.

          As it turns out, Mariano isn’t merely an unpredictable, quirky hermit eeking out an existence among the ruins. Once Fauna and Lucio are fully in his power, he becomes Dante’s Virgil, Satan, a deliver, a liberator, and the fullest expression of humanity’s darkest fantasies all rolled into one. Sometimes guiding, sometimes participating, sometimes watching, he draws his two protégées into a phantasmagoric web of forbidden desires, shattering every social and moral boundary. In the final act, two other characters are lured into the cave-womb: a soldier named Mexico (Gabino Rodríguez) who is ritually killed, and María (María Cid) who is violated by both Fauna and Lucio.

          Every performance is powerful and compelling, but it is the unholy trinity of Hernández, Evoli and Gamaliel who command the screen. Their depictions are uninhibited and fearless, especially when placed in some extremely intimate scenes. Hernández’s leering, maniacal hermit-guide projects a constant aura of menace and domination.

          The transgressive elements on display are plentiful, and just when the viewer thinks the most unbelievable taboo has been breached, another comes along to up the ante. Be prepared for urination, cannibalism, rape, masturbation (male and female), necrophilia, incest, fellatio, and Fauna letting her menstrual blood drip into the open mouth of her brother. None of this is hinted at, shown off-screen or relegated to the shadows. It is plainly and unflinchingly expressed in ways designed to violate and destabilize the viewer.

          There are a few films that make one want to take a shower afterward to wash away the funk—Nico Mastorakis’s Island of Death (1976), Kazuo Komizu’s Entrails of a Virgin (1986), Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1987), and Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film (2010) to name a few—but We Are the Flesh may just top the list. Several scenes are overtly pornographic but nothing is presented as titillating or erotic. Rather, sex acts are offered up as a messy, bestial exchange of bodily fluids and nothing else. According to critic Virginie Sélavy’s 35+ minute video essay on the film (included as a special feature), Rocha Minter’s emphasis on the body and its primal functions derives from the ideology of the Marquis de Sade.

De Sade’s writings focused on exploring the darkest aspects of human nature, and acting upon those aspects to their fullest. He believed that all civilized restraint on behavior should be eliminated. Writing in “Aline et Valcour,” de Sade said “We are no guiltier in following the primitive impulses that govern us than is the Nile for her floods or the sea for her waves.” De Sade’s philosophy is one component that pervades We Are the Flesh. Another is the Theater of Cruelty, developed by Antonin Artaud of France.

          Artaud (who spent a considerable portion of his life in insane asylums, as did de Sade) experimented with a brash, offensive and confrontational approach to theater. He relied more on movement and gesture than on dialogue, and subjected his audiences to bright lights and discordant sounds during performances. The intent was to blend actors and audience into a single visceral experience that unveiled and encouraged the baseness of human nature.

          Rocha Minter takes both of these influences—as well as the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, specifically El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973)--and successfully weaves them together to create a film that bombards the viewer from start to finish. Utilizing strong colors, overwhelming sonic distortion, repellent images and a story that offers itself up for multiple interpretations, there is no sitting back and just watching the film. It’s nearly an interactive experience. It shocks, confuses, angers and mystifies. The one thing it doesn’t do is allow the viewer to be comfortable. It explores some of the darkest and most unthinkable elements that reside in the primordial center of our human nature. It’s not something that should be viewed when young or impressionable people are present.

          The high definition (1080p) presentation is beautiful to look at. Colors are amazing—the viewer can almost feel the warmth of the reds and oranges, and the coolness of the blues--and detail is extremely clear (perhaps too clear, as when we are shown prolonged close ups of human genitalia). Two audio options are included: 5.1 surround and uncompressed 2.0 stereo.

          Optional English subtitles are also available.

          Special features include the original theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, two short films by Rocha Minter (Dentro and Videohome), the aforementioned video essay by Sélavy (founder and editor-at-large of Electric Sheep, an online magazine for transgressive cinema), and individual interviews with the director and cast members Noé Hernández, María Evoli and Diego Gamaliel. Sélavy’s essay is a must-watch in order to bring some sense of coherence to the film.

Witchhammer (Kladivo na čarodějnice)   1969   Second Run Blu ray

                                      In a 17th century Czech village, an elderly woman is caught stealing a Communion wafer from the church. The sanctified

                            Host, she confesses, is for a neighbor whose cow has stopped giving milk. The local priest and ruling countess fear that witchcraft

                            is afoot in the region, and summon the inquisitorial aid of Boblig of Edelstadt (Vladimír Smeral). With his leering clerk and

                            assistant Jokl (Frantisek Holar) in tow, the inquisitor descends upon the village and launches a reign of terror.

Boblig oversees a tribunal of judges who hear forced, coached testimony from the women accused of consorting with the Devil. Of course, they are completely innocent but that doesn’t hinder Boblig. He uses thumbscrews and the rack to extract confessions, as well as to identify the other purported witches in the village. It isn’t long before the body count nears double digits and the small community is paralyzed by fear and paranoia. With Boblig showing no indication of slowing down or being lenient, the priest and his supervisor, Deacon Lautner (Elo Romancik), dare to speak out against the inquisitor. Pleas to the countess and even the bishop go unheeded, and soon thereafter Lautner is arrested, along with his cook, Zuzana (Sona Valentová).

          Lautner’s trial consists of the testimony of three dozen men and woman who claim to have seen the deacon at a Black Mass. Their accounts are blatantly scripted and unbelievable, but Lautner can provide no evidence of his innocence. Only after the application of thumbscrews, the rack, and the Spanish boot does he acquiesce to Boblig’s manufactured crimes. The film ends on a bleak note with Lautner in jail, awaiting execution on trumped up charges, refusing the spiritual counsel of the monks sent to minister to him by the same Church that has signed his death warrant.

Throughout the film a hooded, fiery-eyed monk interrupts the narrative with invectives against women, designed to prop up the religious mania behind the witch hunt. The monk’s presence and condemning words emphasize the common Middle Age perception that women were dangerous, wanton, easily seduced by diabolic cunning. Therefore, it was necessary to control and oppress them by whatever means necessary.

          With the exception of the countess (who is complicit in the events happening in her realm), all of the women are old, weak, poor and—perhaps most damning in the eyes of the authorities—sexually aware. Vávra begins the film with a montage of women in a bathhouse. They laugh and relax as they soak in the steaming water. The camera lingers over breasts and buttocks, not in an erotic or titillating manner, but in platonic appreciation—the way a painter might observe his subject as he works. This opening stands in stark contrast to what befalls women throughout the film, Vávra’s way of reminding the viewer that female sexuality is perceived as threatening in a patriarchal society.

          The source novel (by Václav Kaplický) draws upon actual Moravian court documents of witch trials from 1667-1695, and the overarching themes are common to such subject matter: the subjugation of women, religious fanaticism, greed, and the totalitarian use of power. Witchhammer does not attempt to present a specific historical moment or individual (as Michael Reeves did with British witchfinder Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General, 1968). Neither does it wallow in the lurid sex-and-blood exploitation of Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970). Director Otakar Vávra uses his film as a bold commentary against the Communist regime of his day.

          Vávra is considered part of the Czech “New Wave,” a period of cinematic rebellion against Soviet dominion that produced such films as Miloš Forman’s Black Peter (1963), Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969), and Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), among many others. As Soviet control of Czechoslovakia tightened throughout the 1960s, the subversive films of the New Wave helped fuel reformist movements, eventually resulting in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

          Witchhammer never sacrifices its narrative or imagery for political diatribe. It is able to critique Soviet rule through its portrayal of the Church and aristocracy as the true evil, power-hungry menaces who prey on the poor and weak. It is not surprising that as Lautner’s torture and interrogation proceeds, his visage takes on a startling Christ-like appearance, linking the downtrodden populace of Czechoslovakia with the suffering of Jesus.

          The film debuted on DVD in 2004 (under the title Witches’ Hammer) courtesy of Facets Video. Second Run upgrades the presentation with a bright, clean high definition transfer from original materials in the Czech National Film Archive. Detail is enhanced dramatically in close up shots such as a cross laying on the countess’s dress, the stubbly chin and dirty teeth of the overzealous monk, and the textures of wood, hair and cloth. The excellent cinematography almost glows due to the well-balanced restoration. Blacks are solid and more variations of gray can be found. A few “cigarette burns” at reel change points remain, as does the occasional speck of dirt, but it is doubtful that the film has ever looked better than it does here.

          Special features include:

          “The Womb of Woman is the Gateway to Hell” (a quote from the misogynistic monk), running 22 minutes, is a visual appreciation of the film narrated by critic Kat Ellinger, who places it in context with others of its kind such as Cry of the Banshee (1970) and The Devils (1971). Ellinger draws connections between the film and Milada Horáková, a female Czech politician who survived Nazi concentration camps only to be tried and executed on false charges by the Soviets in 1950.

          “The Light Penetrates the Dark” (Svetlo proniká tmou, 1931) is a 4m., 36s. film made by Vávra when he was twenty years old.

          A 16-page booklet with an essay on the film by editor and journalist Samm Deighan.

          The film is in Czech with English subtitles. The disc is region-free, making this overlooked prize and historical drama accessible—and recommended--to everyone.