Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Custodes Bestiae (2006)

After making some sort of big discovery via a handful of scratched photographs he has stumbled upon and a fresco he's restoring in a provincial village church, (art historian?) Professor Dal Colle (Giorgio Merlino) invites newspaper Journalist Londero (Massimiliano Pividore) to an interview in which he is planning to unveil whatever that discovery is.

Just as Dal Colle is about to get into the details, a car arrives in front of his house. Clearly, Dal Colle is frightened of whoever is inside. The professor gives Londero a bag with his old camera and asks the journalist to hide until the unbidden visitor leaves again.

That's the last Londero sees of Dal Colle for quite some time. When the visitor is gone, so is the Professor. Londero takes the camera with him, and starts an investigation to find out what the historian wanted to tell him. It soon becomes clear that Dal Colle must have made an enemy of a very dangerous group, men who don't have any trouble killing or lobotomizing whoever crosses them, and that this group won't stop at anything keeping Londero away from their secrets.

However, the physical danger isn't the only thing Londero has to fear. The further his investigations lead him, the clearer it becomes that Dal Colle's big secret must have been kept for centuries and concerns things that are neither fully natural nor sane. The supernatural qualities of the whole affair are made clearer to the audience by the presence of increasingly more comprehensible flashbacks into the late 16th century which the film's poor protagonist never gets to see.

The few bits and pieces I've read about Lorenzo Bianchini's Custodes Bestiae on the 'net put a heavy emphasis on the film being an homage to Argento in his short occult phase (which just happens to be my favourite part of Argento's career). I don't entirely agree with that emphasis. Sure, the film does contain more than one nod to Argento's films, but the differences between Argento's style of film-making and that of Bianchini are gigantic.

In part, these differences are certainly caused by the much tighter budget the younger director clearly has to work with. Of course, there are the usual problems of a film made in the 00's, like sometimes amateurish acting, sometimes problematic sound and the generally cheap look of something shot on digital video - problems never found in Argento's movies when he was good. However, Bianchini doesn't actually seem to be trying to emulate Argento's aesthetic closely, which, given the circumstances, is something to be commended, for the film would only ever become a pale imitation of Argento, as built with cheap papiermache. Visually, Bianchini doesn't reach for Argento's highly stylized, hypnotic artificiality, but uses predominantly real locations in Friuli, sometimes giving his film slightly documentarian appearance that works well with the investigative story he tells, at other times trying his best - and more often than not succeeding - to create a weird mood by cheap and simple camera and editing devices. Custodes Bestiae is not always as slick as one would probably wish from a film, but there's an intelligence and care on display that really helps to make it work for me.

How well the film does work for a given viewer will probably depend on one's tolerance or liking for a film that by and large consists of scenes of people doing research and trying to make sense of it in a narrative that reminded me of my favourite investigative Call/Trail of Cthulhu scenarios more than once. In fact, while the film doesn't use Lovecraft's mythos, its background story has more than just a slight resemblance to Shadow over Innsmouth, as does its climax and the inevitability of the self-destruction of its protagonists. If you think watching people puzzling over books and crawling through archives until they meet their certain doom sounds boring, then this will probably not be the film for you at all. If, on the other hand, the idea of a well-constructed investigation into an equally well-constructed mythology that fits excellently into the way real-life myth and religion work sounds like your kind of thing, Custodes Bestiae should be right up your alley.

Me, I'm always happy when I can watch people doing research into the occult in movies, and if a film knows as well how to pace this sort of narrative as this one does, I can't help but be spellbound.


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