Never has an “art film” been so mismatched with its Manhattan venues as “The Witch” at the two popular multiplexes where it can be seen. This is a very small movie, dark both literally and metaphorically, difficult to hear and even more difficult to comprehend both literally and metaphorically. Most of the scenes are shot in obscure and candle-lit interiors; most of the dialogue is either muffled, whispered or foreign-sounding enough for American audiences to have benefited greatly had there been sub-titles. We are in the 17th century with a Puritan family that has been banished from the community plantation for the father’s sin of being prideful and apparently holier than thou. The father is determined to create his own farm at the edge of the woods and since we have already been told that this is a New England folk tale, we know what that portends.
The best scene in the movie occurs very soon after as the blossoming teenage daughter cares for her infant brother; it is genuinely moving, startling and very well done. It sets into motion the rest of the plot which involves calamitous events leading to the mother’s breakdown, the father’s well-intentioned duplicity, the older son’s precipitous coming of age, the younger twins’ taunting of their older sister leading to serious accusations with forseeable and hallucinatory consequences. One reviewer compared this movie to ”The White Ribbon” where the authoritarian nature of German family life and education become a stand-in and precursor for the larger societal implications of obedience to Nazism. In that movie, the metaphoric stretch is clear. What comes through most aggressively in this movie is the zero tolerance that the director shows for religious “fanaticism” which is mostly evident in the family praying together or having a fast day. The children are not lashed for their misdeeds nor does the father seem unmindful of their needs or those of his increasingly grief-stricken wife. His major sin seems to be his abiding belief in God and the devil. The most disturbing scenes in this “horror movie” are filmed so that we have trouble understanding what we’re seeing initially and once the action does come into focus, it’s abruptly over. Both involve pagan rituals with mutilation of children and animals, lots of blood and naked bodies - the work of the devil.
Unfortunately, most of this movie’s assumption of hysteria as a natural outgrowth of religious conviction is unearned. If you substitute the word “monster” for devil, you realize that conjuring exaggerated or unnatural deeds is part of our collective unconscious - particularly for children. Yes, there were Salem Witch Trials but before we get too smug, let’s remember the horrors that nursery school children supposedly experienced at the McMartin school whose administrators were outrageously accused of and tried for sexually abusing the children and having them participate in orgies and animal sacrifices. This was in the 20th century, not the 17th and religion had nothing to do with it, though the justice system proved to be as irrational as that of previous centuries. “The Witch” trades in easy clichés without leading us to any deeper psychological or philosophical implications. I wonder how many of the reviewers who were so captivated by this film could give a coherent explanation of which sins of the father were being visited on his family and why. If you decide to see the movie for yourself, take along a Brit who may be able to give you a quick simultaneous translation of what the actors are saying, though it’s doubtful that it will enrich your understanding of what you have seen.
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