Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Witches' Hammer (1970)

Director: Otakar Vavra

Starring: Elo Romanick, Vladimir Smeral, Sona Valentova and lots more familiar names

More info: IMDb

Plot: In a Czech town in the seventeenth century, an elderly woman enters a church to accept communion. Her true purpose is to collect the holy host for a midwife who needs it to treat an ailing dairy cow. The woman is caught and is forced to explain her sacrilegious actions. Religious and secular authorities agree that she is in league with witches and may even be a witch herself. This prompts an inquisition where confessions are obtained through threats and torture. A
tribunal is held to provide a legal facade. Though the hunt is initially confined to the impoverished fringes of local society, the hysteria soon expands to the point that no one, not even leading citizens, is safe. The ultimate target is a clergyman, Deacon Lautner, who defies the righteous men of the tribunal. Based on actual trial records from the 1678 to 1695.

My rating: 8/10

Will I watch it again? Absolutely!

Literally knowing nothing about this except the title, year and country of origin, I thought perhaps I was in for a Euro horror of sorts. Nope. Instead, it's a harrowing account of 17th century witch hunting that feels all too real. Though the film opens with this...

...it's not exploitative at all. It does, however, exploit the hypocrisy and greed of the church. The entire film is practically an expose on the subject. It's expertly done and you feel deeply for the women accused of witchcraft. That this is based on the trial records of that time period makes it even more grisly. I don't know how much liberty was taken but, again, it feels real and that this could've easily happen.

When I watched this last year or so it was around the time of "crackergate". There was a college student who was manhandled by the staff of a catholic church on school grounds when he attempted to walk out with a eucharist after communion. He refused to give it back and there was a huge uproar in the community for him to return it. He was charged by many as having kidnapped christ. He received threats on his life because of this...all over a fucking cracker. I realise these people are the fringe but it's not uncommon to find people who believe in religion so strongly that they will threaten peoples lives for it or, at the very least, say and do irrational things all in the name of it.

You sure said a mouthful, brother!

So when the old woman does something very similar at the beginning of the film, it had more resonance. Again, I don't know what aspects of the film are based on true accounts but the timing couldn't have been better for me to view it.

There are bits of torture throughout that are just awful to watch. What do you do when you don't get the confession you're looking for? Bust out the thumb screws. Ouch! It's so brutal and adds even more to this film that has relevance today.

Sadly the version available on Netflix is fullscreen. It's a magnificent film and probably the best I've seen regarding witch trials and of this time in history. It's brutal, unforgiving, frighteningly sterile and real. I highly recommend this in any form you can get it.

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