The great French director Eric Rohmer died 10 years ago, but his spirit lives on in other filmmakers. There are artists at work in the Rohmer tradition who, at moments, have evoked his sublime conversational ardor — and if you want to know what I mean, just watch Eugène Green’s “La Sapienza.” Few in the U.S. saw this 2014 release (it made $135,000), but it’s a beguiling and rapturous movie. Green brought together four characters in Italy and had them ruminate about love, marriage, sickness, healing, ghosts, light, the mystic wonders of Roman Baroque architecture, and death, all set against landscapes pristine enough to suggest that the earth is still an Eden if only we’d wake up to it. At the end, two characters, each staring directly into the camera, arrived at a moment of truth, and it was as if they were talking to each other, to us, and to God. It was a sequence you could imagine being equally appreciated by Stanley Kubrick and Mother Teresa.
Green, born in New York City in 1947, relocated to France in 1969 and became a filmmaker only 20 years ago. (He has worked extensively in theater.) “La Sapienza” was like one of Rohmer’s flowing dream-play talkfests, but Green, even more than Rohmer, isn’t shy about nudging his philosophical obsessions to the center. He’s a sly cosmopolitan dramatist who’s also that surprisingly rare thing in cinema: a religious artist. If he had a greater impulse toward self-promotion, he might be as well-known in what we used to call art-house circles as Olivier Assayas or Paolo Sorrentino or the Dardenne brothers, but Eugène Green goes his own way. At the recent San Sebastián Film Festival, he got in hot water for refusing to wear a mask to his own screening (he has now been banned from the festival), and that tells you what a maverick he is.
I’d love to see Green make 12 more films like “La Sapienza,” but his new movie, “Atarrabi and Mikelats,” which premiered last week at the New York Film Festival, isn’t cut from that cloth. It’s a stylized, almost ritualistic lark: a contempo medieval morality play, based on a Basque myth, that tells the story of two brothers, Atarrabi and Mikelats (portrayed by real-life brothers Saia and Lukas Hiriart), who’ve been raised by Le Diable — that’s right, the Devil (Thierry Biscary), who in this movie is a genuine corporeal dude, one who dresses in designer scarlet and listens to rap music but drives a hard bargain.
The Devil was given these twin protégés by their mother, Mari (Adelaïde Daraspe-Lafourcade), a siren goddess who killed their father the night he impregnated her. The place the Devil lords it over is a version of hell, but hell in this movie looks like the sandy-walled, semi-empty basement floor of a Pottery Barn, and Atarrabi and Mikelats are both such splendid calendar-boy camera objects that there’s something a shade tongue-in-cheek about their captivity.
Atarrabi, with his mop of curls and big gawky innocent eyes, suggests a taller version of Elijah Wood’s Frodo; he’s the solemn and saintly one. Mikelats, who with his long hair and come-hither smirk bears a disarming resemblance to “Weird Al” Yankovic, is like a stoner drawn by Modigliani; he’s the dastardly one, who makes a deal with the Devil for immortality. He will stay on, forever, as his good-time apprentice, while Atarrabi longs to escape (and soon does). The captivating strangeness of this movie is embodied in the fact that the dialogue, in its knowingly static late-Robert-Bresson storybook way, is at moments a shade away from a “Bill & Ted” movie. Mikelats: “I got a promotion. I’ll have a bedroom next to those of my friends.” Atarrabi: “Your friends are devils.” Mikelats: “We have fun together.” Do they ever. In hell, there are special effects just primitive enough to take you back to the age of Georges Méliès and a communal dance with a goat-demon that’s like “Eyes Wide Shut” restaged as a fraternity hazing rite.
Yet Eugène Green isn’t kidding around. What hell represents in this lightly staged allegorical movie is the lure of pleasure, addiction, living for the moment — the glory of the self in the Western world. What Atarrabi’s quest represents is the higher pleasure of transcendence: giving up the primacy of yourself to merge with everything around you.
Mikelats tells his brother that if he makes his own deal with the Devil, “You can gain your freedom, like I did.” Atarrabi replies, “What you gained is slavery.” And so he escapes the Devil by tricking him with a talking sieve. Out in the world, he joins a monastery, eager to find the light of God. But here’s the rub: As the dourly benevolent Father Superior (Pablo Lasa) explains, because of his mother’s dark unearthly powers Atarrabi (literally) casts no shadow. And so he’s not allowed to become a monk. All he wants is to climb a stairway to heaven, yet fate has denied him access to the light of God.
The characters in “Atarrabi and Mikelats” speak the Basque language of Euskara, and like the couple at the end of “La Sapienza,” they often address the camera directly, which gives the film a stylized, Bresson-meets-hypnotist quality. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s a detached movie. There’s a disarmingly innocent primal sincerity to it. These characters have no place for irony; they speak the truth of who they are.
Atarrabi is the good one, and we expect good things to come to him, but what lends the film its emotion — and it arrives like a slowly gathering storm — is that for all his surface calm, Atarrabi is in a state of high torment. He’s living in a box he can’t get out of, and anyone who watches “Atarrabi and Mikelats” may think back to those moments in life when the one thing you wanted and needed was denied. The real hell in this movie is spiritual hunger.
There are moments of extraordinary beauty, like an extended shot of Atarrabi and Udana (Ainara Leemans), the radiant young village woman who wants to marry him, walking up a road at twilight as the music from a medieval square dance lingers behind them, or the way that a white vulture, near the end, pokes its beak toward a displayed corpse, only to back off, as if knowing it’s in the presence of a power greater than its own. “Atarrabi and Mikelats” isn’t a movie for everyone — in fact, by design, it’s probably a movie for very few. Yet it confirms the reverent audacity of Eugène Green’s talent. He’s 73 years young. He still has the chance to make a film that will blow the world away.