The Church (La Chiesa) was the second feature from director Michele Sovai, a protégé of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. Now best known for the independently produced art-film-cum-zombie-flick Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994), actor-turned-director Sovai proved his mettle with The Church, showing that, although decidedly less flamboyant, his baroque visual style and sense of pacing could match that of his mentor.
The film opens during the Crusades, where a band of Teutonic knights slaughters an entire village of suspected witches and buries their bodies in a mass grave. In order to ward off their evil, a priest declares that a church must be constructed above the mass grave in order to convert it to holy ground. Yeah, right. A giant cross is dropped on top of the grave, and then, in the first of many impressive feats of camerawork, past and present are linked by what appears to be an unbroken tracking shot that moves away from the cross, through the bowels of the church, and then up and out from the faceless black center of a statue of a man shrouded in a black cloak, where it continues to track throughout the interior of the church in the modern day.
The church is currently under renovation, and it is here that we meet the main characters, including Evan (Tomas Arana), the new librarian; Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), a restoration expert working on the church’s chillingly graphic frescos that depict demons and torture; and teenage Lotte (Asia Argento, Dario Argento’s daughter), daughter of the sacristan (Roberto Corbiletto). We also meet the church’s aged and humorless bishop (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), who looks old and grumpy enough to have been alive when the church was first constructed.
We know that the church is in trouble given its location, but it takes the characters awhile to realize their precarious situation. It begins with an ancient manuscript discovered by Lisa, and Evan takes it upon himself to be an archeologist, which leads him to the bowels of the church, where he discovers the cross in the ground marking the mass grave. Once he opens the portal, the spirits of the witches possess him, leading to an extended sequence that takes up the last third of the film in which all the priests and a group of people in the wrong place at the wrong time (a bickering elderly couple, a group of schoolchildren, a bunch of models taking part in a photo shoot) are trapped in the church while the demonic possession spreads like a contagion to anyone who is touched.
The screenplay, penned by Dario Argento, his frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini (Opera), and Sovai, also manages to include the history of the church’s construction, in which the architect, an alchemist distrusted by the priests, was tortured and buried alive with a certain secret in his mouth. There are also references to ancient conspiracy theories about how all gothic cathedrals are part of a giant master plan and how each of them is designed with a single button that can bring the whole thing down. These are intriguing undertones, and the idea of the “terrible house” constructed by an alchemist indirectly links The Church to Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two films in Argento’s at-the-time incomplete “Three Mothers” trilogy.
The Church is also frequently referred to as the third entry in the Demons series, the first two of which (1986’s Demons and 1987’s Demons 2) were directed by Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror, and another of Argento’s protégés. It was originally conceived as such, but once Soavi took the reins, The Church became something more (and better, given the generally sloppy nature of Lamberto Bava’s work). The Church is a refined horror film in its sense of pacing and its evocative use of disturbing imagery and symbols. The blasphemous nature of staging a series of grisly demonic possessions in the middle of a church gives the film a solid horrific center sure to run off the squeamish, but Soavi doesn’t settle for the easy, frequently opting instead for a more oblique and suggestive, rather than graphic, approach to the material.
Soavi gives fans the requisite gore—one man impales himself on a jackhammer (unlikely), a woman is speared in the throat by a wrought-iron gate, and one character appears to tear his own beating heart out of his chest while another tears the skin off her cheeks with her fingers—but he doesn’t dwell on the blood and guts. Rather, he concentrates on strange, evocative, and dream-like imagery, such as the astounding shot in which Evan digs at the cross in the ground only to have it drop away into a black void. He also seems to be working from a medieval imagination, as some of his tableaux look to have been directly inspired by 14th-century woodcarvings (never so much so as the scene in which a possessed Lisa and a winged demon with a goat’s face copulate atop a stone altar).
However, as with Argento’s films, Soavi comes up short in the narrative department (not surprising since Argento is credited as the first screenwriter). Granted, The Church makes more sense on first viewing than most of Argento’s films, but the story is still profoundly simple and the characters dull, if not unpleasant. This is particularly true of Tomas Arana’s Evan, who is exceedingly dislikable in every frame of the movie—after he is possessed, his hair looks messed up, but his lousy disposition seems to be about the same. There are also some rather strange narrative ellipses, including an utterly bizarre sequence in which the aforementioned elderly couple are trying to ring the church bell in order to call for help, there is a cut away to several other scenes, and, when we cut back to them, the old woman is ringing the bell successfully ... with her husband’s severed head! How she cut off the man’s head and why is anyone’s guess since there is no suggestion that she has been possessed, but it makes for one of many profoundly startling images throughout The Church.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Scorpion Releasing
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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