Finding Their Religion

Then, after years in the wilderness, Leone got to make his gangster film. The story of two star-crossed shtarkes (Robert De Niro and James Woods) rising from the gutters of Jewish Williamsburg to rag-trade racketeering and the lavish splendor of a palatial speakeasy above Fat Moe's Deli, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is brutal, inventive, and daringly cerebral. Closer in mood to Coleridge's Kubla Khan than to Coppola's Godfather, it made for a stunning swan song.

Beginning with a mystery and ending in an opium den, Once Upon a Time in America hopscotches from 1933 to 1968 to 1921 back to 1968. All is vanity—peplum grandiosity, spaghetti western savagery, the so-called American dream. It's not Leone's greatest movie, but who else could have conceived an action flick in the form of a reverie? The brute delicacy with which the resurrected artist took leave of his medium was the greatest miracle of all.

Leone was a European filmmaker who dreamed up a distinctively imaginary Mexico. Arturo Ripstein is a native Mexican director whose often brilliant feel-bad movies revel in a cantina naturalism that can seem even more hallucinatory. The must-see Divine, which screens three times during the opening weekend of the Walter Reade's "Latin Beat!" series, might be a rehearsal for Ripstein's own ultimate testament. It's the fable of a doomsday cult that takes its cue from the biblical epics of the 1950s and is led by two venerable icons of Mexican cinema.


'Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone'
At the American Museum of the Moving Image
August 21 through September 5

Directed by Arturo Ripstein
Written by Ripstein and Paz Alicia Garciadiego
At the Walter Reade, August 21 through 23

"God created the world, movies also create a world....It's the same holy act," explains old Papa Basilio (Francisco Rabal). Surrounded by a barbwire fence, the New Jerusalem is essentially a crumbling soundstage festooned with strings of colored lights and filled with costumed extras, some with pasteboard wings and false beards, others in burnoose or papier-mâché helmets. The cult's leader, Mama Dorito (Katy Jurado), addresses her "fish" from the glitter-encrusted altar where her husband projects his 16mm prints of Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars. Each shot in this lushly strange and bitter film is a ramshackle assemblage of candles, mirrors, tinsel banners, beaded curtains, and enshrined plastic dolls.

A mock biblical parable with an absurdist edge and a mournful hurdy-gurdy score, Divine is organized as nine "mysteries" (from the Garden of Eden to the Day of Wrath). The script—which Ripstein cowrote with his longtime partner Paz Alicia Garciadiego—remains faithful to its one extended metaphor. The dying Jurado designates a Nintendo-playing teenager as her successor. Hitherto everyone in the cult knew their part but, when the video game gives the new saint the message that she is to be the only sinner in the New Jerusalem, the "fish" (as her adherents are called) go mad.

Perhaps Ripstein's most personal film, Divine is ultimately less a matter of narrative than mise-en-scène, more a ritual than a melodrama. (The final shot allows the pageant to effortlessly fold in upon itself.) There is a monotonous quality to most end-of-cinema dirges, but Divine is a movie on the subject that is also a triumph of celluloid.

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