“The Middle Ages on Film” at Anthology


Forever on fire with fear of God, unburdened by literacy or expectations of a life that might extend past the thirties, ruled by day and night and the world’s great silence, the medieval mind is as alien to us today as the mad or damaged one. Perhaps the mystery of its day-to-day working accounts for why the superb films in the Anthology Archive’s “The Middle Ages on Film” series, which starts with Youssef Chahine’s great Saladin, mostly focus on minds in a state that movies have long succeeded in explicating: simple crusading fury, whether in Orléans or Jerusalem. Too rarely seen in the west, Saladin is a rousing, bloody 1963 Crusades epic, the story of a Muslim hero written and directed for Arab audiences by an Egyptian Christian. That doesn’t mean there’s nuance, exactly—the Christians here relish slaughtering pilgrims on hajj—but England’s Richard the Lion-Heart (Hamdi Geiss) comes across well enough, even as Saladin (towering Ahmed Mazhar) bests him and his knights. Its boys’ adventure thrills—duels! sieges! charging cavalry!—are choice enough that if this had hit American matinees its might have conquered some hearts and minds. Less violent but more upsetting are two of the three greatest Joan of Arc films. First, there’s Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, also from ’63, a scrupulously unadorned retelling of the trial and burning of France’s most beloved heretic. Then Jacques Rivette’s two-part Joan the Maid, from 1994, bookends and elides the inquisitional hearing of Bresson’s film, giving us a strident young Joan’s victory in intimate, haphazard battle—and her subsequent recanting. Like Bresson, Rivette scrapes the story of sentimentality and mostly situates viewers in that weighty medieval silence, when the only music you might hear would be that which someone in front of you happened to play. Both films are contemplative marvels. Also showing and in that camp: Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.