Some movies work on your heart; some on your nerves; others your mind. When a film touches all three, however, the experience can shake you to the core.
Orlow Suenke's "The Taste of Water" (at the Fox International) has that kind of trifold power. It's an almost unbearably moving film: a modern masterpiece. Made in Holland four years ago, it's won so many international awards--including the Grand Prize at Venice, the Bronze Hugo at Chicago and the International Critics' Prize at Toronto--that the gap between its European and American release seems a mystery. How many other films this good languish unseen, due to distributor timidity?
It is a shocking work--not in the callous, sadomasochistic way of many modern movies, but on a deeper, primal level. It has scenes of wrenching impact--but the havoc it shows is never cheap or bloody; the violence is always more emotional than physical. Above all, it's a film of ruthless emotional honesty.
Within a small, chaotically messy Dutch room, Seunke shows a life-and-death battle between two people: an obsessed social worker named Hes (Thoolen), and a young girl, Anna (Dorijn Curvers) whose parents have recently committed suicide, and who's lived all her life in a half-savage state, locked in a cupboard. Hes will triumph if one shaft of compassion irradiates her darkness; if he gets her to speak a word, bathe herself, eat food without breaking her plate. His battle becomes heroic--but also, perhaps, Sisyphean and absurd.
Outside the walls, as Hes tries to reach the seemingly unreachable Anna, his own world crumbles. Gradually, he plunges with her into a vortex of filth and disgrace--alienating Anna's neighbors, his superiors, his friends, his wife.
What is the price of true charity? Seunke's view of Holland's welfare bureaucracy is savagely ironic. Hes' self-sacrifice makes him an embarrassment to his government employers: charity's official dispensers.
When we first see him, he treats his clients with a thinly veiled contempt, as detached as his icy superior, Schram (Joop Admiral). Disgusted by his job, he is nevertheless the best functionary in the office--a nightmarish citadel of wire grating, despair and file cabinets. Then his facade cracks, and he must beg himself for a mercy dispensed with bored precision and averted eyes.
Is Hes breaking Anna loose from her terrible solitude, or sealing himself inside her cul-de-sac? His fellow workers suspect madness; the neighbors suspect sex. None guess his true motives: a nearly starved love, pity, and an extreme identification with another trapped being. (A further irony: If Anna had been played by a beautiful young actress--instead of the poignantly squat, lumpy Curvers, with her heartbreakingly wild eyes--and if the sexual undertones had been overt, this film would probably have won U.S. distribution immediately.)
Suenke takes his subject--reminiscent of Penn's "The Miracle Worker," Truffaut's "The Wild Child" and Herzog's "Kaspar Hauser"--and makes it paralyzingly real. The movie rubs your nose in life and dirt, exaltation and suffering. It makes you feel and bleed for its characters. Then, with a rapt, bursting wonder, it cuts through to the light.
"Taste of Water" was Seunke's debut feature (made when he was 30), but it has relentless attack and assurance, razor-sharp human insight, rich intelligence. His style--taut, propulsive, full of spontaneity and energy--suggests Penn and Cassavetes, as well as the Italian neo-realists and the young Ingmar Bergman.
And, Gerard Thoolen, also superb in "Private Resistance," gives an inspired performance here. His face--bald head and soft eyes over a cruel chin--is like a map of pain or pity. Thoolen charts the most difficult of progressions, from emotional desiccation to furious idealism, from aridity to self-sacrifice.
"Taste of Water" is a film about a spiritual awakening, done with such fierce power that it holds and convinces you completely. We see these themes in films so rarely today, that to watch them realized so well, with such passion and clarity, is to receive a rare gift.
'THE TASTE OF WATER'
Director Orlow Seunke. Script Seunke, Dirk Ayelt. Camera Albert Van Der Wildt. Editors Tom Erisman, Seunke. Music Jan Musch. With Gerard Thoolen, Dorijn Curvers, Joop Admiral, Hans Van Tongeren, Olga Zuiderhoek.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (language, intense situations.)