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Scenes of Medieval Times : Getty museum's movie series, which includes 'Ivanhoe' and 'Simon of the Desert,' shows why the period is called the Dark Ages

July 25, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Patricia Ward Biederman is a Times staff writer

The Middle Ages: A great place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there.

Translated into Latin, that could be the motto of a series of movies dealing with medieval times that starts Thursday at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

From the Technicolor swashbuckler "Ivanhoe" to Bunuel's "Simon of the Desert," the movies take us back to a time when no Christian doubted that life continued after death and a woman overly fond of her black cats might find herself crackling at the stake.

The world explored in the six films is the same universe depicted in many of the exquisite illuminated manuscripts in the Getty's collection. Indeed, "The Name of the Rose" (to be screened Sept. 2) begins with the discovery that a gifted illuminator has leaped to his death from an abbey tower.

According to Thomas Kren, Getty curator of manuscripts, the medieval material in the collection is often the least accessible to modern audiences, and the film series seemed like a good way to both entertain viewers and start them thinking about those distant centuries. Eighteen sumptuously decorated medieval and Romanesque manuscripts are on display at the museum through Oct. 10.

Although the films are very different from each other, all of them make clear why the period is sometimes called the Dark Ages. Granted, the virtuous had heaven to look forward to, but there was still life on earth to be endured. Set in Europe between the 11th and early 15th centuries, these films show lives made hellish by pestilence, political upheaval and the excesses of an authoritarian church.

The most grueling of the films is one of the most powerful, Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (to be screened Sept. 30, with "Simon of the Desert"). As film writer Stephen Farber, who will introduce each of the movies, points out, the Dreyer is a masterpiece that only film buffs are likely to have seen.

Released in 1928, it deals with the tormented last days of the 19-year-old girl who believed that God told her to save France from its English occupiers. In Dreyer's disquieting close-ups, the faces of Joan's accusers are those of medieval gargoyles. Her own endlessly scrutinized face is the radiant, tortured visage of a martyr.

As played by Renee Falconetti, Joan seems in genuine agony for much of the film. According to movie legend, Dreyer was Hitchcockian in his demands on his star, so much so that she suffered a breakdown during the filming. Based on the actual transcript of Joan's 1431 trial, the film lays bare the pre-modern mind-set, including her accusers' absolute certainty about such unconfirmable matters as whether the Archangel Michael has wings.

Joan's death at the stake is no prettified passage to a better world. When her immolation comes it is almost unwatchable, as immediate and terrible as newsreel footage.

Some of the featured filmmakers, such as Dreyer, are great visual artists. Equally haunting are the images of director Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (to be screened Aug. 26). Farber thinks this stark black-and-white film is one that transports viewers back to the period in a way no Hollywood epic can, no matter how gaudy its re-creation of medieval feasts and knights with lances.

"This one seeps into your bones in a profound way," he says. Released in 1956, the Swedish film has become part of American popular culture. The long, sad face of young Max von Sydow's Everyknight could be that of a saint in a Romanesque church. But it is Bergman's conception of Death, as a shrouded, white-faced figure who plays a mean game of chess, that has proved immortal and has been recycled in everything from Woody Allen's "Love and Death" to "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey."

"It keeps popping up," says Farber. "It was even in 'Last Action Hero.' "

Although each of the films reflects a modern sensibility, the sensibilities themselves are remarkably varied. Director Luis Bunuel is relentlessly sardonic and anti-clerical in "Simon of the Desert." Bunuel's movie begins with a medieval saint mortifying his flesh atop a pillar in the desert and ends with the same man looking totally perplexed as he watches couples frug in a '60s nightclub.

The sensibility of "Ivanhoe" (1952) is pure MGM in its heyday. The studio that was famous for its research department obviously went to great lengths to ensure that its knights wore helmets that might actually have kept a Crusader's brains from being spilled. But the studio drew the line at re-creating medieval squalor. Both Joan Fontaine as Rowena and a startlingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca wear gowns that would hold their own in a Clorox commercial.

"It's a childhood favorite of mine," says Farber of the creaky, colorful epic starring Robert Taylor.

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