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Monday, October 14, 2013

Secret Ceremony (released in 1968) - A tragic film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Robert Mitchum, and Peggy Ashcroft

'Ceremonia Secreta', the 1960 novel by Argentinean author Marco Denevi is the inspiration for the film Secret Ceremony, directed by Joseph Losey. The film opens with a blonde Elizabeth Taylor, who takes her wig off to reveal her lush black hair, as she places the hair piece on its stand; she caresses the black and white photograph of a young child - a girl, which is placed on the dresser. The character of Liz is Lenora, a prostitute, who a year ago has lost her daughter to death. As she boards a bus one day, a young girl (played by Mia Farrow) sits by her side, looking at her longingly, and whispering audibly ‘Mummy’ as Lenora alights from the bus; the girl follows her into a church - where she stands looking at Lenora from behind a pillar, as she kneels in a pew. Lenora looks slowly walks out of the church, into the cemetery, where she stops by the grave of a child, placing a bunch of blue forget-me-nots at the tomb. Lenora turns to find the girl from the bus standing behind her, when she looks into her eyes, in her mind; she sees the eyes of the child in the photograph. Shocked, she willingly lets the girl lead her away from the graveyard, to an opulent  Gothic style apartment.
Once there, Lenora sees photographs of the girl with her mother, who bears a strong resemblance to her. The man standing beside her - his face is blackened. Suddenly, the girl clutches her and cries out ‘mummy’ - stunned, Lenora pushes her away and tells her she’s not who she thinks she is. The girl just looks at her and when asked if she’d like some breakfast, she says yes, and when left alone, decides to pocket a silver coin and ermine coat - she even tucks into the breakfast hungrily. When the girl tells her that she lives all by herself - no cook, no nanny, no father - Lenora seizes the opportunity to take advantage of the child’s lapse of memory and plays along, fitting perfectly into the role of her mother. The girl reveals how Albert (apparently Lenora’s husband, and Cenci’s step-father) had behaved inappropriately - upon hearing which, Lenora slaps her - and shocked with her behavior, she apologizes to the crying girl. They both decide that she needs to take care of her - and so, Lenora settles in, making herself at home.

Once, when they are in the bath together, Cenci pretends her duck is drowning – this upsets Lenora, who asks her ‘what do you know about drowning?’ and starts to cry hysterically. In bed, Cenci says her prayers with her ‘mother’, and they settle down for an afternoon nap. When she awakens, she goes down to the kitchen, to see Cenci carrying out an animated conversation to … an empty chair. She appears to be warding off the advances of the ‘person’ in the chair - asking ‘him’ to take his hands off of her - Lenora is scared to see this crazed, psychotic banter.
Two nosy women - former sisters in law, come to pilfer on the pretext of looking up Cenci; as Lenora hides, the women get suspicious that there is someone in the house besides the girl - but who? They leave hurriedly.
In this surreal world, enter Albert (Robert Mitchum) - who may well be the reason why Cenci is a disturbed child. When she gingerly peeps through a window one morning after hearing the bell ring - she sees an almost derelict and unkempt man in the front lawns. He leaves when she doesn’t let him in. One morning, Leonora pays a visit to Cenci’s aunts who had come to the house - telling them she was a cousin of their sister-in-law Margaret. She learns a lot from them, especially that Albert and Cenci had an incestuous relationship, which probably drove the girl mad and killed Margaret with grief. The aunts, of course, think the girl’s crazy - Leonora is hurt by this observation, and tells them that if they were to visit again - she would tell the police. While she was out, Albert comes home, telling Cenci he cannot help himself, as he kisses her. Leonora goes to church and  prays for strength to go back to the house, not for the money, but for the fact that she wants to protect Cenci - she wants to be there to ‘save’ her, unlike her own child. But after being abused, Cenci orders that Leonora leave the house -killing herself by overdosing on sleeping pills, which she downs with milk.
When Leonora attends the funeral, visibly shattered, Albert tells her that Cenci was responsible for the break - up with Margaret - that the child-woman had nymphomaniacal tendencies - this is the final straw for Leonora, who lashes out at the man and tries to kill him. Macabre, disturbing and sad, the movie does play on the audience sentiment, and one feels sorrier for Leonora, for having lost two ‘children’. Serious watch.

Secret Ceremony (released in 1968) - A tragic film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, Robert Mitchum, and Peggy Ashcroft

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