“Bent,” the screen adaptation of Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, makes it clear right away that tyro filmmaker Sean Mathias, an experienced and celebrated stage director, doesn’t know much about the film medium. More often than not his erratic approach and inconsistent visual style highlight the weaknesses rather than strengths of the original work. Pic also does not benefit from Clive Owen’s decent, though not engrossing, performance in the lead (played by Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere in New York). Since it’s unlikely to receive strong support from the critical establishment, Goldwyn will face a tough challenge in moving the film beyond the gay milieu, its primary target audience.
Sherman’s longrunning play was never great, but it was powerful and quite touching. Perhaps more important, the play made a significant contribution to literature on the Holocaust, which largely concentrated on the Jewish tragedy but neglected other groups victimized by Hitler, such as homosexuals and gypsies.
“Bent” should be sent back to the editing room to amend its particularly weak opening, which is meant to establish the decadent, corrupt, “Cabaret”-like atmosphere of Berlin during the early years of the Nazi regime. With heavy reliance on cross-cutting and montage, initial scenes are too rambling in depicting protagonist Max (Owen), a rotten man by his own description, who’s sexually promiscuous and not terribly alert to the changing political climate.
When German soldiers invade his loft and slaughter his trick from the previous night, Max and loyal b.f. Rudy (Brian Webber) quickly escape. In a brief meeting, Max asks his gay uncle (McKellen) to help him obtain two passports and two tickets for the neutral zone of Amsterdam, to no avail.
Rudy and Max are arrested by German troopers and thrown onto a train headed for the Dachau concentration camp. On the train, Max experiences the first of many traumatic debasements: He is not only forced to deny any link to Rudy, but also asked to fatally beat him. To prove that he is not queer and get the yellow rather than pink triangle, he undergoes further degradation that results in a curious mix of self-loathing and strong determination to survive at any cost.
Scripter Sherman faithfully follows his stage production, and picture’s second part settles into a more claustrophobic theatrical mood. In these rather stagnant episodes, Max develops a unique friendship — and eventually true love — with sensitive fellow inmate Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who wears his pink triangle with pride, reproaching Max for denying his sexual identity and opting for the Jewish label.
Mathias’ lack of technical skills means that the play’s most riveting scenes (which reduced numerous theatergoers to tears) are not exploited for their inherent dramatic merit. An example is the emotional highlight of the piece. Max and Horst, who have been carrying rocks back and forth for days, engage in unusual lovemaking, an act that’s totally reliant on suggestive dialogue and creative imagination, precluding any physical touch or even exchange of looks between them.
Other sequences, in which the duo declare love and vow commitment, are also poorly executed, with the camera positioned in the wrong place or observing the protagonists from a distance. Excessive cutting, often in the midst of crucial monologues, prevents the viewer from watching simultaneously, in the same frame, the reaction of one character to another.
It doesn’t help matters that neither lead is particularly compelling. Though looking right physically, Owen delivers a portrayal that lacks the lyricism and range needed to convey the pain of a cynical, self-absorbed gay man who’s transformed into a loving, caring and politically committed one. Bluteau, still best known for his role in “Jesus of Montreal,” is slightly hampered by his French accent and seems unable to realize fully the potential of his arduous role. McKellen, as the flamboyant Uncle Freddie, and Mick Jagger, as a transvestite cabaret singer (who performs a newly written song, “Streets of Berlin”), do the best they can in their limited screen time.
Production values are moderate, as befits the material, though Philip Glass’ postmodern score may not be the best choice for such period work. Still, it’s an indication of Sherman’s vigorous writing that, despite helming and thesping deficiencies, his anti-dictatorial statement and tribute to the indefatigable human spirit remain powerful.