The Dutchman Rene Groothof Lotte Veerle Dobbelaere Campanelli Nino Manfredi Dwarf Rene van’t Hof Nettelneck Willy Vandermeulen
With: Gene Bervoets, Daniel Emilfork, Gerard Thoolen.
The gulf between the Euro epic and its Hollywood counterpart is clearly on display in “The Flying Dutchman.” This long-in-the-works, hugely expensive epic completely avoids the most basic elements of entertainment, including star power , which are mandatory in an American film on this scale, instead opting for down-and-dirty realism and a doggedly depressing narrative that grinds the faces of the audience into the mud of 16th-century Flanders. UGC faces a challenge in marketing this ungainly effort outside the countries where it’s been presold. It’s unlikely to fly far.
Jos Stelling’s gifts as a visually exciting filmmaker are already well established with his earlier work, including “Rembrandt Fecit 1669” (1977) and “The Pointsman” (1986). “The Flying Dutchman” also looks great on the widescreen, but its concentration on the ugliest aspects of life eventually batters the viewer into a state of numbness until it’s difficult to care about the fate of the homely hero.
Saga, which unfolds over several years, kicks off in Flanders in 1568. Peasants, rebelling against Spanish rule, are sacking churches. One such gang, carrying the huge head of a statue taken from a church, stumbles onto land owned by a farmer, Nettelneck, when it’s attacked by Spaniards. Only one Dutchman escapes, and after he and Nettelneck’s wife make love, the result is a son, who is raised on Nettelneck’s farm but who is always an outsider.
Some years later, a wandering Italian minstrel, Campanelli (ripely overplayed by Nino Manfredi), who witnessed the massacre and the coupling, returns to tell the boy his father is alive and sailing at sea on his ship (though he’s actually long dead); he also reveals that his father is able to fly. Later still, the boy, now a man (Rene Groothof), leaves the farm and his sweetheart, Lotte (Veerle Dobbelaere), in search of his flying father.
After many adventures, he stumbles upon a huge abandoned ship, stuck in the mud, and occupied by a greedy dwarf (Rene van’t Hos). The Dutchman, believing this to be his legendary father’s ship, acquires it from the dwarf and attempts unsuccessfully to launch it. But he’s arrested and, for reasons that aren’t very clear, winds up in prison in a town in Holland where, coincidentally, Lotte now lives with the son born as a result of their union. When the Dutchman meets his son, he passes on to him the legend that his father can fly.
There’s nothing exhilarating about the adventures of this flying Dutchman; on the contrary, Stelling’s rigorously uncompromising film is a catalog of grim horrors and ugliness, starting with the briskly violent opening sequence, and continuing with the long scenes on Nettelneck’s farm, which is dominated by a huge cesspool.
The actors do their best with this unpromising material, but make little impression. The makeup department must have been kept busy providing the mud, which seems to cover everything and everybody throughout.
The film’s visual style doesn’t compensate for Stelling’s thoroughly grungy vision. This might have been how it was in the Middle Ages, and the concept may work in Dutch-speaking territories, but elsewhere this hardly adds up to an enjoyable evening at the cinema. “The Flying Dutchman” makes “Germinal” look like “Singin’ in the Rain.”