An uncompromising depiction of an elderly man’s battle to retain his dignity while those around him are seeking to strip him of it, “The Stoning of Saint Stephen” is both appalling and moving. Though superficially bleak from start to finish, Pere Vila Barcelo’s latest drama is a moving testament to human resilience, as embodied in a remarkably committed perf by Lou Castel. Slow-moving but gripping arthouse cinema with a human face, the pic should make an impact on fest auds prepared to take it on its own somewhat extreme terms.
Like Vila Barcelo’s well-received first feature, “Level Crossing,” the pic deals with a character in transition, this time between life and death. Widower Etienne (Castel), a former art restorer who’s thus well trained in keeping the past alive, lives alone in the apartment he once shared with his wife, Julie, but the apartment’s pregnant owner, Jeanne (Marie Payen), now wants him out. It’s later revealed — disconcertingly, given her terrible treatment of him — that Jeanne is Etienne’s daughter.
The script (by Vila Barcelo and Laura Merino) contains a lengthy dialogue early on between Etienne and his brother (Luis Rigo) that reveals much about Etienne’s state of mind. He has chosen to live out his final years like a ghost, happy to hold onto his memories of Julie and the younger Jeanne, and no longer interested in interacting with the outside world. Yet he’s being persecuted from all sides. Visits by Jeanne terrify him; he ignores the neighbors’ complaints about the stench coming from the apartment and gruffly dispatches a social worker (Elsa Toro). Like his relationships, Etienne’s body is also slowly breaking down, with unusually graphic scenes showing him painfully dealing with his colostomy bag.
Initially, the bearlike, big-bellied Etienne appears to be nothing more than an exceedingly grumpy old fellow. But at certain points, Jordi Casadevall’s stirring orchestral and choral score kicks in to radically alter the tone. It becomes clear that Etienne’s apparently “useless” life, in Jeanne’s words, is underpinned by his desire to keep his memories alive.
All this is rooted in a compelling perf from Castel, who anchored another study of dreadful family relationships with his career-defining perf in Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket” (1965). The later passages of “Stoning” have Castel acting from the floor in physically demanding scenes that are excruciating to watch, the camera not shirking from its depiction of certain grim physical realities.
As the morally bankrupt Jeanne, Payen is a worthy foil, her irrational hatred of Etienne later becoming actively psychopathic. The potent, hysterical exchanges between father and daughter rep a savage indictment of society’s inability to cope with the tricky issue of old age.
Pic is mostly set in Etienne’s rundown, claustrophobic apartment, and Jose Luis Bernal’s lensing seems to takes its visual cues from the chiaroscuro effects of the Rembrandt painting that gives the film its title. Such echoes, along with Casadevall’s score, bring home the religious theme, which is that the humiliation of the body need not bring with it the destruction of a powerful soul. Striking the only false note is a brief, unnecessary dream sequence that reveals nothing new.