Don't ask Judge Jesse Ataide what exactly "night sun" is supposed to mean. It must be an Italian thing.
"This is the film Martin Scorsese might have made with his equally intense The Last Temptation of Christ, but then he wasn't born in the land of Leonardo and Fra Angelico."—Peter Aspden, Sight and Sound
In their adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's short novel "Father Sergius," Italy's revered directorial team the Taviani Brothers use an expansive canvas to frame the intimate story of one man's spiritual journal. The robust score playing over the opening credits seems to be heralding an epic costume drama; the first shots set in expansive royal palaces appear to be setting the scene for an extravagant period piece. But in the end, Night Sun ends up being neither of these things.
Night Sun is the story of an intelligent, handsome and driven young man named Sergius (Julian Sands, Naked Lunch) who since childhood has held ambitions of serving his King. During an era focused on class distinctions, Sergius is hampered in military school by his ancestry (he's a member of a minor aristocratic family) and his damaging reputation as a dashing lady's man, but captures the admiration of the King he idolizes, who decides to marry him off to a duchess to improve his social standing. Sergius seems poised to have finally achieved his childhood dream.
Everything changes, however, when his approved fiancée Cristina (Natassja Kinski, Paris, Texas) reveals that she had formerly been the King's mistress. Sergius, immediately disillusioned with court life, flees to his childhood home in the sun-drenched south of Italy, where he decides to join the priesthood.
Sergius devotes all of his immense energy and intensity to the Church, but finds that even in solitude and reflection the desires and temptations that marked his life at court plagues him still. In response, he volunteers for a post as the resident hermit in an isolated, wind-swept area. But the world manages to follow him still, as do the temptations of the flesh.
For all of its sumptuous costumes and settings worthy of immortalization by the Renaissance Masters, Night Sun remains first and foremost a depiction of an intense spiritual journey, and one man's quest to achieve some kind of worthiness from sources outside of himself. The film begins as the story of a young man who seeks to solidify his identity through his service to his king, and ends up the story of a man who finally discovers his identity by finding a way to serve the deity he comes to believe is the King of Heaven. But in typical Tolstoy fashion, the pursuit of religious purity is fraught with peril and downfall—which in some ways could mirror the author's own struggle with his sexual temptations and his radical Christian beliefs. But the story and the film manage to transcend the Christian trappings and tap into something much deeper and resonant: it's a depiction of the constant conflict humans face in trying to come to grips with our humanity—the spiritual, physical, emotional and the sexual—to find some kind of peace and personal fulfillment.
Unfortunately, Sands isn't always up to carrying the weight of this epic struggle, even when it is projected on such an intimate level. His performance is muted and appropriately sensitive, but at times the film, as delicate as it is, seems to overwhelm him. The females in the film, played by Kinski, Patricia Millardet and the young Charlotte Gainsbourg (My Wife Is An Actress), on the other hand, not only look stunning and sensual in period costume, but are brimming with life and the possibility of sex. It is disappointing then that they seem to serve the same function as the luscious cinematography: to evoke a world and a lifestyle now long past.
Thankfully, Night Sun is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio, but one wishes that the image itself was more distinguished. Marring the amazing cinematography is occasional blurriness, distortion and flickering. The audio track is likewise adequate but merely that; the bold yellow subtitles are greatly appreciated, however. Considering the technical elements of this film, one wishes a little more care would have been taken with the transfer. The film certainly deserves it.
The extras, if they are even considered "extra" anymore, include the film's theatrical trailer, filmographies and trailers for several other recent Wellspring releases, including Tarnation, Goodbye, Dragon Inn and In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger.
Is Night Sun an essential film dealing with the spiritual struggle? Not by a long shot, especially considering such films as Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis are now both widely available on DVD. But it is a lovely, haunting little film in its own right, which is something that ultimately can't be ignored.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Theatrical Trailer
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