Story of Sin Blu-ray Review: Not Sinful Enough

For a film with “Sin” in its title that includes a nude woman on its cover and was directed by a man who once made a film featuring a giant phallus exuding copious amounts of seminal fluid, The Story of Sin is surprisingly chaste. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of nudity and sex in it, but that when those things occur, they seem so high-brow, so arty-farty that one can hardly be aroused by it. Whereas in some of director Valerian Borowczyk’s other films, he uses sexuality as a means to offend, here it’s central to a much more intellectually minded story.

Borosczyk was born in Poland but lived and made most of his films in the more liberally minded France. Some of the films made there seem to be thumbing his nose at his more conservative, and much more devoutly Catholic native land. In 1975, he was convinced to come back to Poland (which at the time was still hotly Communist) to make Story of Sin. Though his films were often censored if not outright banned in Poland, he’d never said a negative word towards the Communists and thus was allowed to come back unharmed.

You can feel the difference Poland makes on this film almost straight away. His disgust for the Church and its oppressive sexual attitudes and the bourgeois who maintain the status quo are there but his tendency for pushing envelopes and thrusting controversy in the audiences faces has been toned way down.

The Story of Sin begins with Ewa Pobratynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka) in a confessional being lectured by a priest that she has to be extra careful out in the world for such a beautiful girl will be constantly be pressured by strange men for affections God does not want her to give. Of course, the priest can’t help but gaze at her as she walks away. In the early going, we see that she is a pious maiden dutifully working hard as a clerk, doting on her father, and obeying her mother. But when they take in a handsome border named Lukasz (Jerzy Zellik), she is overcome by the sorts of feelings her priest warned her about.

They commence a brief but torrid affair, but when Lukasz is not granted the divorce he has come to town to seek, he leaves knowing they cannot continue without causing great harm to her reputation. When he is harmed in a duel of honor, she rushes to his side and nurses him back to health only to find that once again he must flee. Count Zygmunt Szczerbic (Olgierd Lukaszewicz), the man who shot Lukas, finds her and finances her as she trots across Europe looking for Lukasz. Along the way, she encounters various admirers, criminals, and a utopia of sorts, all of which desire her in various ways. As she seeks to find her true love, her station lowers and she succombs to all sorts of perversities.

It reminded me a great deal of various classic novels by writers like Tolstoy or Defoe who often told similar tales of pious women coming up against the vagaries of a sinful world. In fact, the film is based upon a novel by Stefan Zeromski and it must have been influential as it has been adapted for the screen three times.

As per usual, Borowczyk had created a richly sumptuous-looking film. It’s filled with soft lighting and meticulously decorous interiors. It is an absolute feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, it is also quite dull. Though Grazyna Dlugolecka portrays Ewa admirably, I never quite cared for her plight. While the entire story evolves around her love for Lukasz, I never felt much more than a spark. The early scenes when they are together are so brief I can hardly believe she felt anything more than a bit of lust for him, which is hardly enough to make her go through all the humiliation she endures searching him out. I struggled making it through its 130-minute run time.

Arrow Academy has done a beautiful job with its restoration. It is a gorgeous film and the presentation here is marvelous. I could find not any noticeable damage, compression, or any other problems with the video quality. Audio wise, the film is heavy on dialogue and a classical music score, both of which come in crisp and clear.

Extras include an informative audio commentary, an introduction from Polish illustrator Andrzej Klimowski, a 23-minute interview with Grazyna Dlugolecka (who did not get along well with Borowczyk at all), a discussion about the use of classical music in the film with critic David Thompson, and a visual essay from Daniel Bird, a friend of the director. Also included are several short films directed by Borowczyk. Rounding out the extras are a colorful booklet with several essays and interviews.

The Story of Sin is an interesting film in Borowczyk’s oevre. While I’m certainly not an expert on him, this seems to be a film more easily digestible than his more controversial films, but it;s also overly melodramatic and staid to be highly recommended. If you like lushly photographed period dramas, then you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. Otherwise, I’d stay away.

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Mat Brewster

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