The Legend of the Holy Drinker Blu-ray Review: Alcoholism is Beautiful

An elderly, well-dressed, well-kept man (Anthony Quayle) walks down some steps to the banks of the Seine. There, he meets Andreas (Rutger Hauer), a younger, well-dressed but decidedly less-kept man who has clearly seen better days. The older man tells the younger about how he is wealthy but that upon reading about Saint Thérèse, he has decided to live a life of poverty and charity. He can see that Andreas has fallen on hard times and offers him 200 francs. At first, Andreas refuses, but then is persuaded. He is a man of honor and only takes the money as a loan, promising to pay it back. The old man agrees but says if he has to pay it back to take it to the church of Saint Thérèse and give it to the priest there after mass on Sunday.

Andreas has every intention of doing just that, but first he needs a drink. Then maybe a bath and a shave. Then another drink. At the bar, he meets a man who offers him a job. He’s moving this Sunday and needs some help and will pay for the work. What luck Andreas thinks. He’s been living penniless under the bridge for so long and now he’s flush with money. So much so that he buys a wallet to put it all in. The clerk flashes a little leg while climbing the ladder to retrieve a wallet and so after a drink he heads to a brothel.

When the Sunday bells ring, he heads over to the church but before he can get there, he runs into his old lover. She’s doing well, has a nice job, and is getting on in the world. He admits that he drinks a lot and sleeps under a bridge.

He finally opens the wallet only to find that the clerk has slipped 1,000 francs in it. If only all homeless people could be so charmed. At another bar, he notices a photo of a famous boxer and realizes it is the face of a childhood friend. He visits the boxer and they have a lovely meal together. He gives Andreas a set of suits and puts him up in a hotel.

There he meets a pretty girl and they have a brief affair. But his luck is turning. His money is running out. With his last 200 francs, he heads to the church only to be stopped by an old friend who just happens to need 200 francs to pay off a debt. They get drunk together.

This is the plot of The Legend of the Holy Drinker but it doesn’t convey the film’s rich meaning and depth of feeling. Andreas is an alcoholic. In flashbacks, we briefly see his life before. He seems successful and happy. He’s in love with a woman. It isn’t until about an hour into the film that we get a glimpse of the tragedy that likely turned him to alcohol and the streets. Even now, he is kind and tries to take care of himself. He’s dressed in (an admittedly shabby) suit and he wears it well. He gets a shave by the river once in awhile. When he has money, he spends it liberally on booze and his friends. He’s a good man who hit hard times and neither can nor wants to leave the drink.

Rutger Hauer gives a surprising performance. I’m honestly not overly familiar with the actor’s work but associate him mostly with dumb action films. In an interview on the Blu-ray, the actor himself admits thats mostly the sort of films he’s made and says he wasn’t sure he was up to the task of this role. He carries the full weight of the drama on his shoulders admirably. His face conveys a world full of emotions as a man who knows where he’s been, what he’s lost, where he is now, and that he’ll never be anything more.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti gives it a nostalgic dream-like look with lots of soft lighting and hazy focus. Its pacing is languid as director Ernmanno Olmi never seems to be in a hurry to move his story along. Instead, he’s happy to watch his characters sit and drink, and sit and drink some more. Its editing, too, is almost in slow motion. In the aforementioned scene in which Andreas visits a brother, it took me a long moment to realize that’s what he was doing. In the scene, he walks into what looks like another nearly empty bar. There are a few ladies sitting at tables, fully dressed and bored. One is knitting. He sits for awhile then one of the ladies gets up and walks away. He follows her to a room. Were it not for one quick scene shot from outside the building where the woman closes a curtain in her slip, I’d have completely missed what was happening.

It’s a film not so much about anything, at least not any action, but it sets a certain mood, tells the story of a certain type of person. It’s definitely a film that many would find boring. Honestly, I did too in parts, but there is something about it that stuck with me. It gets inside this drunk’s head in a way that’s really interesting.

Arrow Academy’s 4K transfer from the original 35mm negative looks spectacular. It is a beautifully shot film and it all comes out clearly on the Blu-ray. I noticed no problems with debris or anything and all of the colors and blacks look terrific. The soundtrack is excellent as well. It’s a fairly quiet film that uses a score full of Igor Stravinsky’s music that comes in clear but is never overbearing. The ambience is full and crisp, and the dialogue is always easily understood.

Extras are pretty minimal. There is a short interview with Rutger Hauer who talks about the film and how it was a chancy part for him at this stage in his career. There is another, longer interview with the screenwriter who goes into great detail about his adaptation of the original novel. As usual, Arrow include a very nice booklet with movie stills and an nice essay.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker is a slow, strange little film. Hardly anything happens and yet you get a full picture of one man’s life. For those willing to put up with its pace, there’s plenty to reward you. Arrow’s presentation is quite lovely even if it comes in a bit lacking in the extras department.

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Mat Brewster

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