Dir: Robert Hossein
I enjoy genre films. I enjoy entering the mythological world they inhabit and watching familiar characters playing out familiar stories with familiar themes. These familiarities are central to my enjoyment and it is essential for me that the creator of any genre film understands the conventions and icons which feed this sense of familiarity. Playing within the rules, but doing it well, and with a little flair, is what I demand from a genre film maker. And if they can deliver that they will invariably get a thumbs up from me and a repeat viewing. (Maybe even a good review) But familiarity, as we all know, can breed contempt and so it is equally important that the familiar is spiced on occasion with a hint of the unexpected or the exceptional. Something which will add to my pleasure without deviating too far from the path I like to follow. Now, there are many films which satisfy the former of these requirements but fulfilling the latter is not so common. It is a relatively easy matter to mimic the successful work of others and serve up a dish which is enjoyable without being memorable. But it is only every now and again a film comes along which ticks all the boxes expected of it but which offers itself in such a distinctively different way and asks such distinctively different questions of its audience that it stands apart from its genre cousins like a frog does from a tadpole. Cemetery Without Crosses is just such a film.
Consider the familiarities. There is a bullying, patriarchal family forcing neighbours from their land and building a mammoth empire for themselves while ruthlessly eliminating anyone in their way. There is a second family, victimised and downtrodden by the former, who want revenge for the brutal killing of one of their own. There is a town, policed by a corrupt lawman, and populated by people filled with fear who are unwilling to stand up to the patriarch boss. And finally, there is a taciturn lone gunman, called upon to exact the revenge the victimised family cannot manage on their own. Here’s a storyline we’ve seen countless times in westerns, both American and European, over the years and which can provide an entertaining, if somewhat predictable narrative. But, if you have popped Cemetery Without Crosses into the old machine and are settling down to witness another conventional revenge flick, you will be mightily, and pleasantly, surprised.
To begin with this film takes the minimalist dialogue of the average eurowestern to its ultimate extreme. There is so little talking that when I watched it recently it was fully ten minutes before I realised I had the DVD on the wrong language setting. Long swathes of it are played as a silent movie, with only music and skilful direction used to move the story forward and communicate drama and emotion. This ‘silent film’ approach is far from parody however. Rather, Hossein uses subtle visual techniques and the skills of his actors to maintain a level of emotional intensity rarely seen in a film from this genre. The lead character, Manuel the gunfighter (played by Hossein himself), is shown to be a man of complex motivations, acting against his better judgement, wracked with doubts and regrets. No cardboard cut out hero here despite his exaggerated gun skills. This is a real man with real emotions facing a looming disaster with resignation and pain.
Maria (Michele Mercier), widow of the slaughtered Ben Caine and ex lover of Manuel, is equally three dimensional. Exhibiting equal quantities of despair and determination, she fills the screen with her stoic suffering. What is more, in a welcome break from spaghetti tradition, she is not here merely to pretty the place up. So often female characters in the genre are relegated to vamp or victim; rarely being allowed to exert more than a superfluous influence on the heart of the proceedings. But here she is the driving force behind the narrative and a character of central importance.
Lastly, the theme of revenge, while at the heart of the story, is questioned and approached from a very different angle to the average western. Manuel states early in the piece that ‘Vengeance never ends’ and his words prove to be prophetic as each action causes an escalated reaction and the brutality from all sides spirals out of control.
Cemetery Without Crosses then is not your average spaghetti. This could be largely due to its being as much a French film as an Italian one. Despite its co production status and bevy of genre regulars amongst the bit players and supporting cast, the primary personnel on this feature are predominantly French from director to actors to musical composer. This undoubtedly has an effect on the feel and style of the film and, despite my deep love of the Italian way in such things, I have to say it is refreshing to see this variation. Hossein does an outstanding job as actor /director and the music score, penned by his brother Andre, helps at every turn; first with a driving theme, then with poignant solo guitar. On top of all this, the sets are inspired; juxtaposing the ranch house full of plenty at the Rogers family estate with the meagre cabin of the Caines and the isolated, almost surreal ghost town home of Manuel.
All these facets make this film stand out from most of its contemporaries but that is not to say it doesn’t contain all the attributes you would expect from a western of this period. It is gritty, sombre and violent, with fist fights and plenty of gunplay. There are bad guys and good guys, although the lines are a little blurred and there is enough pace and action on the whole to keep the most impatient action fan happy. There is even, I’m delighted to say, a role (if fleeting) for Lorenzo Robledo; a face that always makes a true spaghetti fan feel right at home. What's more, it's a role where he avoids getting killed or tortured too. And you don't see that very often.
The real difference here, and the reason this film sits among some of the genre’s best, is the level of subtlety it allows itself and the questions it asks us. The characters are allowed to express real emotions (albeit silently) and the themes at play in the seemingly familiar storyline are given just enough of a twist to make us think. It is still a western and an action film. But it is a thoughtful action film; with genuine drama. And that’s a pretty good and welcome combination.