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Review: Poignancy of 'Bent' plays better on stage

Scene from 'Bent'
A scene from "Bent," featuring Lothaire Bluteau and Clive Owen   
December 4, 1997
Web posted at: 1:31 p.m. EST (1831 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Once again, purply stage theatrics don't translate to the less-forgiving movie screen. "Bent," the film adaptation of Martin Sherman's powerful 1979 play about the atrocities visited upon a group of gay men by Hitler's brutal SS, is yet another textbook example that what plays beautifully on the stage does not always play when projected 30 feet high at the cineplex.

"Bent," in fact, would seem to be a highly unlikely candidate for a reverent film treatment, but director Sean Mathias has done everything in his power to make sure that the play's least cinematic qualities make it to the screen intact. This is a big mistake, but not completely unforgivable given the first-rate quality of the performances and the undeniably moving material.

Jagger tones down his act

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The opening sequence, an intriguing modern equivalent of German Expressionism, is a surreal, carnival-like presentation of the gay underworld in late-1930s Berlin.

Wildly done-up dancers and circus performers alternate with patrons partaking in various sorts of public "debauchery," while a transvestite nightclub singer named Greta (Mick Jagger) warbles a tune about all the beautiful boys and the intoxicating nightlife of that soon-to-be-trounced-upon city. Jagger is amazingly subtle considering his costume and often-absurd inclination toward playing to the bleachers.

It's here that we meet Max (Clive Owen), a promiscuous partier who ends up taking a man home from the club, then seeing him murdered by Nazi troops as they embark on the infamous Night of the Long Knives. This is the moment when Hitler decides that homosexuality is an unforgivable state of being, and anyone living in such a manner should be imprisoned or executed.

Max and his lover, Rudy (Brian Webber) flee into the woods, only to be caught and shipped in a boxcar full of prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau.

Their time in the woods, which alternates between sheer terror and the gentle prayer of their love for each other, is handled well by Mathias, as are the blindingly horrific events of the train ride. At one point, Max is forced to beat his lover to death, then prove his manhood by having intercourse with a young girl who's been shot in the head.

Dachau torture merely tedious on big screen

But Max's final destination at Dachau is the most stage-bound portion of the story. This is where the film can become trying to a movie audience for reasons that are not altogether the fault of the Nazis.

It is here that Max and another prisoner, Horst (Lothaire Bluteau, who gives a shrewd, often darkly comic performance) are tortured in a manner that smacks of Samuel Beckett when viewed on stage, but becomes terribly monotonous in movie form.

Their captors have decided that, to drive the two men insane, they will force them to carry huge rocks from one side of a wide open area to another. Once the pile of rocks has been moved, the prisoners must pick them up, one at a time, and move them back to their original location. Then the process is repeated, for hours on end.

Max and Horst attempt to ease their torture by carrying on limited conversations -- overheard only in snippets -- as they pass each other, but the dull throb of their movements begins to overtake much the interest you have in hearing what they have to say. They also are allowed, every two hours, to stand at attention (shoulder-to-shoulder) and "rest" for two minutes.

There is a terribly moving scene during which the two men use this opportunity to "make love" to each other by describing various sex acts sotto voce as the guards look down on them, but even this sort of thing begins to get on your nerves after a while.

What you're experiencing is two men moving rocks and periodically describing things into the unblinking camera lens. It is supposed to be torture, and, eventually, it is. It's just too bad that you're the one sweating it.

Attempts at tenderness are lasting memory

As I've already said, all of the performances are strong. Jagger displays a pragmatic, nasty streak when he casually burns all his dresses and begins a new life as "George," and Ian McKellen has a tasty cameo as an uncle of Max's who can see all too clearly that the nights of fun have abruptly ended.

But it's Owen and Lothaire's desperate attempts at communicating tenderness in a living hell that stick with you. The pink triangle that the gay prisoners are forced to wear to denote their sexuality has become a badge of pride for homosexuals in recent years, and this film, more than any other, explains a unique bond that can often seem alien to a "straight" audience.

"Bent" imparts a significant message that's sometimes presented in an uninteresting way, but it's ultimately a message of love. And a message of love deserves to be communicated unflinchingly.

"Bent" is no picnic by any means. There are sex and nudity, of course, but there also are unspeakable acts performed by the Nazis as well as their dehumanized prisoners. Systematic violence and humiliation are rife. Not for the closed-minded. Rated R. 104 minutes.

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