The Dark Night (film)

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The Dark Night
Directed by Carlos Saura
Produced by Andrés Vicente Gómez
Written by Carlos Saura
Starring Juan Diego
Cinematography Teodoro Escamilla
Edited by Pedro del Rey
Release date
  • 23 February 1989 (1989-02-23)
Running time
93 minutes
Country Spain
Language Spanish

The Dark Night (Spanish: La noche oscura) is a 1989 Spanish drama film directed by Carlos Saura. It is about Saint John of the Cross, a Catholic priest important to the Counter-Reformation, in solitary confinement in the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, Spain.

Saint John of the Cross was a member of the Carmelite order and a follower of Saint Teresa of Jesus’ teachings.  Teresa of Jesus wanted to reform the Order to emphasize poverty, austerity, and seclusion.  Additionally, Teresa wanted to reimplement observation of the Primitive Rule that Pope Eugene IV relaxed in 1432 within the Carmelites.  The Primitive Rule calls for more time for recitation, devotional studies and readings and puts more emphasis on evangelizing the population.  Observers were not allowed to eat meat and had to fast periodically between the Feast of the Cross in September and Easter.  Together with Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa founded the Order of the Discalced Carmelites.  “Discalced” is a Latin word that means “without shoes” and comes from the Discalced Carmelites’ tradition of dressing simply and without shoes.

The reforms were very controversial among the Carmelites in the 1570s.  A group of Carmelites captured John on 2 December 1576 in his dwelling in Ávila and brought him to the monastery in Toledo.  There, the priests jailed John.  He spent 9 months in a small room in horrible conditions with limited light, food, and contact with the outside world.  During his time in the monastery, he suffered greatly.  The movie tells the story of the nine months that he spent in solitary confinement in the monastery between December 1576 and July 1577.

John of the Cross was a famous Spanish poet celebrated for his works that include “Spiritual Canticles” and “Dark Night of the Soul.”  The title of the movie comes from his poem.  His mystical works are about the development of the soul and of the relationship between the soul and God.  During his time in the monastery, he memorized 31 verses of his work “Spiritual Canticles.”  Many years later, he finished his piece.  He wrote all of his works between 1577 and his death in 1591; therefore, his time in the monastery influenced all of his works.

In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII named John as a saint.  Saint John of the Cross is one of the 36 doctors of the Church.

Saura both wrote the screenplay and directed the film.  Andrés Vicente Gómez is the producer.  Juan Diego plays the role of Saint John of the Cross.  The film was entered in the 39th Berlin International Film Festival.[1]

Plot[edit]

The only time that we see images of the city of Toledo is at the beginning of the film.  The first scene of the movie depicts John’s journey as a prisoner to the monastery in Toledo. We see a view of the city of Toledo in the early hours of the morning from the mountains.  John wears a blindfold so he can’t see where he is going.

John enters the monastery and a priest removes his blindfold in front of all of the priests in the hall.   They force him to stand trial in front of the friars in the hall of the monastery, but he refuses to obey the friars because he will not ask for forgiveness for his Reformist beliefs.    The friars obligate John to take off his clothes in front of them and put on their robes, but Juan refuses to do so.  Therefore, they put him in solitary confinement.  Later, they take him out of his room so that they can whip him while they sing religious hymns.  After his first whipping, he begins to create his religious poems.  He recites his verses while he prays to God for the strength to survive.

He has flashbacks to a scene when the Mother of a convent introduces him to the nuns who live there.  One of the nuns stares at him, behavior that surprises John.  In the following scene, John is praying to God in his room when the same nun appears.  She wears a white dress and is illuminated by the light from the small window.  She begins to take off her clothes in front of John.  John approaches her and touches her as he circles her.  But, after a moment, he appears very uncomfortable and he walks away from her.  When he turns around, she had disappeared.  The only thing that remains is the white dress on the floor.

One of the friars of the monastery reads the history of the nun, Justina, in front of all of the friars in monastery while they eat.  She was tormented by the Devil and almost renounced the church.  In the same scene, the priests explain to John that the Pope wants to end the Discalced Carmelites, but still, John will not renounce his beliefs.

John is sleeping in his bed when a hand appears next to his head.  More hands appear from all sides of the bed.  The hands rip his clothes apart and scratch his body while he screams.  The image of Justina, the nun, appears but this time, she wears a dark blue dress.  The hands disappear when the friar who takes care of John enters the room.  John says to him that there are demons who want to take over his body to tempt him.  He claims that he had fought against the devil before and offers to tell the warden about the first time that the demon tried to occupy him.  John tells him the story of a women in the convent who people came to listen to because the seemed dictated by the Devil.  The scene changes to John’s memories of the same woman, Justina.  She writhes on the mud floor in the room and says that the demon possesses her.  She throws a cross against the wall.  The scene changes again to another one of John’s memories when he enters Justine’s room and sees someone in Justine’s bed engaged in sexual activities with her.  John himself appears from the sheets.

Close to the end of the movie, John interrupts the dinner and the head priest’s Bible reading, saying that he is too proud (referring to himself).  But, when the priest asks him to repeat what he had just said, John asks for forgiveness and says that his outburst was a moment of weakness.  He reaffirms his reformist beliefs and says that they (the friars in the monastery) are mistaken about their traditional beliefs.

In June, John hears Justine’s voice and it says that he needs to leave the monetary because he has other, more important work to do in the outside world.  Therefore, John uses his scissors and a ball of yarn to measure the distance from the window in his room to the ground.  He rips the fabric of his robe to make a rope.  When the warden gives him privacy to use the facilities, John breaks the lock on his door.  In the night, he escapes from the monastery from the window with his cord; the film ends here.

Cast[edit]

Analysis of the Film[edit]

Representation of the church in the film[edit]

The film presents a harsh image of the church and monastery in Toledo.  From the beginning, the Carmelite priests treat St. John in a cruel manner, despite the fact that he is also a Carmelite.  The friars in the monastery abuse John; we see both the physical and mental manners in which they cause serious harm to Juan.  In the first scene in the monastery, the friars yell at him and tell him that he has to obey them and renounce his beliefs.  The friars neither listen to Juan nor think about his propositions.  It’s obvious that they are not tolerant to other religious ideas; they do not like threats to their religious practices.

Saura creates a mechanical image of the priests in the scene when they are whipping John in a line singing religious hymns.  One of the friars apologizes to John and refers to him as “brother.”  Here, Saura presents the paradox of the conflict that the movie displays: the tensions are between different groups of the same Catholic orden.  Saura relates the fight between the Carmelite groups to the Biblical fight between Cain and Abel in Genesis.  The fight between these Biblical brothers is very important to the Christians because it denounces familial divisions and lack of love between family members.  The act of relating the two fights is an act that perhaps Saura does to denounce this time period in Catholic history.  

In addition to whipping John and locking him in a small room, the Carmelites also do not given him enough food.  He only gets bread, water, and a bit of fish.  They treat him like an animal.  When he eats, it appears as if he has never before eaten in his life.  The fact that John eats fish is very important; fish is a symbolic food in the Christian community.  Fish signifies salvation because fish live in the water and the act of baptism (a sacred act that represents the salvation of the soul from one’s sins) also occurs in water.[2]  Therefore, the fish in the film represents the presence of Christ and that John’s sins are pardoned. 

John looks very sick and sad; his health deteriorates throughout the movie. During the movie it is obvious that John’s mental health gets worse while he is in solitary confinement as well.  We can see in his face and in his body the physical effects of the abuse that he suffers.  In the way that he talks to God and that he looks at other people with deep sadness and pain, we know that he suffers greatly. Despite the fact that John lives in these terrible conditions, he loses neither his hope nor his faith.

But, Saura does not portray all of characters in the convent as brutal and dogmatic.  The interactions between John and the friar who takes care of him change significantly during the movie.  At the beginning of the film, the warden refuses to talk to John.  The lack of human contact and sympathy is very sad.  John is separate from the world not only because he lives in isolation but also because he has no connection with another person.  However, this situation changes when the warden listens to John’s story about Justina.  He is interested in John’s interactions with her and with the Devil because he can see John’s suffering and interior struggles.  He decides to help John.  Saura represents a truth about humanity: the connections between human beings are based on shared experiences and vulnerability.  After this interaction, the warden has a strong interest in John’s verses and asks him about them.  

Analysis of the filming techniques[edit]

There are some moments when John breaks the fourth wall with the audience.  The first time, he is talking to God, but his eyes are focused on the camera.  This is a moment when the audience is “confused” with God.  Saura demonstrates the power of the religious lectures and beliefs that John holds by directly incorporating the audience in this moment.   John always continues to talk to God.  He begins to create and recite his poems while looking at the camera as well.  The effect of these moments is that the audience experiences his pain.  The contact between John and the audience’s eyes creates a deep human connection - exactly what John lacks in his time during the monetary in Toledo.

The music demonstrates the emotional suffering that John feels and highlights important contrasts in the film.  In the first scene, the director uses ominous music when John is traveling as a prisoner to the monastery to foreshadow the suffering that is about to happen.  The music changes in the scene when the nun appears in John’s room.  A women’s voice sings opera music.  It emphasizes the contrast between passionate and sexual femininity and the nuns’ strict and pious life in the church.  The music in the scene when the hands attack John in his bed serve to add to the suspense and emphasizes the trauma and suffering that he experiences.

The majority of the film is very dark because it represents John’s experience in his solitary room without light.  He only has a small window and very little contact with the sun when he walks to the dining room.  The first time that he enters the solitary room, the light illuminates only his head.  The rest of his body and the room itself are dark.  A small amount of light shines on the bed.  We hear the strong wind outside of his room.  It appears to be a hostile and harsh place.  The walls of the room, the blanket, and the pillow are dirty and shabby.

For John, the darkness represents the Devil and the light represents God.  He describes the light as something very beautiful.  His time in the room represents the fight against the Devil to find a better way to follow God.   

John and the warden visit an old priest on his deathbed.  In this scene, John relates the light with the lover (how he refers to God) and therefore affirms the light’s symbolism.  John says that because the old priest is close to death, he is beginning his journey toward the light.  It appears that the old priest can see this light at the beginning of his conversation with John, but right before his death, the priest says that he cannot see anything.  This scene is a concrete example of the fight between the conflicting ideas of the two Carmelite groups.

Representation of St. John’s Works[edit]

There is a scene when John touches himself while the light from the window shines on his body, moving up from his feet to his head.  Perhaps this represents the almost sexual relationship that John writes about in his works about the intimate relationship between God and the soul.  He hears own voice reciting one of his works.  The light is even brighter in this moment and lights up his face; it is a powerful display of John’s love and faith in God.  He sees something that he describes as beautiful in the light.  The warden watches him through the peephole with an expression of wonder.   John’s ability to survive and maintain his strong will demonstrates his individual power and the power of his beliefs.

John recites verses of his works in his room constantly.  He changes different words and phrases as part of his creative process, but he always speaks with the same serious and emotional tone.  John says that his songs are about the relationship between the soul and the spouse, God. In one scene, he recites a verse from his famous work “The Spiritual Canticle[3]” about a dove to the warden.  The warden recognizes the beauty of the words, but he doesn’t try to understand the verse, perhaps because he is fearful of thinking about John and the Discalced Carmelites’ radical ideas.  John describes the inspiration for his works as a “mystical intelligence” about the love between the soul and God.  He says that it is impossible to describe with words what he doesn't know how to feel.

The warden brings John paper so that he can write his poems.  This simple act shows his respect for John’s ideas, despite the fact that he does not necessarily share them.  When John has the paper and begins to write “The Dark Night of the Soul,” the light appears more strongly than in the previous scenes.  John looks much happier but still, he is very sick and his health is poor.  Here, Saura reveals a bit about John’s creative process.  He receives his inspiration from the light and his time in the jail.  He suggests that the proximity to death that John experiences is a reason that he has such a strong connection to his own religious beliefs.

Historical Accuracy[edit]

The film presents true events in John’s life to give context.  At the beginning of the film, a priest in the monastery reads historical facts about John’s life when he enters the hall for the first time for his trial.   He also introduces the connection between John and Teresa of Jesus in this moment.  Teresa is represented in a negative manner because the priest says that she has created a conspiracy, therefore presenting the tensions between the different Carmelite groups from the beginning.  The priest describes the differences between his group and the Discalced Carmelites accurately as well.  John’s escape from the window using the rope made of his robe is also in line with the historical facts that we have.  

But the film is not supposed to be a narrative; rather, it is an investigation.  According to El País, the film explores the central question surrounding John’s famous life: “¿Cómo, en efecto, en tan atroz adversidad se las arregló Juan de la Cruz para componer tal exquisitez, una tan delicada música de la palabra?[4]” (translation: “How, indeed, in such atrocity and adversity did John of the Cross resolve to write words so exquisite, delicate, and musical?”).  The manner in which the filming techniques present Juan Diego in such intense moments helps us to understand how the poet was able to write something so important to Spanish literature in such terrible conditions.[4]  In the interview, Saura says that the film is not about religion; rather, the film focuses specially on John’s interior processes and secular mysticism.[4]  Therefore, the film is about the skills of this important lyrical poet in Spanish literature.

Production[edit]

Carlos Saura wrote and directed the film starring Juan Diego.[5]  The film is an Andrés Vicente Gómez production.  The budget for the film was 250 million pesetas.  It was filmed by Teo Escamilla.[5] The majority of the filming was done in Madrid in the Roma studios, but parts were filmed in the Veruela Abbey, in Tarazona and in Toledo.[6]  The film’s music is by J. S. Bach

Awards[edit]

The film was entered in the 39th Berlin International Film Festival, but it did not win awards.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Berlinale: 1989 Programme". berlinale.de. Retrieved 13 March 2011. 
  2. ^ McNabb, Allan. "What does the fish symbol mean in religion?Bible study on the ichthys (fish symbol)." What does the fish symbol mean in religion? Bible study on the ichthys (fish symbol). What does the Christian fish symbol mean? Accessed 2 July 2017. http://www.biblestudyguide.org/articles/fish-symbol/fish-symbol.htm.
  3. ^ Cruz, San Juan De la. "Cántico Espiritual." San Juan de la Cruz. 2017. Accessed July 02, 2017. http://www.sanjuandelacruz.com/obras-san-juan-de-la-cruz/cantico-espiritual/.
  4. ^ a b c Fernández-Santos, Ángel. "Excelente acogida a 'La noche oscura', de Saura." EL PAÍS. February 12, 1989. Accessed July 02, 2017. http://elpais.com/diario/1989/02/13/cultura/603327604_850215.html.
  5. ^ a b García, Ángeles. "Saura concluye el rodaje de 'La noche oscura'" EL PAÍS. 23 October 1988. Accessed 2 July 2017. http://elpais.com/diario/1988/10/24/cultura/593650812_850215.html.
  6. ^ "La noche oscura (1989)." FilmAffinity. 1 January 1989. Accessed 2 July 2017. https://www.filmaffinity.com/es/film928377.html.

External links[edit]

  • The Dark Night on IMDb
  • Saura, Carlos, Andrés Vicente Gómez, Juan Diego, Julie Delpy, Fernando Guillén, and Manuel de Blas. La Noche Oscura. Madrid: Distribuido por Suevia Films, 2008.