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  • Benjamin May

The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988) Review

Andreas Kartak is one of life's dispossessed: a tramp, whiling away his days on the streets of Paris. One cold morning, a strange, distinguished gentleman offers him 200 francs, under the proviso that Kartak pay the money back- when he can- to Saint Therese in a nearby cathedral. So begins Kartak's quest to restore honor to his soul and meaning to his life by finding a way to return the money- after squandering it on copious amounts of wine and absinthe.


Based on Joseph Roth's posthumously released story of the same name, Ermanno Olmi's 'The Legend of the Holy Drinker' is a quiet, subtle drama that is moving and entertaining in equal measure. Olmi's restrained direction makes for a very interesting viewing experience. The film relies as much on tone and atmosphere as the screenplay- from Olmi and Tullio Kezich- to communicate the narrative and its' themes. The dialogue is sparse, but meaningful; no words are wasted, nor unnecessary speeches made.

The story is simple yet profound. Kartak's quest takes on a spiritual, epic dimension as he struggles to find his way back into society and to keep his pledge to the distinguished stranger. His character is well-rounded and believable, a man of honor thrust into a situation that would turn most dishonourable. He battles with himself and his principles, not to mention his memories of a past life long left behind; often losing those battles and finding solace in a bottle of cava. Kartak is a character many will see aspects of themselves in: a fascinating, flawed and thoroughly real creation.


The film is beautiful in terms of visuals. Dante Spinotti's cinematography has a rhythmic, mythical quality to it that suits the narrative perfectly. He captures the stark, cold charm of the Parisian streets with real verve and style. Gianni Quaranta's production design is striking and timeless. The film looks like it is set in the thirties, though the time period is never made definitive. His work is rich in detail and adds another dimension of authenticity to the proceedings. The same can be said for Jean-Jacques Caziot and Philippe Turlure's naturalistic set decoration and the inspired costume design from Anne-Marie Marchand.

Rutger Hauer stars as Kartak, delivering a moving, understated performance that is one of the finest he ever gave. His Kartak is a vulnerable man for whom honor and dignity mean the world, though his alcoholism has overtaken his principles. Hauer disappears into the character so thoroughly you genuinely forget you're watching an actor on screen.


Hauer was a performer of great versatility, intelligence and depth- not to mention charm- and he demonstrates that fact here. Though he will likely largely be remembered for his similarly powerful performance as Roy Batty in 'Blade Runner', his work as Kartak is truly magnificent and unaffectedly profound.

The supporting cast deliver generally admirable performances, with Anthony Quayle's as the distinguished stranger being a standout. He brings to the role the right amount of dignity and mystery that leaves an ineradicable impression on the viewer. Joseph De Medina also does good work as an obese hustler Kartak encounters, and Sandrine Dumas is utterly charming as Gaby, something of a love interest for Kartak; but poor post-dubbing of many of these secondary players diminishes the power of their performances, while also lessening the impact of their scenes.


'The Legend of the Holy Drinker' is an affecting film that tells a deceptively simple tale masterfully. As a character study, it works wonderfully, with Rutger Hauer delivering what could arguably be called the finest performance of his career. Director Ermanno Olmi has brought to audiences a memorable, thoughtful film that will surely be beloved by any who care to give it their time. Joseph Roth's stories are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen; this is easily the best adaptation of his work to date. 'The Legend of the Holy Drinker' is quiet, clever and utterly compelling.

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