by Jeffrey Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
One must keep in mind, however, that this utterly American story was directed in Rome by an Italian who had never visited the U.S. It was filmed entirely on a studio lot that only occasionally resembles the American South. What’s more, the story was performed in English, the first and only film Silvio Masciatti ever directed in English.
I’m told that there exists an Italian version of The Resurrectionist, titled Lei Riesume i Morti (“She Resurrects the Dead”). Ms. Roos was fluent in both Italian and Spanish, and the Italian version is rumored to be superior to the English, but I’ve been unable to locate a copy. One can hardly ignore the risibility of hearing Italian actors trying and only intermittently succeeding in drawling their lines, often sounding like a spaghetti western version of Gone With the Wind. But burrowing under the surface of these minor cultural dissonances reveals a bedrock of real substance that merits far more attention than the film has so far received.
Though very loosely based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson, Jeffries irreverently transformed it into a story of a worldly, ambitious young female evangelist with a trunkful of dark secrets, a rising star on the tent revival circuit, who is accosted by the Devil late one night after a particularly strenuous evening of soul-saving. Lucifer, who is cannily underplayed by Giulietta Sorrentino, takes the form of a crippled young farmer’s wife, who calls herself “Lucy.” She sweetly and reasonably offers Sister Angelina the power either to heal the sick or to raise the dead, but she must choose which, and in any case, the contract on her soul will come due on the tenth anniversary of their bargain.
Instead of brandishing her cross and sending Satan packing, Sister Angelina pridefully asks for the power to raise the dead. After roughly grabbing her arm and slicing it open with a suddenly black-taloned finger — seen in briefest close-up, it’s an unnerving touch — and obtaining her signature in blood, the Devil laughs, mockingly doffs her straw bonnet and limps away into a night as truly dark as only a poorly-lighted, black-and-white Italian film from the mid-Sixties can be.
Mrs. Rosa Mae Krumwalter has fled a life of miserable poverty in coastal Alabama, leaving behind an alcoholic husband and a secretly aborted child. After a brief stint traveling with a rag-bag carnival as a fortune teller, she begins to sense the possibilities of her stirring voice and physical charisma. She soon decides that she’s wasting herself fleecing marks when the “whole world” could be sitting in rapt adoration at her feet.
Masciatti wisely pared down most of the novel’s scenes of Sister Angelina’s youth for the shooting script, getting right into her budding career as an evangelist. Occasionally and without slowing the headlong pace of the story, he shows us brief flashbacks of her early life: her abusive, drunken father, a degenerate traveling lingerie salesman in Mobile, her callous mother, her brutish brothers, her loveless marriage, her time with the carnival. He thus portrays her life as a series of harrowing escapes. Ms. Roos, with her impressive height, Earth Mother figure, orator’s voice and regal yet passionate presence, could not have been more perfectly cast for the part and, at twenty-five, her strange beauty was just coming into full flower.
Her luck changes in Memphis when she meets a former used-car salesman turned street preacher who calls himself Fisher John, who is broadly but effectively portrayed by the veteran character actor Enzo Battaglia. At first she plays the meek apprentice, passing the hat around to the few gawking passersby netted by Fisher John’s hectoring bellow. Sensing her potential, he takes her under his wing, telling her to purify herself, “for God has called upon you to spread His Holy Word.”
Although his own “born again” conversion was genuine — and therein lies the difference between these two temporary allies — Fisher John is also a drunkard, like most of the men in Rosa Mae’s life. She, not surprisingly, abhors alcohol, at least in the early going. As her mentor steadily declines into a stuporous, sullen resentment, she climbs onto the soapbox and begins exhorting pedestrians and idlers, who are at first indifferent and later rapt, to give alms “for your very souls,” discovering that preaching comes as naturally to her as breathing.
That she is at best a cynical apostate and at worst a greedy, blasphemous unbeliever does nothing to hinder her rise to evangelistic stardom. Soon enough, her erstwhile tutor has found himself reduced to a hat-passing shill for the white-gowned personage now calling herself Sister Angelina, who pays his wages in pint bottles of cheap rye that she buys by the case and keeps locked in a heavy trunk. As she slowly gains a following — and a staff of adoring followers — handbills hail the good news of the “White Crusader’s” imminent arrival in a dizzying montage of small towns and camp meetings.
Until the portentous arrival of the Prince of Darkness, Masciatti and Jeffries would appear to have eschewed vulgar horror altogether, proffering instead a morality tale of the rise and fall of a gifted woman seduced by power, not tonally dissimilar to Nightmare Alley, if that fine film had been produced on Rome’s version of Poverty Row. But as soon as “Lucy” arrives and finds Sister Angelina an all-too-eager accomplice in her own downfall, the blood is no sooner dry on the Devil’s contract when our signee discovers that Fisher John, hidden behind a curtain, has overheard the whole transaction.
Though drunk as usual, he angrily confronts his former protégé, rage and horror wrestling with pity for this young woman who has made such a fatal choice. But his paternal feelings cannot dim his righteous anger, and he loudly condemns her as one of the “faceless multitude of the Lost, now proudly bearing Satan’s brand,” and claiming that the Holy Word would burn her tongue with fire if she tried to speak it. He is beside himself, shouting and shaking his fists at her.
Fearing that one of her deluded minions will overhear, Angelina impulsively grabs the heavy wooden cross that she often wields as an emphatic prop in her sermons and swings it at his head, knocking him down. Then, straddling her victim, she repeatedly bludgeons him until her face and gown are spattered with blood. We are shocked both by the vicious suddenness of the crime and by the eerily lit face of Sister Angelina, made monstrous by her clenched teeth and glaring eyes.
But just as quickly her rage passes, and we see first, remorse, then fear, then hope in her eyes as she remembers her newfound power to raise the dead. Though given no instructions on the technique of resurrection, but intuiting that she must lay hands on the corpse if she is to undo her bloody deed, she steels herself — and here we see her trembling hands emerging from the stained sleeves of her gown and taking hold of the shoulders — urges him in a faltering voice to rise up and live.
And rise he does, with the ominous lassitude of a vampire from his coffin, his eyes closed, the standard syrup of black-and-white Italian movie gore oozing in thick rivulets down his face. When his eyes open, there is a flash of joy on Sister Angelina’s face, which is soon replaced by fear and revulsion, because his eyes are as cold and dead as a corpse’s, and there is no recognition in them, as if death has erased not only his memory but his human personality as well. It’s a spooky moment, played out on a tiny, dimly-lit stage witnessed by rows of empty chairs. We see, too, Sister Angelina’s dawning awareness of the terrible power she has been granted, and how irrevocable is her ultimate damnation.
This inspired scene waylays us just thirty-two minutes into the film, and sets the increasingly dark tone for the rest of the picture. Fisher John stands stiffly, ignoring Sister Angelina’s frantic questions as to his health and state of mind, and slowly backs away, deaf to her entreaties, then lurches off the stage and into the night. We hear a loud splash, and as she stumbles through the darkness in the direction of the sound, we realize for the first time that the revival tent has been set up next to a lake. She calls his name, but there is no sign of Fisher John. He has apparently drowned himself, preferring death’s finality over this hellish travesty of life, returned in a panic by a murderess more afraid of earthly punishment than any love for her former mentor.
Deeply shaken, Sister Angelina removes her bloody robe — an admittedly cheesy gesture to the male target audience, one to which Ms. Roos had long since resigned herself — and in her underwear enters the water at waist depth and washes it in the lake, then goes back for the murder weapon and cleanses it of blood and gore. She imagines — but we hear it, too — that she hears the joyless laughter of the Devil somewhere beyond the lights of her tent, and begins to wonder if she, who has conned so many people in her short life, has not herself been conned by the Father of Lies (or in this incarnation, Mother of Lies).
How can she ever dare to use this fearful power again? She should have chosen the power to heal the sick; she should have spurned the Devil’s offer outright; she should have done all things otherwise, and now it’s too late. After a few short years of earthly fame, her immortal soul will writhe in eternal flames.
But as we rightly suspect, this bitter repentance will not last long. To her loyal followers, she sadly announces that Fisher John has gone on a bender, after she’d informed him that it was for the best if they parted company, because his intemperance was undermining the integrity of their Mission. They readily accept her word, and his disappearance is never officially investigated.
The itinerant crusade of Sister Angelina soon takes us many months and miles from the site of Fisher John’s impulsive murder, panicked resurrection, and his urgent suicide. As the towns on her tour become cities, the crowds attending her revivals grow larger, easily drowning out the whisper of a guilty conscience, and her pride and arrogance swell.
Wearing her white robe and artfully composed countenance of radiant purity, she coldly surveys from her pulpit each wretched, upturned face in the ever-changing, ever-the-same mob drawn to her flame, watching them hang on her every word, gesture and intonation, and she glories in her own strength, knowing that these people are hers by right of her power to move them to tears, laughter, ecstasy, guilt, and finally, to a generosity they can ill afford.
She sees other things in their eyes, too, and as a student of human nature since her carnival days, she preens herself on the knowledge that all men want her, and all women envy her. With tears in her eyes, she professes to love each one of them unreservedly, “as Jesus loves you,” but she despises them, all the more because in them she sees herself as she was before her great gift was revealed to her: a ragged leaf at the mercy of every rough wind and cruel heart in this fallen world that takes from the poor what little they have.
She is still frightened of the infernal power she possesses, and her sleep is haunted by the price she paid for it, but now she congratulates herself on holding it in reserve, waiting for the precise moment when a resurrection will have the greatest impact on her followers, after which the sky will be too cramped a firmament to span the reach of her fame.
The moment comes in Jackson, Mississippi, where her burgeoning ministry has drawn the largest crowd to date. Having the best of reasons to deny any pretension to healing the sick, she has thus far confined herself to delivering passionate sermons and presiding over wild, sometimes frenzied demonstrations of faith from camp followers inspired by her eloquence. She usually invites a few of the more picturesque of these dancing, clapping advertisements for her spirit-moving abilities to join her onstage, and it is during one such ecstatic interlude that an elderly convert who has been yelling and capering like a man half his age suddenly collapses.
In the hush that follows, a man, apparently a doctor, listens for a heartbeat, then announces that the convert has died. As the body is being carried offstage, Sister Angelina, moved by the certainty that this is the moment she’s been preparing for, calls out: “Wait!”
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene