The Conflicting World of Medieval France



Written by Pamela Berger and Suzanne Schiffman

Directed by Suzanne Schiffman

At the USA Harvard Square

SORCERESS is a historical allegory of intense emotional power and significant social content. Shot in the lush, but impoverished setting of a small French village during the Crusades, the film presents political conflicts--between Church, individual, peasant and nobleman--in the context of personal complexities.


The movie, adapted from a Pamela Berger novel, chronicles a monk's visit to a small, provincial French village, where he has been sent to conduct an Inquisition. In the course of his quest to root out heresy, the monk, who is the son of a nobleman, confronts his own past and encounters the mystical, healing presence of a woman who lives in the forest and treats the villagers with leaves and herbs.

The intricacies of the plot, the vivid emotions of the characters, the compelling acting--all contribute to the movie's success, thought it is the powerful political message which viewers are left remembering.

Pamela Berger's novel, and the screenplay which she co-wrote with first-time director Suzanne Schiffman, is primarily the tale of women--women as healers, as mothers, as workers, as the backbone of their community. These women, the lifegivers, are contrasted with the rigid authority of the Church. They represent the naturalistic opposite of "civilization" and they challenge the monk's--and the viewer's--nations of what constitutes knowledge, progress, society.

THIS naturalism is tinged with mysticism, largely because of the reserved, intriguing air Christine Boisson gives to her part as Elda, the forest-woman and the 'sorceress' of the movie's title. She functions as the conscience of the village, somehow above the women she treats so lovingly. She has almost too much consciousness for an illiterate woman of the forest in 13th century France.

In one scene of the movie, the monk starts quizzing Elda about her belief in God, looking for a chink in the impenetrable facade she presents to him. She responds by demanding that he teach her to write; when he asks her what she would write about, she declares with dreamlike intensity that she would write about leaves and plants and flowers and all their wondrous healing qualities. As her eyes stare into the distance, presumably lost in contemplation at the amazing power of the written word, the viewer cannot help but be somewhat skeptical.

But such lapses are seldom in the compelling microcosm of village life Schiffman so skillfully brings to the screen. From the clothes of the peasants and the noblemen to the scenes of women at work in the fields, the movie succeeds in a realistic reproduction of the time, seen through the lens of the mythical tale which the film chronicles.

As the movie progresses, the monk is forced to assess the traditional concepts of knowledge and faith which have driven him to embrace the Church. What is so remarkable about Berger's message is that the anti-canonical philosophy of the plot is reflected in the personal growth of the characters, as well as in the political evolution of the story.

Not only does the monk, played by Jean Carmet, come to acknowledge that his view of religion is too limited to understand the spirituality and customs of the local women, but he also confronts the inadequacies and hypocrisies of his personal creed. Throughout the movie the monk has flashbacks to a scene that occurred when he was a young man, hunting with his father, a powerful nobleman. After refusing to skin a deer that his father has just shot down, the monk runs away, ashamed at his cowardice, and rapes a young girl he comes upon. This act of degradation permeates his mind, but it is only through the experience of interacting with Elda the forest-woman that the monk directly confronts his past.

THIS intertwining of the personal and the political--crises of faith in the Church's canon and the cultural canon--are the core of Sorceress. The movie is effective as a political statement because its characters are eminently real people, grappling with concrete, emotional problems and not just abstract representations of the political hierarchy.

In a final confrontation with Elda, the monk is jolted into understanding and acceptance of her different ways. The story she tells is all too familiar and jarring to him, secure in his family position, in his Church, as a man. Raped by the local nobleman on what was to have been her wedding night, Elda became pregnant and was sent by her mother to live in the forest with an old woman who gathered herbs and acted as the local healer.

Elda, and the generations of European women she represents, created a powerful personal creed. She was an avid healer, a caring, soothing presence in the face of poverty and a demeaning social position. And it is her experience--the experience of the nurturing, intelligent and misunderstood woman--which Sorceress chronicles eloquently.