The Legend of the Holy Drinker is a real oddity that came out in the late ’80s. Despite winning the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1988, it seems to have been completely forgotten: even I hadn’t heard of it until it was announced by Arrow Academy.
The film stars Rutger Hauer in a rare dramatic leading role post his iconic performance in Blade Runner. Hauer plays a drunk, Andreas Kartak, who is living on the streets of Paris. He is lent 200 francs by a stranger if he promises to pay it back to the local church when he can. The rest of the film is taken up by his constant struggle to pay it back because of his alcoholism, while people from his life show up randomly through the narrative. They may be some kind of guardian angels or a manifestation of God on earth.
The film is directed by Ermanno Olmi, who came out of the Italian neo-realist movement of the ’50s. His best-known film is The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a Palme d’Or winner that Arrow has also recently re-released. This film has a slight magical realist quality, but it’s never overtly surreal or fantastical, just implied. It kind of reminded me of the more overtly surreal Jodorowsky film The Rainbow Thief, one which he would later disown but is actually a forgotten gem.
The performance from Hauer is a staggering, partly because it was a real change of pace for him—apparently that was why he took the role. He wasn’t one of the director’s first choices. Robert De Niro turned the film down because he reportedly wasn’t “convinced by the project.” However, when the right material is presented to him, Hauer can hold his own against anybody. This role has some similarities with his breakthrough performance as a difficult artist in Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight.
Dominque Pinon also shows up in a small supporting role as one of Kartak’s old acquaintances who he mysteriously runs into during his attempt to return his good fortune.
The Legend of the Holy Drinker doesn’t completely work for me. It’s pretty slow at times, large sections are in French and not subtitled, and the religious allegory aspect is a bit too blatant. However, Hauer is great. and it’s interesting to see him try something different than the genre stuff he has become best-known for, something more like his earlier Dutch work with Verhoeven.
The disc is fairly barebones, but it includes short interviews with Hauer and the co-screenwriter Tullio Kezich. The first pressing also includes a booklet with new writing on the film.