Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.
William Friedkin's "Sorcerer"
During the first few minutes of Sorcerer, writer and director William Friedkin (who just came from directing the classics The French Connection and The Exorcist), shows us a global film, full of interesting, diverse and sometimes even glamorous locations.
Although the reason for these four vignettes is primarily to show the origin of the four main characters, it's clear that Friedkin wants us, as an audience, to deeply feel the deprivation of what follows.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Sorcerer: A Story About Four
In Veracruz, Mexico, we meet Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a classy assassin who executes a poor man in his apartment. With great calm, we see him perfectly fulfill his mission and quietly disappearing among the people on the streets.
In Jerusalem, Israel, we meet Kassem (Amidou) who, along with a group of fellow Palestinian terrorist militants, manage to cause an explosion near Damascus Gate. After being surrounded by the military, he's the only one of the cell who manages to escape.
In Paris, France, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) has a luxurious life and a loving wife. However, his life falls apart when he is accused of fraud and has only 24 hours to get collateral for his charges to be dropped. His business partner ends up committing suicide over the situation, so Manzon decides to flee the country.
In New Jersey, the U.S., Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) is the driver of an Irish gang that has decided to rob a church that serves as a front for Carlo Ricci's mafia. After delivering the blow and injuring a priest (who turns out to be Carlo's brother), Jackie loses control of the vehicle and has a collision that costs his companions their lives. Fleeing mob retaliation, Jackie turns to a friend, who manages to find him a hiding place outside the country.
Release Year: 1977
Director(s): William Friedkin
Writer(s): Walon Green
Actors: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, a.o.
These four characters cross their paths in Porvenir, a remote fictional town in some Latin American country. For the four of them, Porvenir (which means "future" or "prospect" in Spanish, the first hint of the ironic cruelty of this film) is just a stopover. Something temporary. A place to hide while they try to regain or rebuild the life they used to have.
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Or at least that's what they think. And it's the reason why the four, desperate for a significant sum of money to allow them to go ahead with their plans, accept the worst freelance job ever created.
You see, a nearby oil well has exploded, and the only way to put out the hellish fire is by using dynamite. But the only dynamite available has been stored in a bad way for too long, so its nitroglycerin has become very unstable. There is no way to transport it by helicopter, as the vibration can detonate it.
The less-crazy-but-still-kinda-crazy way to transport it is by taking it 320 km overland, using two trucks. The dynamite boxes will go in the back, buried in soil so that it absorbs as much movement as possible. As is evident, such activity requires four "suicide jockeys,” desperate to make money quickly.
And it's here that Sorcerer reveals its cruel motif. The four characters are on this site literally because of their sins. Porvenir is some kind of third-world jungle purgatory, full of misery, and wildly hostile nature. Neither the characters nor the viewer will ever be able to escape this place.
What's to Like?
What follows is an ode to despair. Sorcerer is one of the most cynical films ever made, where destiny is carved in stone. The inability to control the two most important moments of our existence is something that has always haunted Friedkin, as he well expressed it on one occasion: “the idea that we don’t really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it.”
However, that kind of inevitability should be somehow liberating. Not in this story. According to this universe, humanity is stubborn and its relationship with death is framed by its ego. The characters not only seek happiness but impunity.
That's the reason Friedkin hides fate under the guise of an invisible antagonist. The cruelty of the story is to show us, four tenacious humans, trying, again and again, to solve their situation, so that in the end, the circumstances prove simply impossible to overcome.
The setting of a man trying to dominate nature (real and figurative) with his modern inventions (real and symbolic) has earned Sorcerer to be compared with some motifs found in Werner Herzog’s works, especially in Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In both films, a man's ambition and ego to bend a natural environment to his will always bring bad results.
In the case of Sorcerer, modernity comes in the form of two trucks (with infernal designs by John Box) and in the condescension and apparent lightness with which the four protagonists confront their sins. All four start out believing that they can take over the world with their own rules. Their time in Porvenir won't even attempt to humbling them: it will simply crush them.
The ego and the desire for survival of the characters (and by extension, of the audience) make them perceive their situations as simply unstable but avoidable. In that sense, the image of a truck full of unstable explosives that sways on a brittle wooden bridge over a wild river (which also dominated the promotional posters) is perfect. But for nature's point of view, its inevitability is absolutely stable. The only thing that changes is its execution. But whether due to a bursting tire, a guerrilla attack, or a mafia murder, death will come in some way, especially if life has been driven with a lot of flirtation with impunity.
Friedkin directed this dead-end journey like never before in his life. Technically, this is possibly his best movie. We could spend hours breaking down just the scene of the Sorcerer (the name of one of the trucks) passing by the bridge over the river. His dedication and absolute commitment to create a story about the futile belief that one is in control of life is impressive. It's also greatly appreciated. A technically inferior movie would have been a frustrating experience.
Sorcerer's greatest irony was that fate condemned it at the time of its release. By 1977, audiences (and in large part, also critics) no longer wanted such stark and pessimistic tales, and they got the perfect escapism gem: Star Wars, perhaps the greatest cinematic phenomenon of all time.
Of all the possible years and seasons, Friedkin released Sorcerer the same year as Star Wars, the film that would exponentially amplify what Steven Spielberg's Jaws had already been doing. The audience and critics would see dark, ironic, and cynical films more harshly, while the mega-fantasy made blockbuster reshaped new audiences, tastes, and the industry in general.
Friedkin would never again have a new audience and artistic success after the Skywalker saga.
But for Friedkin, a longtime pessimist, that didn't seem to make a big dent. His truly fatalistic coherence is admirable. It makes sense, coming from the man who so masterfully directed such a tense film with such an inevitably somber conclusion.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Sam Shepards