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Film Review: 'The Black Book' directed by Valeria Sarmiento

The Black Book

The Black Book is based on the novel The Black Book of Father Dinis by 19-century author Camilo Castelo Branco, whose romantic fiction, typically set a generation or so earlier, was the basis for several screenplays, the best known being the 2010 television series The Mysteries of Lisbon. Award-winning director Valeria Sarmiento, Chilean by birth but working in Paris for over forty years, is known for her explorations of gender politics, both in feature films and in documentaries. The Black Book is something of a departure for her, although her previous period piece, the military epic Lines of Wellington, met with enormous critical success.

This unabashedly sentimental melodrama, set in the late eighteenth century, is centred on the ever-popular category of a heroine, the good-hearted damsel in distress, and on the theme of parental love as a life-changing force. Laura (Lou de Laåge, The Innocents) is a young servant in the home of Marquis Lusault. The innocent Laura has a brief, barely consensual affair with the Marquis, and is distraught when he abruptly drops her in order to court of a lady of his own rank. She is offered the opportunity to leave the residence and continue to care for the Marquis’ ward, a little boy named Sebastian with whom she has formed an affectionate bond, and who is being sent away to avoid uncomfortable questions about his parentage. Laura readily accepts, relieved to be away from the household, and happy to be allowed to remain with young Sebastian, her only real friend.

Laura and Sebastian, along with one servant, are given a small house in the countryside, where they live contentedly as de facto mother and child, until Laura hears of the Marquis’ recent marriage. In another popular 19th-century plot device, the trauma brings on an attack of severe illness. Laura fears her death most of all because it will leave Sebastian without a guardian. Unexpectedly, a stranger arrives at the door, a dignified man in clerical robes, claiming to be a doctor, but with no explanation of how he came to find them or to know a doctor was needed at that time. He cares for Laura and she slowly recovers.

The stranger becomes a welcome guest in the household, along with his equally mysterious servant, a tall black man, quietly but intensely protective of his master, who seems to suspect threats everywhere and treat every action like defensive strategy. While the mystery of the two men’s identity and their purpose in coming to Laura’s residence is drawn out at length, it soon becomes clear that there is some connection between the stranger and Laura. As they spend time together, he gradually reveals his history to her, and she learns not only everything about him but a great deal of astonishing information about herself and her past. For a variety of reasons, Sebastian is taken back by the Marquis, his supposed father, and the Marquis’ new wife. Laura is heartbroken but tries to accept the separation as the best thing for her beloved Sebastian. As a result of the benevolent stranger’s revelations, Laura is able to find a home of her own and becomes somewhat reconciled to never hearing from Sebastian again.

Meanwhile, France is in a state of unrest, with signs of a coming revolution. Members of the aristocracy are threatened by riots, and Laura begins to fear for the safety of the long-absent Sebastian. In a series of rash and poorly explained emotional decisions, Laura travels across France in search of Sebastian and his adopted family. In the course of her travels, she meets Charlotte Corday and other figures of the French Revolution, attends anti-revolutionary gatherings, is threatened with arrest, and finally reaches the exiled Marquise.

However, the revolution and subsequent war are a mere background to Laura’s personal story. Her focus is on Sebastian, who is now nearly an adult, but whom she still regards with a fierce maternal love. The final act of the film alternates between Laura’s search for Sebastian, her wish to ensure his safety and, if possible, to reunite with him after a separation of many years, and Sebastian’s rather alarming path, the suspense of the story focused not on the military or political issues at play, but on the question of whether the boy and his foster mother will reunite before it is too late. This plotline is paralleled by that of another figure from Laura’s past. The underlying message, of the power of the bond between parent and child, even if they are later forgotten, runs through the final act and conclusion of the story.

The film features a rich, realistic, and imaginative set and costume design, partly thanks to the work of prominent and experienced designer Isabel Branco as artistic director; and beautiful camera work led by veteran cinematographer (with over 50 years’ experience), Acacio de Almeida. The look of the film, its lush soundtrack by prolific and widely sought Chilean composer Jorge Arriagada, and its unapologetic Romantic plot and dialogue work together to make the film fascinating in spite of its dated and often sentimental and emotionally overwrought story. The time period is recreated fantastically but in great detail, and young actress Lou de Laage makes Laura’s plight and her selfless devotion compelling. Its earnest storytelling, interesting characters, and attention to detail overcome the dated and overemotional material and make for an entertaining drama.