In the forbidden corners of an ornate and dusty room lies a reel of beauty, of vice, of shadowy lust and repression. Written in a scrawl that is uniquely lovely in the blackest of oil-inks is the title, Sin. The latest release from filmmaker Nico B., whose last film was the powerful 1334 (2012), Sin has actually been several years in the making. With filming beginning as early as 2005, whispers of Sin have been around for quite some time, complete with talk of scenes involving striking blasphemy. (Which some would say is the best kind.) So having it finally available feels like a fresh breath of curiosity.
Despite being a short film, running well under an hour, Sin is still packed with great imagery and esoteric food for thought. As a collective, it has all the feel of a lost silent film from someone’s delirious, eccentric moneyed uncle whose passions ranged from the occult (“Lady of the East”), scandalous stag (“Le Modele”) to the sensual-obsession-in-stasis of another (“The Maid.”). It is a mix that never lets you really settle as a viewer. Every image is a hint and every hint is a thought and a statement that is never as simple as it really seems.
“Lady of the East” involves Egypt and its ancient spirituality and, like the two shorts that will follow it, the assorted strains of human corruption. The title screen informs that, “In ancient Egyptian mythology the panther Bastet is the God of pleasure, dancing and music, also known as…”, which is the point where the title appears. What perfect seductive carny speak, yet you will have to wait for the dancing girls. For now. A little girl in Egypt runs from a group of men, as a black panther follows. Cut to a belly dancer (Angelita Franco, who both wrote and starred in legendary Italian filmmaker Tinto Brass’ 2008 film, Kick the Cock.), languidly gyrating in a hole in the wall dump. An American Traveler (Skip Pipo, who I actually got to see live in the LA Theatre Works touring production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and yes, he was really good), hands over money to a gentleman and takes the woman across the ocean. What follows is a fever vision of Busby Berkeley pre-code beauty, gritty-but-pretty old school burlesque, the stain of money and what can happen if one gets pushed just enough.
Following that is “Le Modele,” where we are shown two roles played by one woman (Caroline Pierce). One is a Nun who consumes part of the Eucharist and encounters a white cat, while the other takes a bite out of white bread and sees a black cat. They are a yin and yang of religious obsession, with a literal external and internal sexual absorption. Mirror images follow each other only to reach a tragic conclusion with the hazard of repression wrapped around in a vine-like manner. While “Le Modele” is by far the most explicit out of the three, even the most jarring of imagery is handled with a quiet beauty which makes it strangely even more odd. In the age of nothing being shocking, the only way to re-invigorate potent imagery is to go for the bigger aesthetic picture. What Nico has done here is made it less about tittering and queasying the mainstream masses, whom honestly would rarely be savvy enough to seek out something this challenging, but instead interweaves it as artfully as everything else in the short. It is more of an heir to such controversial early cinematic works, ala Un Chien Andalou (1929) and The Blood of a Poet (1930), than anything else.
Last is simply titled, “The Maid.” A man’s eyes close as a small child looks on in the corner, with the film cutting to a very pretty and curvy woman approaching a lovely and lonely looking estate. This woman (Dahlia Dark) is the titular Maid, who has begun working for a handsome, though strange and legless man (Mark Lee). She cleans and dusts in a form fitting uniform, with her employer at one point kissing her feet. He soon makes of habit of watching her, whether it is when she is shaving her legs or sleeping, with her consent feeling vague at best. The ending brings a hint of understanding, some sadness and the queerest of palls.
Sin is my kind of cinematic art house, where the eye-pleasing and mentally and emotionally unsure come to meet. A word like “sin” can so often connote emotions like guilt and moral judgement, two things this film mercifully lacks. It refuses to play anything cheap and easy, with one of those being the viewers themselves. There’s a sense of pre-code Hollywood forbidden mixed with something a little harder to pin down. The soundtrack being wholly the music of French composer Claude Debussy gives an appropriately beautiful and deceptively calm before, during and after the storm sonic feel. The eroticism contained is tantamount to polluted, which makes it truly the best and most fascinating, like a rancid orchid or a bruised piece of sweet fruit.
Despite being held back for years, Sin is available now in a limited edition Blu Ray/DVD combo pack through Cult Epics. The disc also includes trailers, outtakes and several of Nico B.’s early short films. It’s another sweet and well thought out release through the label, which was also founded by the man himself. If you love the darker side of silent, B&W cinema and of the human condition, then Sin could be thoroughly up your flickering alley.