THE PIT, THE PENDULUM AND HOPE (Jan Švankmajer, 1983)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer’s Kyvadlo, jáma a nadeje is an eerie, powerful live-action adaptation of Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Sweeping back and forth as it descends to his heart, a sharp blade in the form of a clock’s pendulum measures the mortality of a man who is strapped to a table in a dark dungeon, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition.
     We never see the heretic’s face. The face of a thickly garbed and hooded cleric we do glimpse, in closeup, before he blows out a candle—an indication of the death sentence that has been dealt the heretic. This is followed by the subterranean journey leading to the torture chamber, a place of fear and dreadful execution. The camera shows the bumpy ceiling of the passageway; the heretic may be flat on his back, being carried to his fate. We hear the moans of the tormented in other rooms. A second closeup is of the heretic’s hand chafing against its confinement. The gears of the torture apparatus break the silence; out of the mouth of a painted skeleton the blade starts its descent.
     Another credited source is French symbolist Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, with whose work I am unfamiliar. But the Poe source is completely recognizable, with a few exceptions. For instance, whereas the narrator/protagonist is rescued in the original, here he ingeniously effects his own escape, enlisting the aid of the numerous rats about. Is it a trick of my eye? The animals’ faces, shown in closeup, resemble the face of the hooded monk. The black-and-white camera records the heretic’s flight by showing his scurrying bare feet. Outside, his face covered, a robed figure like that at the outset enfolds the escapee in pitch darkness.
     Is there any hope?

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MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.

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