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Found this article on Keoma that expresses thoughts similar to my own on Keoma. You have to think of Keoma as Western Mythology. But I'll go even a bit further than Griffin below and say Keoma is a mythological hero, is already from the land of the dead and he rides out of the underworld (the battlefield ruined town), he goes back to the town on the edge of the Elysian Plains, the witch is DEATH the girl is LIFE, at the end, DEATH is holding the newborn LIFE. 

 

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TCM needs to screen this one.

 

Film as Art, Danel Griffin: 

 

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Keoma 

 

***1/2 out of **** 

 

Bleaker westerns than Keoma exist—films more dedicated to the desolation and corruption of the human heart. But I have never come across a sadder western. Oh, this film is sad. At times, it is almost agonizingly so—it is so saturated in disquieting, unsettled sorrow that we find ourselves wanting to turn off our televisions, to venture into our backyards, wiggle our bare toes in the grass, and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. Yet Keoma propels us forward with its haunted images and pained personalities; it leads us face-first into its sadness by asking us to consider its elegant elegy as a romantic song of praise. Parting remains such sweet sorrow. 

 

This elegy is for the Spaghetti Western, a genre that existed from the mid-sixties to the late-seventies. “Spaghetti Western” was the phrase coined to embody a decade when Italy took the American West and mythologized it with images and stories that exaggerated its origins into legendary proportions. The resulting six hundred-plus Spaghettis leave little room to doubt that Italy adored the Western—for many directors and actors, the genre was their longevity as well as their passion. This era consequently produced some great directors and wonderful films (Sergio Leone of the Dollars trilogy, Sergio Corbucci of Django); inevitably, it also produced mediocrities of stupefying proportions (the less said about White Comanche or Boot Hill, the better). Regardless of the often questionable quality of these films, the spaghetti western remains an invaluable epoch in film history, not only because of the ways it exposed the West as the most significant American contribution to world mythology, but also because of some of the important actors it introduced to the cinematic arena, among them Clint Eastwood (who himself has gone on to become a major American director), Lee Van Cliff, Klaus Kinski, and Franco Nero. Additionally, films by modern movie giants like Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi, and Robert Rodriguez certainly would have never existed in their current forms if not for the brilliantly overplayed qualities of the Spaghetti. 

 

By 1976, the Spaghetti Western was finished. After hundreds of hits and millions of dollars earned, it had lived out its life; as a craze, it was quickly fading from the psyche of a public now more interested in vigilantes walking city streets, touting Gatling guns instead of six-shooters. Keoma has been called the “twilight western,” because it was intended as the last hurrah—a love letter celebrating all the greatest conventions of the genre and waving sadly goodbye to its brief run as the dominating king of European cinema. Certainly other, cheapo Spaghettis have come out since, but for fans of the genre, Keoma is indeed the last Spaghetti western. It plays as a film painfully aware that its legacy is in its final death throes. The entire movie, in fact, is about such death throes. 

 

First of all, it is written and directed by Enzo G. Castellari, an Italian filmmaker who made a living off of Spaghettis. Possibly realizing that this would be his last Western, he pulls all stops to include as much homage as he possible can. Every shot is lifted from Leone, Corbucci, and even Peckinpah (whose graphic violence of The Wild Bunch was certainly inspired by the often brutal bloodletting first realized in the Italian westerns). Every plot point is taken from archetypes made famous by other Spaghettis—the lone stranger, the deserted town, the revenge subplot. There is frankly not one original idea in Keoma, but Castellari is not concerned with new ideas; rather, he embraces these tried and true motifs and reworks them so that they play like poetry instead of plot. Consider an early scene where Keoma, an Indian half-breed returning to his childhood town for the first time in a decade, relives a flashback in which he literally interacts despairingly with his childhood self. In this sequence, he reflects on his painful, early years of torment from his white half-brothers, and he appears literally in the same frame with his ghost from the past. The camera filter is foggy and dreamlike; the child and man stare at one another as if the barrier separating the past and present has dissolved, allowing them to interact. Almost every spaghetti western eventually has a flashback, as they all deal primarily with their protagonists seeking justice for being mistreated as children (the best two examples are Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Corbucci’s The Great Silence), but no other film better reveals the motivation and passion that these flashbacks provide their heroes. Other Spaghettis stress that these men are haunted by their past, but Castellari reveals here how memories linger like ghosts, driving the men obsessively forward whether they openly desire justice or not. 

 

The film also boasts a cast of Spaghetti regulars. Keoma (which means "far away" in Cherokee) is played by Franco Nero, who began as the title character in Corbucci’s gothic western Django and was instantly propelled to international stardom. In his day, Nero’s films out-grossed Eastwood’s in Europe, so it is appropriate that he was brought back for this swan song of the genre that made him famous. This is probably his best performance, as a war-scarred veteran of the American Civil War (“I just happened to be on the winning side.”) drifting silently back into his childhood village because he has reluctantly reached the unavoidable conclusion that he has nowhere else to go. Nero’s chiseled good looks and deep blue eyes make it very clear why he became a global superstar; it helps that he is also an actor who is very good at portraying great angst by simply standing still and watching the movie play around him. Two other major Spaghetti actors also have significant roles: William Berger as Keoma’s father, who loves his estranged son more than he ever loved his three legitimate sons who now work for a brutal crime lord, and Woody Strode (famously gunned down by Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West) as an ex-slave and childhood friend of Keoma’s, now reduced to the town’s token drunk. All three men work hard to create distinct characters that resonate beyond the obvious nostalgia that their pairing brings to viewers familiar with Spaghettis. Strode in particular is excellent as the town’s inebriate, who makes a good foil for Keoma: He is trapped by past guilt and has consumed his pain with alcohol, just as Keoma has countered his own repressed anger with acts of extreme violence. 

 

To reflect on the plot is to encounter a fitting metaphor for the state of the Spaghetti Western in the late 1970s. Keoma is a legendary gunslinger who returns grudgingly to his old village. His homecoming blindsides everyone, who expected him to wander the world forever. His only excuse for returning: “The world keeps going around and around, so we always end up in the same place.” If this line is an appropriate summation of why the Spaghetti lasted as long as it did, then the town itself clearly represents this film’s need for existence in an age when the Spaghetti was dying: Death has come in the form of a plague, and most of the citizens of the village have been quarantined by the corrupt major and quietly await their death. Yet when Keoma drifts in, he decides to encourage the hope of life again; he does not try to stop the unpreventable plague, but he does instill pride among the dying. What does he do this? Even he doesn’t know—some deeply rooted, inexplicable instinct compels him forward that he cannot placate, so he only obeys its voice. 

 

The dying village, of course, symbolizes the Spaghetti Western, and Keoma’s mission stands for the genre’s refusal to go quietly into the good night. The western genre has always worked with similar themes, which are what drive Keoma back to “the same place”—the “same place” being the familiar tropes of the western storyline. “The same place” is also perhaps a reflection that even later, post-Spaghetti westerns would continue to embrace the archetypes that the Italians established (and it certainly did, as later, violent epics of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner proved). The nagging question that Keoma constantly faces—why did he come back?—is the voice of an audience that has given up on what they perceive as a dead genre. Keoma’s challenge that the dying villagers find courage in their final moments represents Castellari’s determination to end the Spaghetti on the strongest possible note while still accepting that its time has passed. Keoma knows that its strength is in the knowledge of its forthcoming death; it does not want to die, but it comes to terms with its fate and thus relishes the last drops of its life as they slowly, despairingly drain away. 

 

This knowledge of its own fate is ultimately what makes Keoma such a sad experience: Every tiniest detail here understands that it symbolizes a finished era in European cinema. The film’s characters are certainly lost in their personal sadness; its themes deal with impending death; its camera work, which often rests thoughtfully on a character’s conflicted face as its gloomy music plays, is slow and despairing; even the film’s infamously maligned soundtrack, which features a wailing woman who comments unnecessarily on Keoma’s actions, eventually comes across less as annoying screeching and more as a frantic desperation to justify Keoma’s actions as pending apocalypse surrounds him. (Though it is a justified criticism—this music is so piercing that it could make glass shatter; it has its defenders, but it certainly does not make us forget the ethereal opuses of Ennio Morricone.) The action sequences, which are composed as operatically as anything shot by Leone, are not exhilarating, but instead seep with tragedy as they reveal that as every character is killed, so too the Spaghetti Western approaches the precipice of its final moment, when there will finally be no one left to die. 

 

The most important symbols in the film come in the form of two women, one of which is literally Death (Gabriella Giacobbe), and the other a pregnant woman representing Life (Olga Karlatos) who Keoma takes under his wing and constantly defends. It is difficult not to compare the image of Death and her interactions with Keoma to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, as both films also feature a disenchanted soldier returning from war to an environment riddled with disease. Both Keoma and Von Sydow’s knight argue relentlessly with Death, trying to justify their disillusionments at the world and blame human frailty for the tragedies surrounding them. Both also find hope in a new Life that comes in the form of a newborn, who signifies that existence, for all its despair, still goes on. 

 

What’s extraordinary about Keoma is that it compares favorably to Bergman, and it enhances our appreciation for that earlier masterpiece. In Bergman’s film, Death is inescapable but does not hold all the cards—when asked about the divine secrets of the universe, he admits ignorance. In Keoma, Death seemingly knows why the universe works the way that it does, but she is ignorant of the human heart. She can also be one-upped—instead of Keoma pleading with her (as Von Sydow does), Death pleads with Keoma, and asks him why he has come back to restore dignity a town that she has doomed. The film’s final line, regarding the new birth that comes even as death eclipses everyone else, is Keoma’s response to Death: We all die, but Death will still never win, because fresh life replaces those who fall. This is perhaps Keoma’s final, powerful statement regarding the Spaghetti western: It is gone, but its residue will always remain. Tarantino and Eastwood no doubt agree. The film thus suggests that Bergman’s immortal image of the Grim Reaper leading a dance into death is not the final word. We are not required to surrender to transience, even as it appears inevitable. Here, by God, is Keoma, who can utter, “The free never die!” and choose to fistfight Death instead of dance with him. Yes, he will lose, but not before Death desperately beseeches him to give up. Gilgamesh could not have done better. 

 

Keoma is one of five profound cinematic elegies for the Western. Also on that list: Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The other four deal more directly with the genre in general—Ford meticulously peals away the layers of fabricated romance surrounding the west and reveals the more mundane truths hidden under the legendary, Leone reflects on the end of the desert ’s lawless freedom as civilization and order progress, Peckinpah drives the last of the violent gunslingers into hellish oblivion, and Eastwood provides the residue of the lone outlaw in a newly-enlightened frontier that has begun to mythologize his type of scum. Keoma concerns itself more specifically with the fairy-tale Spaghetti west, and it uses the best of its motifs to bid adieu. Any of these films play fine by themselves, but it helps to know the genre that created them to understand the depths of their earnestness. Keoma is not the best of these eulogies (that’s probably Unforgiven, though I’m personally partial to Leone’s film), but it is certainly the most heartbreaking. Above all else, the Italians loved the Western; even if the genre was guaranteed to survive in one form or another in America, Italian filmmakers closing their books to it heralded the end of a wonderful love affair. Keoma represents the end of that affair, and it walks away into the sunset with both proud dignity and bitter tears. For once, the dying have justified their existence in a way that forces Death to grasp her victory with reluctance. 

 

Cast: 

Franco Nero: Keoma 

Woody Strode: George 

Olga Karlatos: Lisa 

William Berger: William Shannon 

Death: Gabriella Giacobbe 

 

A film by Uranos Cinematografica Productions. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Castellari, with Nico Ducci, Mino Rolli, and George Eastman. No M.P.A.A. rating, but contains plenty of stylized western violence. Running time: 105 minutes. Original year of release: 1976. 

 

Questions? Comments? E-mail me: danel_the_tinman@hotmail.com

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