Requiem for a Village
Director: David Gladwell
God bless the BFI. Through their Flipside label they’re releasing some of the most interesting examples of British cinema, but as good as some of the more unknown releases have been, nothing prepared me for the unsettling Requiem for A Village. We open in the English suburbia of the 70s. An old man takes his bike out of his shed and rides out into the nearby country, modern life gives way to the pastoral as cars disappear to be replaced by shots of cows and chickens feeding, before we finally reach the village graveyard. The old man is the groundskeeper, and he’s come to tend to the dead. Inside the church is a town meeting, shots of diggers tearing up the landscape is explained at the meeting, developers want to tear down the woods and the old village to build new estates. As the vicar talks of the generations that have lived and died in that little village, the groundskeeper begins to remember the lives of those buried in the cemetary. In one of the most memorable scenes in a film packed with surreal little moments, the dead begin to rise from their graves, clawing their way through pebbles, and then head into the church. The groundskeeper follows them, opens the door, and we step into his memories. All the dead are seated attending a wedding, and the groundskeeper is the young groom. A traditional village wedding leads into a traditional wedding night, and a jump-cut to an unexpectedly graphic scene of childbirth. We’re then taken through life in the village, the traditional craftsmanship that took part there, the gathering of harvests, and the private lives of the villagers, including both sex and violence.
It’s easy to read the film as tradition = good, progress = evil, but I think it’s more complex than that. There are several scenes where time shifts and overlaps, where characters from different time periods almost intrude on each other. I think Gladwell was calling for a remembrance that we are all linked, through the land and through our interactions with each other. It’s true that machinery is seen as dangerous, but it’s also seen as necessary for survival in earlier times. I think the fear of technology comes from the changes that were taking place on a large scale in rural areas during that time. Ways of life were changing and something was being lost, whether you think it was something good or bad.
The film is impossible to classify. It’s a rural drama, an ode to memory, a documentary, a mood-piece. Some sections could easily be claimed to fall into the horror genre, and you can certainly see similar sensibilities to the kind of horror cinema that Britain was turning out in the period. A fascination with older customs that recalls The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Penda’s Fen. It’s not really horror though, the dead rising is simply a means of interacting with the past without simply using flashbacks, but it retains the same unsettling air as many of those films. The director had famously been the editor for both If…. and O Lucky Man, and he brings much of that surreal worldview to his own directorial work, using an amateur cast, very little dialogue and an astonishing choral score to create a film that succeeds through it’s otherworldly atmosphere. All of this in a film that runs only slightly over an hour long. It’s a masterpiece, a film that jumped into my top 100 on its very first viewing. It’s also one of the most unique films I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing.