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SECRET CEREMONY(director: Joseph Losey; screenwriters: story by Marco Denevi/George Tabori; cinematographer: Gerry Fisher; editor: Reginald Beck; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Leonora), Mia Farrow (Cenci), Robert Mitchum (Albert), Dame Peggy Ashcroft (Hannah), Pamela Brown (Hilda); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Paul Heller/John Heyman/Norman Priggen; Universal; 1968-UK)
“Strangely fascinating.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joseph Losey’s (“The Servant”) psychological thriller Secret Ceremony was based on a prize-winning short story by Argentine civil servant Marco Denevi. This bizarre drama never makes much sense and is cold emotionally but is, nevertheless, strangely fascinating. It was filmed at Elstree Studios in London.

Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is an aging prostitute who is mistaken, while on a London bus, by a regressive 22-year-old named Cenci (Mia Farrow) for the deceased mother she idolizes. In actuality Cenci’s mother recently died after a three-month mysterious illness leaving the psychologically troubled girl alone in the spacious Art Déco mansion. Cenci follows Leonora to church, where the devout prostitute stops off to pray and then follows her to the cemetery where she watches the prostitute put flowers on the grave site of her 10-year-old daughter. Soon Leonora accepts Cenci’s invite to live in the mansion and be her substitute mother out of a mix of greed and concern for the starving-for-affection child/woman.

Cenci’s stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum) has been sent away a longtime ago by his wife for making sexual advances on the youngster. But horny child molester Albert returns from his college position in Philadelphia sporting tweeds, an Abe Lincoln beard and plenty of stories about seducing minors in America. Albert’s return upsets Leonora and Cenci, and forces them to face reality again. Leonora has made herself cozy in the mansion as she learned more about the guilt-ridden girl’s baffling history and easily adjusted to her parental role. The two women were living in a fantasy world, each mourning the death of their loved one while unable to live happily in the real world. Leonora is world-weary and looked upon staying in the mansion as a welcome respite from hustling in the streets, she even attends church to pray that nothing goes wrong with her new trick.

But things change in a delirious way when Albert confronts Leonora and tries to comfort Cenci. The troubled girl sprinkles blood on her bed sheets and tells Leonora her stepfather raped her. After the women holiday by the seashore at a fancy hotel to clear their heads, they return to the dark mansion when Leonora exposes Cenci’s attempt to fake being pregnant. Living with the truth of her past actions drives the sexually deranged Cenci to carry out her deadly “secret ceremony” as her pleas for help go unanswered, while streetfighter Leonora survives to fight another day.

Losey’s mannered direction is crisp and sets the film’s proper downbeat mood, but the nutty narrative offered nothing intellectually stimulating to further feed the brain cells. It was odd to see Mitchum in such a thankless role, where the great actor looked more traumatized playing an academic pervert than did Mia Farrow in a long wig playing a traumatized retard. Dames Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown are cast as nosy old biddies who are “slightly Jewish” and visit Mia only to steal, as their roles gave the film a campy feel.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”