THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!
THE NINTH GATE (1999)
DIRECTED BY: ROMAN POLANSKI
The complete engraving titles in Torchia's Nine Gates are as follows: 1. SILENTIUM EST AUREUM - Silence is Golden. 2. CLAUSAE PATENT - They open that which is closed. 3. VERBUM DIMISSUM CUSTODIAT ARCANUM - The lost word keeps the secret. 4. FORTUNA NON OMNIBUS AEQUE - Fate is not the same for all. 5. FRUSTRA - In Vain. 6. DITESCO MORI - I am enriched by death. 7. DISCIPLUS POTIOR MAGISTRO - The disciple surpasses the master. 8. VICTA JACET VIRTUS - Virtue Lies Defeated. 9. NUNC SCIO TENEBRIS LUX - Now I know that from darkness comes light.
THE NINTH GATE is Roman Polasnki’s best film, said no one in the history of ever (forget it Jake, it’s CHINATOWN). And while I’m certainly not the one to defend it as such, I do believe this is a movie that’s gone criminally disrespected over the years. Our very own John The Arrow Fallon wisely gave the film stellar marks back during its initial turn of the century run. But among most other critics and the general filmgoing public alike, THE NINTH GATE got dumped on harder than Riley Reid in a steamy FMM ménage. Why?
Part of this, no doubt, was due to comparing the film to past Polanski triumphs: KNIFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE TENANT, etc. Most simply felt THE NINTH GATE was beneath the man’s Oscar caliber talents. Of course, the year in which the film was also released surely had something to do with the film more or less getting lost in the shuffle. 1999 still might be the last great year of cinema, though 2007 was quite remarkable as well. And this says nothing of those who’d, based on Polanski’s personal past, would summarily dismiss the film before even seeing it, perhaps ever. And maybe even a smaller portion of the public would recall what happened to Roman’s wife, Sharon Tate, and how subsequently distasteful casting his new, younger wife Emmanuelle Seigner might seem. All of these things would seem to hinder THE NINTH GATE from opening itself to the glory it deserves. But ladies, gents, here’s the real reason THE NINTH GATE is unfairly treated as a F*ckin Black Sheep!
The chief reason? The movie must be seen multiple times. To be honest, I didn’t always love THE NINTH GATE, I too, like most, sort of dismissed the flick is rather silly the first time I saw it. But like all great works of cinema, repeat viewings begin to reveal something more. See, the surface story of THE NINTH GATE is just that, a sort of ruse or entry point to dig deeper if you choose. Based on the tome “The Dumas Club”, which was written in 1666 by Arturo Perez-Reverte – THE NINTH GATE (inverted release of 1999) tracks the course of Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a rare antique book dealer who is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to travel to Europe to substantiate the authenticity of three known copies of the book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which is said to have been penned by Lucifer himself. Or, more accurately, which of the three is the original article.
Along the way, Corso passes through his own set of nine gates, which of course, aren’t actual gates, but metaphorical rites of passage on the way to ultimate enlightenment. Go back and watch the movie and count the various thresholds we’re talking about. They’re fun to count. Because, honestly, just as the true wisdom of great works of fictionalized books are often found in between the lines, so too is the profound, historical meaning of the NINTH GATE. This movie is all subtext, a la EYES WIDE SHUT. To view it on the superficial narrative level is to fail to grasp its larger messages.
Seriously, this movie is littered with just as many encoded symbols and subtextual references to the occult of Satanism as Kubrick’s similarly misunderstood masterwork. In fact, both films feature orgy scenes set at the infamous Rothschild mansion, Chateau de Ferrieres in France. And this doesn’t just extend to Balkan’s 666 office code, Lena Olin’s character smoking Black Devil cigs, or the Dodge Viper metaphor as serpent that aligns with her back tattoo. No. I’m talking far deeper and more sinister explorations of historical Satanic worship, a sort of reversed adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, a topic I find in a no way a coincidence for Polanski to delve into after the Masonic, cult-like killing of his own wife at the hands of the Manson family.
As Corso investigates the nine cryptic engravings in each copy of the book, clues slowly reveal Lucifer to be the author of the original text. To wit, things are happening to him just as they go according to the tome. His friend is murdered in ritualized fashion, hung upside down just as the card depicted. Same goes for the eerie old mustachioed twin brothers, both of which resemble the hovering cherub in the following engraving. A supernatural seductress soon appears in the form of The Girl (Seigner), passionately distracting Corso from his path at first, but then aiding him on it. Living through Corso as a vicarious conduit, we can trust no one.
And speaking of trusting no one, I’ve always felt the air of intrigue and underlying mystery to the NINTH GATE came off as a cool 2-hour X-Files episode. It has that sort of vibe to it (I’m recently re-watching season 1-2 of the show, so it’s fresh on the brain). Until the movie makes a marked turn to the realms of the cartoonish near the end, it really does engross and entertain through the unknown. It’s a compelling watch in that way, much like Polanski’s equally superb 2010 thriller THE GHOST WRITER. See, Corso’s journey is a deviously deceptive one, it is he who is passing through the Nine Gates of historic ritual that will allow for his own immortality in the end. It’s not about tracking down a book, it’s about a transcendent journey. The final shot of the film, often read as a darkly down ending, is actually the final step in one man’s spiritual illumination. Don’t buy it? I suggest copping a peek at Jay Dyer’s work on the matter, as well as that of author Peter Levenda, for a far more in depth analysis.
So there you have it, the Devil’s in the details. Much like EYES WIDE SHUT, to not dig deeper down the rabbit hole introduced by THE NINTH GATE, is to flatly deny its overall power. Merely watching it on a surface level cannot and does not do justice to the potency of its message. Now, I’m not saying you need be a scholarly theologian to fully grasp its meaning, but having a historical context through which to view the film will help to find, like Corso himself, transcendent edification. Frank Langella’s ridiculously over the top turn aside, THE NINTH GATE is, even among Polanski’s decorated canon, unworthy of being a F*ckin Black Sheep!