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A drunken homeless man (Rutger Hauer) in Paris is lent 200 francs by a stranger (Anthony Quayle) as long as he promises to repay it to a local church when he can afford to; the film depicts the man's constant frustrations as he attempts to do so.
This project started when producer Roberto Cicutto (Hotel Rwanda) bought the rights to Roth's book of the same name. A few directors were approached and turned the film down because the plot was too "thin" and "vague". Finally, Ermanno Olmi (Tree of Wooden Clogs) was suggested by Tullio Kezich's wife, and he accepted. Perhaps because of modesty, Kezich suggests that Olmi wrote the bulk of the script, with Kezich merely "watching him work". Kezich is best known as the film critic for Corriere della Sera and for his award-winning biography of director Federico Fellini.
According to Kezich, Robert DeNiro wanted the lead role, and Cicutto flew him to Europe to meet with Olmi. DeNiro was in awe of Olmi, but apparently the feeling was not mutual. Oddly, Rutger Hauer was wanted by Olmi because of his role in "The Hitcher" (1986), which makes little sense. Hauer himself concedes that he was more comfortable with action, and less comfortable with nuance.
In fact, Hauer was probably a better choice than DeNiro, despite the latter's bigger star power. Hauer is quite effective as the alcoholic, not overdoing it. The way he is dressed and presents himself makes the "holy drinker" an interesting character because on the surface he appears quite well-to-do when, in fact, he sleeps under a bridge.
Worth noting is Anthony Quayle, who has a small but important part, as he really commands attention from the audience just with his presence. Unlike Hauer, Quayle was primarily a stage actor, steeped in Broadway and Shakespeare. This may be why he so naturally comes off as "distinguished" because he certainly was.
The film won the Golden Lion at the 45th edition of the Venice Film Festival. It also won four David di Donatello Awards (for best film, best director, Best cinematography and best editing) and two Silver Ribbons (for best director and best screenplay). The film was selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 61st Academy Awards, though it was not accepted as a nominee.
This mysterious tale -- almost a dark, dry comedy -- really comes to life on the Arrow Blu-ray. The special features are fairly slim, though the 25-minute interview with Kezich is enlightening and the 10-minute interview with Hauer is a joy. The best thing about this film is that it is now going to be available to a new audience. Though not well-known, it ought to be. In this reviewer's humble opinion, "Holy Drinker" is superior to "Tree of Wooden Clogs", and may be Hauer's finest role.
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