It’s hard to imagine what a non-native would make of this curious and densely-layered film which manages, quite wonderfully, to be both near-unintelligible and yet to also give voice to the subtle conflicts that lie at the heart of the English countryside, of the English soul.
Taking as its ostensible plot the day-dreams and mutterings of an elderly man who spends his days cycling back and forth from his housing-estate home to a Sussex country graveyard where he ineffectually clips the grass around the graves with hand shears, Gladwell’s film builds contrast and juxtaposition until the viewer is almost giddy. Even this simple introduction holds multiple layers – the box-like boredom of the estate’s modern homes sits in contrast to the individually-named and hand-crafted gravestones, the old man cycling on a dual carriageway causes the modern cars to swerve and slow – but it is the quieter contrasts that make the film what it is; tarmac and woodland paths, handpainted signs and plastic hoardings, the warm-eyed father’s wedding speech and the councillor’s exhortation to action.
As our near-silent narrator patrols the graveyard, talking quietly of those lying under the soil, he almost literally invokes the past in one of the films many striking scenes. Soil and gravel push upwards to let the village’s past residents emerge once more, not as zombies or ghosts but as waking-dreams that laugh and smile at each other as they are conjured from the old man’s memories. From here, we are taken on a journey through his recollections of life gone by and the film’s core message of the past fighting an ever-losing battle against the modern; a young man (one we slowly realise is an earlier version of the old gardener) marries his young bride, a team of wheelwrights make a cartwheel, fields of grain are scythed into sheaves and the slow procession of days continues. This is interspersed with a sub-plot of the past being erased as modern-day earthmovers and diggers sweep the fields away, razed clean to make way for yet more housing estates, yet more boxes.
All of this could quite easily become a twee, rose-tinted piece of pastoral aggrandisement, where bucolic bumpkins go about their simple lives with an ignorant joy. Thankfully, this is not the case and Gladwell uses a brief but unsettling montage of sexual violence – shocking even now so who knows what effect it had in the 70s – to show not only the visceral side of the past but also to let us reflect on the unthinking rape that the modern world performs on itself as it plucks up virgin forest, ploughs fertile fields into barren concrete.
In one scene, the old man parks his bike and stands before one of the giant earthmoving machines. Looking for all the world like a peasant facing down the livestock-devouring wolf, or even the tax-extorting baron, he stands and flings a clod of earth at its man-high wheel. It is a feeble gesture, and an ineffectual one, but it is a stand he has to make and, as an old man fading from the world, it is his final stand.
Viewers wanting a return to the horror of films like ‘The Wicker Man’ are likely to be inevitably disappointed but ‘Requiem For A Village’ provides that true horror-of-the-folk in that their ways, the ways they have lived their lives, are no longer viable.
As an aside, Gladwell’s 1964 short work ‘An Untitled Film’ is an excellent companion piece to ‘Requiem For A Village’ and is included as an extra on the BFI DVD. Filmed in slo-mo black & white and using a hauntingly experimental soundtrack, ‘An Untitled Film’ makes the simple act of building a bonfire almost infernal and the killing of a chicken into something horribly elongated. A child leers out from behind tree branches, perhaps in horror or delight. It preludes the daily-routine-as-horror of Bela Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse‘ by some decades and performs the same function with a subtlety that is startling.
Dan Hunt, 2016