Le moine et la sorcire (Sorceress) (1987)
Director: Suzanne Schiffman.
Starring: Tchéky Karyo (Etienne de Bourbon), Christine Boisson (Elda), Jean Carmet (Le curé / Vicar), Raoul Billerey (Siméon), Catherine Frot (Cécile), Féodor Atkine (Comte de Villars), Maria de Medeiros (Agns), Gilette Barbier (La sacristaine), Nicole Félix (Madeleine), Jean Dasté (Christophe), Mathieu Schiffman (Le jeune Artaud), Michel Karyo (Etienne jeune).
supposed witchcraft in 13th century France
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
In Medieval Times the Lord of the Manor had virtually total power over the peasants. He could even kill them if he so wished. The setting is in France around 1250 A.D. in a small village ruled by a Lord of the Manor named Comte de Villars. One day a mother leaves her baby to do a short errand. The greyhound of the master comes in and sits by the baby. A poisonous snake also comes in and threatens the baby. The dog named Guinefort kills the snake and gets blood all over himself. Hearing the commotion the master, a nobleman, and mistress come running in. Seeing the blood on the dog, the Master jumps to the conclusion that the dog attacked the baby, so he kills the dog with a spear.
Feeling bad about this the peasants laid a stone over the dog's grave and marked it with a sign. The dog's martyrdom became a legend in the isolated region around the peasant village.
One day a priest named Etienne de Bourbon comes to the village. He has been sent to seek out heretics and heresy in the small village. He talks with the local Vicar, who tells Etienne that there are no heretics in his village. All the people are basically good souls. Etienne finds this hard to believe and asks the Vicar if he made a list of suspects, as instructed by the church. But again the Vicar says there is no one to list on the heretic list. The Vicar does not trust this newcomer to the village.
The following day the priest speaks to the peasants of the village. He tells them he seeks heresy and he is here to uncover it. So a woman comes into talk to him. She says the local Count is a heretic. He flooded part of their field to use as a pond to grow fish and this has hurt her husband and her family. The priest tells her that the Count can do what he wants with his lands. This is not heresy. An older man comes in to talk about his sore leg. He says that he got some help from the forest woman for the pain. The priest's ears prick up. He wants to know more about this forest woman. Perhaps she is practicing sorcery. The man says that the forest woman knows if you will get well or not and the priest concludes that this must be some form of divination, a tool of the devil.
The priest talks with the Vicar to find out more about this forest woman. The Vicar says the woman's name is Elda. The Vikar does not believe that Elda could be a sorceress. Two men to go to the dam on the pond and by force break it open. This drains the water from the pond.
The next day a boy takes the priest to see the forest woman. It soon becomes clear that the woman is not a sorceress but someone who knows the healing abilities of plants and uses the plants in her remedies to help the sick. The priest misses the whole point of what she is telling him and starts lecturing her about not looking to nature for lessons from God. He is just so full of himself that he is going to be a possible danger to the community.
In church the Lord of the Manor opens the door and comes in yelling to tell all the peasants to get out. Someone has burst the dam and they must help save the fish in the pond. He accuses the Vicar of letting the peasants plot against him. In fact, he says the Vicar is plotting with the peasants. Before leaving he says that all who destroy his property will be executed. The next time the Count sees the priest he tells him that rebellion is the worst form of heresy. The priest tells him that what happened is not heresy.
Flashback. Etienne sees a deer killed in a hunt being field dressed. He can't stand it and feels sick. The nobleman who killed the deer calls him a coward. Etienne suddenly starts running away through the forest.
Back to the present. The next day Etienne follows Elda into the forest. She sees him and approaches him. Elda is out picking flowers and leaves of the plants. The priest refers to this as "magic" but Elda says it is not magic. It is an application of the knowledge of the many uses of plants.
Flashback. Etienne is running away from the sight of the deer being cut up. He comes across a pretty girl in the forest. She sees him and starts to run, but falls and gets knocked out. TEtienne takes advantage of this and has sex (not shown) with her.
Back to the present. Siméon, a friend of Etienne, has come looking for Etienne. He sees the forest woman and asks her if Etienne is in the village. She says he is. With Siméon is a young girl named Agnes. Siméon finds the priest. He tells Etienne that he brings bad news. Etienne's father was killed in the Crusade. The priest thinks that Agnes is waiting to speak with him, but Siméon tells him that Agnes is with him and she can't speak. Her grandparents took care of her, but now they are dead. Etienne says he will take the girl to a convent to stay there.
The woman who complained about their lands being taken for a pond now complains that her husband Martin could lose his life in addition to his land. She says they are starving her husband. So the priest goes with her to where Martin is being held. The priest talks to the guards and gets permission for the wife to go in and see her husband. Martin is very weak, so his wife breast feeds him.
Etienne goes to the little hut of Elda looking for her. He does not find her. He looks around at her various tools of the trade, so to speak. But then she suddenly shows up at his side. She asks him why he came here and he says that he lost his way.
The Count's wife has a baby.
At night Etienne writes a letter saying he finds no heresy in this little village. He hears some noise outside and sees a woman taking her baby to the woods and decides to follow her. He sees the woman meet up with Elda. The woman complains that this is not her baby. The wood spirit took her baby and left this one with her. The mother wants to go to the grove. They go to the grove and Etienne follows them. It's the place where the martyred greyhound Guinefort is buried. The women go through an elaborate ritual to get the mother's real baby back. Elda applies her knowledge of plants to help the baby. After awhile they pick up the baby and the fever is gone. Elda says the fever broke while the mother says the wood spirit returned her real baby to her. The women leave.
The priest is convinced that this is some type of sorcery. He gathers the women together in the church to tell them that the devil is among them. Etienne tells them he just witnessed a rite that was straight out of the tradition of the rites involving human sacrifice. He wants to know who are the women evoking in ceremonies such as the one he saw? They give him some different examples and the priest calls these beliefs superstitions. Now he wants to know who taught them these things? The name mentioned is that of Elda. The Vicar tries to intervene by flattering the priest saying he has saved their village. He assures Etienne that no one from the village will ever again go to the Sacred Grove. Etienne, however, wants to know why even the Vicar calls the grove "sacred"? He says he will bring in the forest woman who is a sorceress. She will be held on the suspicion of heresy.
The next day two guards bring in Elda to the village with her hands tied to a pole. The guards place her in a barn and lock the door. Etienne comes in to speak to her. Elda tells him to leave her alone so she can do her work of healing others. She adds that there is so much that Etienne doesn't even see. And once again Elda has to try to explain to the dense one that it is not sorcery, but healing medicine that she is practicing. She sometimes may talk like a sorceress, but she is just using the superstitions of the peasants to make it easier for them to understand and trust her. Elda says it's the peasants themselves who believe in and support the rites, not her. And she will not abandon the peasants. The priest says then she will stay locked up. He says if he finds that she is leading the peasants into heresy, he will have to contact the secular authorities and they will execute her. He leaves. At night Agnes goes in to see Elda. She brings the forest woman some food.
The next day the Vicar tells the priest that the people are afraid of him. Etienne responds: "I protect them from their perversity." Elda is led to the church by the guards The priest is going to grill the women again. In doing so, the women talk about St. Guinefort. Etienne wants to know who is this unknown St. Guinefort? He finally learns that Guinefort was the martyred greyhound. Etienne is shocked to learn that Guinefort was an animal. He says that this is heresy; that they are mocking the Catholic tradition of saints. Etienne says that the grove will be destroyed.
In the morning Etienne leads some of the villagers to burn the grove. Martin's two guards go with them in the hope that maybe there will be some gold hidden there. This gives Martin time enough to escape. His wife would smuggle hemp sewn into her gown and now he has made a rope. He lets himself down from the tower. Martin immediately heads for home.
The Vicar tells the priest that his zeal for the law blinds him to human feeling. He tells him that the work of Elda is good. He then gives Etienne the shawl of repentance. "Let her be pardoned and save her life." Etienne just bolts out of the church, but he does go to talk with Elda. He tells her that the secular authorities will burn her. She tries once again to explain things to the priest, but he's not listening. He asks her if she ever had sex with the devil. She says the closest she ever came to the devil was when the Lord of the Manor raped her when she was first married at age 16. The Lord cited first night's privileges for this rape.
Siméon asks if Etienne remembers the apothecaries who were the grandparents of Agnes? Etienne says no. Siméon says that their daughter Marguerite was out hunting plants one day and a boy came upon her and pushed her down. She was knocked senseless and then the man raped her. Three seasons later Marquerite gave birth to Agnes, but Marquerite died in childbirth. The rapist was none other than Etienne the priest. Now it's the turn of the priest to be defensive.
Etienne admits to the Vicar that he embraced church law to escape secular law. The Vicar urges him to do good deed. His letter to the Count condemned another innocent person to death. Go and speak to the Count and stop him from putting Elda to death. Etienne does visit the Lord of the Manor. He tells the Count that the Church has decided to drop the charge of heresy against Elda. But the Count really wants to execute Elda to set an example to the peasants. Etienne tells him a story about a man who put an innocent woman to death and was punished harshly by God. The Count says nothing as Etienne grabs the letter of execution from him to the Count and slowly walks out with it.
Etienne returns to the village and tells the Vicar that Elda is free to do her healing. Etienne says his work here is done and he will be going. And he will take Agnes to the convent as he promised. Elda walks through the streets of the village. Etienne comes out of the church to see Elda and Agnes walking hand in hand. Siméon tells the priest that Agnes has decided to stay in the village and learn the healing ways. Etienne leaves.
The Vicar says: "He was a stag proud of his huge antlers, but he kept tangling them in the bushes." Siméon adds: "The villagers and Elda helped him get free."
Near the end of his life Etienne wrote a treatise that included the story of Guinefort. The knowledge of the healer was past down from generation to generation. The last woman healer to protect babies at the grove died in 1936.
Good movie. Looking for heresy in a very small village of peasants? The church had to be off it's rocker to send anyone to look for heretics in such a setting. And they send a real nut case to look for heretics. The priest can't tell the difference between sorcery and healing of physical ailments. It was quite clear from the start that Elda was an herbal healer and not a daughter of the devil. It would take a psychiatrist to figure out what Eteinne's problem is. Maybe if one is so overly-moralistic as the priest is it does indicate unresolved psychological problems/issues. In the case of Etienne it's the rape of a young girl who later dies in giving birth to his daughter Agnes. The one thing I really liked was the showing of the unbridled power of the Lords of the Manors, which included life and death decisions.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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