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Hypocrites

D: Lois Weber / 54m

Cast: Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman, Herbert Standing, Adele Farrington, Margaret Edwards

The present day: the Reverend Gabriel (Foote) is preaching a sermon on hypocrisy to a congregation who are by turns, disinterested, bored, or unable to see that his sermon has any relevance to themselves.  Even one of his own assistants is seen reading a Sunday newspaper.  Seeing this, Gabriel rounds on everyone there and focuses the message of the sermon on them.  With the service concluded, several of the congregation gather outside the church and plot to have Gabriel removed.  Back inside, one of his female assistants (Stedman), clearly enamoured of the cleric, attempts to speak with him but he is so lost in thought she that she passes up the opportunity.  When everyone is gone, Gabriel slumps in a chair, the offending newspaper in hand, his thoughts continuing to reach out to God.

He falls into a reverie.  In it he finds himself dressed in medieval robes, ascending a steep hill.  His parishioners pass by on the road below; some see Gabriel and others climbing the trail, but fail to follow him for various selfish or thoughtless reasons.  Two women make the climb with him (including the woman who is fond of him), but they fall by the wayside, leaving Gabriel at the summit, alone and beseeching God for a better understanding of his flock’s lack of moral probity.

The past: Gabriel is a monk living in a monastery where the other monks are shown having what looks like a feast.  Gabriel is working on a statue, a gift for the monastery and the people of the town where it’s located.  He works in secrecy until the day his work is ready to be shown.  The monks arrange a celebration to go with the unveiling, but when the statue is uncovered there is shock and uproar: the statue is of a naked woman, whom Gabriel calls Truth.  Gabriel is seized by a mob and killed.  Back in the present day, his body is found by his parishioners, the newspaper still in his hand; a later headline reveals their shock at his being found in such circumstances.

Hypocrites - scene

Hypocrites is a movie that has gained quite a good reputation over the years, and it’s easy to see why.  Though its moralising is a little heavy-handed by today’s standards, it’s still an effective piece, the use of the same actors in both time periods serving to highlight how little Man has changed over the centuries, his selfish, irreligious behaviour leading him further and further away from the path to true enlightenment and happiness.  Viewed like this it’s no surprise that the modern day congregation reacts in the way it does, seeking to oust someone who holds a mirror up to their vain, self-serving posturing.  This is further explored in an extended sequence where Truth (Edwards) – depicted as a naked young woman – shows Gabriel various examples of the hypocrisy his congregation indulges in, e.g. the politician whose banner reads “My platform is honesty” but who is then seen taking bribes (businessmen, lovers by convenience, and the clergy also come under fire).

The decision to portray Truth as a naked woman caused a degree of uproar at the time of the movie’s release, despite being passed by the National Board of Censorship.  Hypocrites was banned in Ohio, there were riots in New York (strange to think now that a movie could provoke that violent a reaction), and reputedly the mayor of Boston wanted each frame including Truth to be hand-painted to cover her nakedness.  In the movie itself, the depiction of Truth is achieved via the use of double exposure, thus curtailing the level of detail that can be seen (and Edwards holds an arm across her breasts for the most part), and her appearance is in no way salacious.  That the movie received such an unfavourable welcome in places must have been the best thing the filmmakers could have wished for.

As a piece of propaganda for the morality brigade, the movie is expertly handled by Weber whose background before entering the film industry was as a street-corner evangelist.  In this sense, her mastery of the material is to be expected, and she offers convincing portraits of moral backsliding, the cast of familiar (if uncredited) faces cranking back on the declamatory style of acting usually found in movies of the period (though Foote more than makes up for any shortfall).  Indeed, it’s refreshing to see a wealth of what audiences today would call more naturalistic performances.  Weber also displays a technical mastery of the medium, her use of the camera and location photography combining to bring an absorbing, fresh approach at a time when movies were still largely set bound and with the camera employed as a fixed observer.  The pace of the movie is well maintained also, and each scene is constructed to accommodate and/or support the fullest expression of the moral laxity it’s presenting.  It all makes for an impressive feat of moviemaking.

Rating: 9/10 – as relevant now as it was in 1915, Hypocrites depicts Man at his most shamelessly self-interested and duplicitous; a classic of silent cinema and clear evidence that Lois Weber was as talented – if not more so – than many of her peers.

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