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'White Ribbon' explores the dark side of small-town life

Charles Ealy

A critical backlash against "The White Ribbon" has been building ever since it took the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

In The New York Times in late December, A.O. Scott called it "a guilt trip down memory lane ... lectured and scolded by a filmmaker whose rich craft disguises the poverty of his ideas."

In New York magazine, David Edelstein said that director Michael Haneke "follows Lars von Trier ("Antichrist") in borrowing a serviceable horror-movie premise, gussying it up for the international festival crowd and passing off its sclerotic insights as harsh new truths about the essential evil of man (and woman and child)."

And in last week's Miami Herald, Rene Rodriguez described the foreign-language Oscar nominee as an "artsy bore."

I'm not a part of the backlash. Nor are several other critics, including Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.

Yet with "The White Ribbon," it's easy to see why people can respectfully disagree.

It's dense. It's stark. And it's almost like an anthropological Clifford Geertz study — a so-called thick description of the cultural roots of fascism in a small German town on the eve of World War I.

Still, it's much more than that.

Like a tale out of Faulkner, "The White Ribbon" rises to the universal by exposing the repression, the corruption of small-town burghers and the moral depravity that can lurk in a seemingly pastoral setting.

Shot in moody black and white, the German-language film opens with the town's former schoolteacher acting as a narrator, promising to help explain a strange sequence of events.

But he really doesn't. Nor does Haneke. Instead, viewers are left to make up their own minds as the mysteries deepen, many of them involving strange children who appear to be acting out their repression-induced hostilities.

The action begins ominously when a doctor, on horseback, rides toward his home after work, only to be thrown when the animal stumbles over a thin, almost-invisible wire that has been strung low, between two trees. The doctor is seriously injured.

In many movies, the rest of the action would lead to the explanation for this attack. But instead, Haneke takes us into the homes of various families, including those of a local baron and a preacher.

And through this device, Haneke begins to focus not on the children, but on the parents and their firm belief in punishment.

Chief among the retribution-minded elders is the local preacher, who makes his children wear white ribbons around their arms to constantly remind them of their need to stay pure — after they commit the mortal sin of being late for dinner one day.

The other families fare little better. Adultery, verbal abuse and violence are shown in shockingly matter-of-fact ways. And viewers will probably begin to wonder where Haneke is taking them.

The answer might well be that he's taking us nowhere, as some critics have suggested. But for those who have grown up in small, fervently religious towns and have never believed in the myth of pastoral placidity, this trip to the past might seem eerily prescient.

With "The White Ribbon," Haneke continues to explore a world that Thomas Hobbes would thoroughly understand — and one that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would reject.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

Rating: R for violence, sexuality. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes. Theater: Arbor.