A Man Who's Free Never Dies: Keoma (1976)

Considering that I am devoting the entire month to westerns it was only a matter of time before I came across a film involving Franco Nero, whose expansive career was heavily involved with his role as Django, a character Tarantino would morph for his recent take on the genre.  While I had high hopes of actually watching a Django flick things simply did not work out and I was instead able to obtain Keoma for a screening.  Fortunately, while it was not my first choice boy was it a blessing in disguise, because for all intents and purposes, Keoma is everything I could have possibly hoped for in an over-the-top spaghetti western.  In fact, it is an absurdly heavy handed movie that appears to, nonetheless, take itself very seriously.  I could pull from a variety of different examples from how this movie just blows subtlety out the window, whether it be the haunting and very on-the-nose soundtrack or the insistence that every single death be delivered in an incredibly slow-motion fashion, Keoma wants to be intense, and while its push for excess can be...excessive, it is what helps to make it an entirely enjoyable and incredibly engaging film.  Of course, what proves to be the biggest surprise in my opinion is that it also incorporates a handheld camera frequently, capturing scenes in natural lighting and grit.  If one refers to the release date though, it kind of makes sense, considering that 1976 may well be the greatest single year in filmmaking, and a moment in filmmaking where everything changed, in some cases for the better, but mostly for the worst.  The attempt at a heightened sense of reality that occurs in Taxi Driver or Nashville is poetic, realized and absolutely spectacular and there are certainly moments of this within Keoma, although I would never dare suggest that it is even remotely on similar ground.  Keoma sets out to consider the very real issues of racism and miscengination in a contemporary setting and to what degree those experiences have affected new generations, of course, given its wild nature the film only occasionally succeeds at these deeply philosophical endeavors, but when it does prove well-delivered it is nothing short of marvelous to watch.

Keoma (Franco Nero) is a man whose past has returned to him literally when he arrives back to his hometown after service in the Civil War on the side of the Union.  Keoma, is particularly reluctant to return to his town, first because of his half-white and half-Native American identity which has brought him much turmoil in his life, a fact emphasized by his tenuous relationship with his father, as well as his step-brothers who have mocked him for his entire life, an act that Keoma clearly still internalizes and plays out in visual flashbacks.  Furthermore, Keoma's return to his less than stellar past is made all the more unbearable when he discovers that his town is suffering from the scourge of a plague so drastic that it appears as though it is existing solely in a post-apocalyptic space where entire buildings are burned to the ground and any sort of business fails to thrive, let along stay on its feet.  While it appears as though the desolation is solely the result of the previously mentioned plague, Keoma catches wind of information that suggests a tyrannical man named Caldwell (Donald O'Brien) is actually the individual responsible for the terrible actions.  Realizing that it is his duty to both protect his city, as well as justify his existence and relevance despite, to use his step-brothers' term, a "half-breed." Keoma takes it upon himself to standup against the terrible ways of Caldwell and bring back to his town the necessary supplies and medicine to save everyone still alive from a certain plague ridden death.  Alongside Keoma are his former slave by circumstance and now recovering alcoholic George (Woody Strode) and the pregnant plague victim Lisa (Olga Karlatos) who help in all the ways possible to assure good comes back to their desolate village.  While Lisa is primarily moral support, George is actually quite skilled with a bow and lethal to a degree.  Eventually Keoma comes face to face with all those who had done injustice to either himself or the townsfolk teaching them their lesson with a swift knife or bullet to the chest, unfortunately, in order for Keoma to finally be born again, it invariably requires the loss of something.

Keoma provides for an interesting talking point in regards to the western as genre and pairs quite nicely in regards to Shane, which also includes a sort of wandering male figure, although in regards to this spaghetti western it is much more of a redemption/return story.  What makes Keoma particularly fascinating is that aside from a genetic difference, one that is only deemed less by those around him, he is an incredilby infallible character.  Viewers will quickly realize that there is nothing Keoma cannot do whether it be shooting down a posse of men who clearly outnumber him or landing a knife in a man's throat with perfect accuracy every time.  Hell the guy can even ride two horse at once, not to mention survive being drug behind one, or tied up to a wagon wheel for days at a time.  This heightened degree of perfection is certainly helpful considering the Christ narrative that eventually emerges within the film, but it is not a full on passion play of sorts so the fact that Keoma is so damn perfect becomes somewhat distancing at times.  It is easy to feel the tension of the first few fights when it is not apparent that Keoma can escape anything, however, when he is able to successfully out maneuver those around him, or receive help well before he needs it placing a vested interest in him as a character becomes quite difficult.  One could almost argue that Keoma's mythological stature, paired with quite the theme song, are almost mocking the sort of gunslinger imagery of the western, questioning the very nature of figures like Shane or Chance to pull from movies I have mentioned recently, yet it is also a movie that desperately wants to be cool, almost making a superhero out of Keoma.  In fact, the villainous nature of Caldwell is so inexplicably terrible that one almost assumes he has to be evil to create the perfect contrast for the saintly and good Keoma.  While none of this serves to ruin the film to any noticeable degree it is something I certainly struggled with while viewing and continue to toss around in my head well after it was over.  Perhaps that is the very nature of Keoma, to create such an absurdly infallable character that one does not embrace him for his hip, cool demeanor, but, instead; for his decidedly implausible nature.

Key Scene:  While there are cool scenes I want to draw attention here to the film's soundtrack.  As a friend put it, it is the only soundtrack that he simultaneously loves and hates.  While that statement may seem absurd those who have viewed the film will completely understand his sentiments.

The bluray for this is dirt cheap and even comes with another equally intriguing spaghetti western, there is really no justification not to grab a copy.

No comments:

Post a Comment