No, you didn’t read that wrong. Yes, I am taking another look at one of the lowest-scored films I have ever reviewed—Roman Polanski’s mysteryish-horrorish film The Ninth Gate.
So what made me want to take another look at The Ninth Gate at all? Well, for one, it at least felt like a film that was trying to say something. As cheap as the ending felt, the rest of the film seemed like it was trying to raise some questions (if not answer them). Obviously Roman Polanski has made some of the greatest films of all time, and there is a small group that calls this a very underrated film. I discovered some essays and videos trying to discern meaning in this film, and while I wholeheartedly disagree with 95% of what was written, a few of the ideas made me consider that maybe there was more here than met the eye. So was there a whole bunch of stuff I missed the first time? Is this a masterpiece on the level of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby? Was I very wrong about this film? Well, in order: Yes, No and Maybe.
Disclaimer: This is not going to be a review of the whole plot of the film. If you haven’t seen the film or read my original review, I would recommend doing at least one of those first.
My biggest criticism of the film in my original review was the ending. Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) discovers that one of the nine engravings Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) used in his attempt to summon the Devil was a forgery. He has sex with The Girl (Emmaneulle Seiger) as Langella’s corpse burns inside the castle, finds the true engraving and walks into the castle. Fade to white.
I wanted to see what happened when Corso entered the castle, of course, but that was far from my only issue. I made a comparison with Reepicheep from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and suggested that in that book, we don’t need to see him enter Heaven, because it’s all about his desire to enter it. Since Corso seemed to have no desire to enter the ninth gate until the third act when it was convenient, you couldn’t claim this was about a hero’s journey, right? You have to show us what’s in the ninth gate to give us some kind of satisfaction.
When someone seeks enlightenment of any kind, how do they achieve it? Well, if it’s religious enlightenment as with Reepicheep, it is achieved by faith, patience or traditionally being good. If someone seeks intellectual enlightenment like Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it comes, obviously, through using one’s brain. Entering the ninth gate is not a form of traditional enlightenment, because it is an attempt to summon the Devil. So how does one achieve this form of enlightenment?
When Corso arrives in Europe, he visits the book shop of The Ceniza Brothers (José López Roder).
They tell him about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, who allegedly co-authored the book with the Devil. Corso suggests that this is ridiculous, leading the brothers to tell him that Torchia was burned at the stake for his beliefs. One of them then says what may be the most important line in understanding this film, “Even Hell has its heroes.”
So what would a hero look like in Hell? Who would truly be worthy of entering the ninth gate? Both Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) and Boris Balkan feel they are worthy for different reasons. Telfer is the head of The Order of the Silver Serpent, a sect that meets once a year to read from The Nine Gates, worship the Devil and participate in an orgy. This is the closest thing to Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of Satanism in films such as Eye of the Devil, The Devil Rides Out and (to a lesser extent) Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby.
However, this kind of Satanism is looked down on by both Balkan and Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), the owner of a different copy of The Nine Gates. Kessler criticizes the Order for simply turning it into an excuse for sex, which is why she herself has left the order. She also dislikes Balkan for being a coward and sending hired men to look at her copy. Balkan criticizes the Order for similar reasons, believing they do not take their Devil worship seriously enough. He insists that he alone has cracked the code and he alone can enter the ninth gate.
So why is Liana Telfer unworthy? Is it merely because their meetings have turned into sex parties and they just aren’t serious enough? Well no, because if Balkan was right about everything, he would be a worthy candidate to enter the ninth gate. Both Telfer and Balkan reflect a conflict that exists in most every religion or belief system. They both have different ways to worship their god, but perhaps it’s not the way they’re worshiping, but rather the fact that they’re worshiping at all.
Most religions involve worship of a god or gods, sure, but why on earth would people who respect the Devil worship him? Tradition dating back thousands of years (it’s not explicitly in The Bible.) tells that Lucifer was banished from Heaven for refusing to worship God and leading a revolt to overthrow Him. Why would a religion centered around a usurper who refused to worship involve people gathering around to worship that very usurper? Yet Liana leads a bastardization of a Catholic mass (the standard type of Satanic service we often see in film, sans the human sacrifice), where everyone gathers to worship him. What kind of sense does that make?
That’s not to say Balkan is any better. Sure, he doesn’t hang out at Black Masses, but he is still a Devil worshiper. He believes himself to be the only one to whom the truth has been revealed, a fundamentalist or even potential “cult” leader. However, he still refers to Satan as “Master” over and over, and is very reverent and subservient.
When I first watched this film, I was livid that one of the nine engravings just randomly turned out to be a forgery, as this seemed to be a cheap way to kill of Balkan and let Corso enter the ninth gate instead. I mean, Frank Langella just looked silly lighting himself on fire and claiming he was immune to the flames as he burned up. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it looks silly, because that’s the point. It makes perfect sense that this engraving is a forgery, because why would a Satanic ritual involve being covered in fire and not burning? If Hell is the intended goal, why would burning and not being scorched be the ritual? Doesn’t this sound more like a Christian (or at least a person who knows The Bible) trying to guess what a Satanist would believe? It is reminiscent of the story in the book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace and not burned. Of course it looks silly when a man attempting to enter the fires of Hell claims the fire is not burning him.
So then who is worthy to enter the ninth gate? Who is a hero of Hell, if it does in fact have them? Let’s look at what we know about Aristide Torchia, the author of The Nine Gates. He successfully summoned the Devil and apparently collaborated with the Devil on the book—the word “co-authored” is even used at one point. This does not suggest that Torchia was a servant, but rather a cohort of the Devil. He refused to worship him, but by seeing himself as an equal, was worthy of summoning him.
So who in The Ninth Gate falls into that category? Yes, I’m obviously pointing towards Corso, the main character who I criticized endlessly in my original review. Corso may not seem like a Satanist at all, at least not the kind we’re expecting, but really look at the guy. Does he have one traditionally sympathetic quality? He is constantly engaging in some vice, whether it’s smoking…
Or having sex.
He’s also slovenly, lazy, selfish and incredibly greedy. Balkan even praises him, saying “There’s nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.” I don’t think Corso does one sympathetic thing in the course of the whole film, which I now believe is the point. He shows no grief when his co-worker Bernie (James Russo) is found dead, only fearing for his own life. He lets Liana Telfer seduce him in exchange for the book, but ultimately knowing it’s locked away somewhere and never intending to give it to her. As he did with Bernie, Corso only fears for his own life when he finds the owners of the other two copies dead.
The only thing resembling a sympathetic act is his mercy kill of Balkan, but is it really? He obviously cares more about the engravings, making sure to snatch them all up before shooting Balkan. Also, look at his face while aiming the gun. It looks pretty wrathful to me.
Sure his expression changes a bit once he sees what the flames are doing to Balkan, but it’s not really that sympathetic. Wouldn’t most people be uncomfortable having sex outside a castle someone’s corpse is incinerating in? It’s incredibly clear Corso lives for absolutely nothing but hedonistic pleasures.
In terms of what the audience expects from a spiritual enlightenment story, Corso checks none of the boxes, which is why the film is such a frustrating watch the first time. However, since “Even hell has its heroes,” Corso seems to check all the boxes there. He resembles Lucifer more than any of his followers, because he refuses to be a follower at all. Heck, even Balkan, who would be seen as a traditional “Big Bad” in this kind of story has more sympathetic qualities than Corso, not only saying he has a soft spot for him, but also showing it more than once. He could have easily framed Corso for the first two murders, but after Corso follows him to the castle following the murder of Liana, Balkan simply tells him to pick up the check at his New York office, actually paying him for the job he was hired for. This is pretty unexpected in such a dark film, especially with the enormous check that he is implied to have promised him (At one point, he mentions adding a zero to it.) Even after Corso says he wants more than money, Balkan says “Kindly leave,” and even when he doesn’t and gets stuck in the floorboards, Balkan still does not kill him. Since this is a ritual Balkan has been hoping to do for a long time, he obviously does think he’s giving Corso a privilege by watching.
On the other hand, Corso tells Balkan he is the “only apparition” he’ll see that night. Corso is not the Devil literally (OK some have theorized he is, but that’s taking it too far), but he is the closest to the Devil in terms of personality. He has ignored the rules put into place by everyone who insists on some kind of order in their Satanism, and he is not a Devil worshiper in any sense. This is why Corso alone is allowed to enter the Ninth Gate into whatever lies there.
So is The Ninth Gate a brilliant film? I would still say that’s a stretch. It’s intriguing in a film like this to take a look at what one of Hell’s heroes would look like, but it also leads to very few sympathetic characters. I still argue that the only truly sympathetic characters are Willy Telfer, who dies in the opening scene upon discovering his wife is a Satanist, and Victor Fargas, the owner of Copy #2 of The Nine Gates who merely likes it for the literary value. I may have been a bit hard on the performances, as Frank Langella makes Boris Balkan a truly towering presence, and I now understand more of what Johnny Depp was going for. The pacing still has some serious issues, as it really drags in places, but upon closer inspection, The Ninth Gate is a good film, a very good one. It raises questions that other films wouldn’t dare to, and I have to give it serious credit for that.