Holy Smoke (1999)


USA/Australia; Jane Campion


Mature Audiences - Strong Sexuality; Nudity; Strong Language



Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) travels to India in a bid to escape herself, her comfortable and empty life in an Australian suburb. But when she falls under the influence of a charismatic religious guru, her family and friends back home are terrified by the amplitude and extremism of her decision, and stalk her in India to lure her back in Australia. In an attempt to regain their daughter, Ruth’s parents hire PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), a macho, cynical cult “deprogrammer” to break the spell and drain the young woman’s faith. 


Holy Smoke’s carnival of depravity and venom assaults our deepest, most vulnerable self with a rare ferocity, a ferocity only heightened by the film’s macabre, vitriolic humor and its deliberate enormity. In a sense, Holy Smoke is a film about everything. It is a film about us, whether we like it or not. Fundamentally about sex and religion, this questions the way our latent psychoses, boiling underneath, surface in the way we connect with others. Sex is, essentially, a form of communication, the only one we cannot control entirely because it has never been codified, articulated, chained. Religion is certainly the most common form of mental disorder, and maybe the most severe; at least, this is what Holy Smoke ostensibly postulates.


Ruth and PJ are manifestly the two sides of the same coin, each one looking to the other for answers they cannot fathom, much less articulate. PJ boasts an ostensible saneness and self-control, but beneath the machismo lurk sexual traumas that fed on his sanity and transformed him in a wreck. Ruth, by contrast, doesn’t try to hide her irrationality, and holds it like an amulet against the bitterness and disillusions of life. The tension between them, between the yin and the yang, drives the film and provides sufficient electricity and emotional élan to skyrocket Holy Smoke, despite the film’s numerous inconsistencies, poorly written supporting roles and  an uneven first act.


Poorly orchestrated, often incoherently told, but roaring with ambition, this quirky and disquieting drama is something quite unique. By its bizarre, perverse finale, one of the most grotesque, but also purely cathartic in recent memory, Holy Smoke has run out of control, rushing ahead with a twisted appetite for destruction and an incongruous exhilaration in burning everything down to ashes.


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