The Ninth Gate 1999 movie

The Ninth Gate – Devil awaits at the end of the quest

We cannot count how many cinematic incarnations the Devil has had—probably endless—yet the best stories are those where he never appears, such as Roman Polański‘s bizarre The Ninth Gate, a controversial movie released in 1999.

When I say controversial, I mean that many original book lovers did not like the way Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s The Club Dumas was brought to the big screen, a book I readily admit to not knowing, although perhaps that’s for the better, and I can judge this movie more serenely under a pure cinematic lens.

Books and the passion for reading are at the heart of this story, which not surprisingly begins with wealthy collector Boris Balkan hiring the unscrupulous Dean Corso, an art expert known for the quick and dishonest methods by which he finds and gets hold of any book.

Indeed, Balkan has a unique collection of ancient texts dealing solely with the Devil, to which he recently added one of the masterpieces on this topic, “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.”

In the mid-1600s, there were many copies of this book, later burned at the stake by the church along with the author himself, Aristide Torchia, set on fire alive as a heretic because of his claim to be in contact with Satan.

Only two copies survived, besides Balkan’s, in the hands of two wealthy collector families in Spain and France, so Corso’s mission is precisely flying to Europe to seize these precious books, no matter what the cost and by whatever means.

However, the long road to the Devil is full of deception and death, as well as a mysterious woman beautiful as an angel and with the manners of a witch who seems to be Corso’s secret protector on his treacherous dark journey.

Better the devil you know

Beyond your opinion of the original book and this 1999 movie, the narrative talent and visual flair of Roman Polański is indisputable, who gives The Ninth Gate exactly the cursed aura it needed.

Every character and location in the story exudes a love of literature and paper knowledge from every pore. Though the subject matter is demonic, the narrative unfolds without ever complacently judging or foolishly dividing forces in the usual struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Indeed, first and foremost, it is Johnny Depp‘s character who is as charming as evil and ambiguous as a nocturnal thief while never being violent and undoubtedly having great culture and a broad knowledge of his craft.

One only has to see his first scene in which he rips off the relatives of a rich paralytic, getting cheaply the original copies of such a masterpiece as Alexandre DumasThe Three Musketeers.

This perfect introduction sets the mood for these characters, who move and breathe in a world entirely made of paper and ancient ink, suspended between the present and the past, from which one can always learn and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

I place this movie in the horror genre, although there are never any bloody moments or even a great deal of tension. Evil is discussed as a side of the human soul that many want to deny, so, we could call it a social and psychological horror/thriller in the broadest sense.

What better way to unite the ordinary people with the wealthy elite than with the passion and dedication to the easy path of esotericism and magic?

We all believe (or care, even peripherally) about things like horoscopes or religion, moving the masses and sometimes changing the course of history, not always for the better.

A talented cast as hell

As usual, Roman Polański squeezes every drop of talent out of his cast, this time choosing an international star beloved by adults and children alike as Johnny Depp.

Leaving aside the actor’s charm and charisma in more famous roles (such as Tim Burton’s movies) where he is always overdressed and colorful, in the role of Dean Corso, he is instead more devious and anonymous, like a private detective from the old 1940s noirs.

We can see how this character rarely laughs, for example, limiting himself only to sneering mockery and using verbal seduction to always put his victims in check.

Completely opposite, however, is the immense Frank Langella, an actor of unquestionable power whose stage presence annihilates the rest of the cast.

Thanks to a dominant and possessive character, Langella is omnipresent in every moment of the story even though he does not have much screen time, looking carefully at how much he is present in the scene.

In this story, Boris Balkan is the Devil, or at least he becomes the Devil in his obsessive quest for power. Still, in the end, it will be the Devil himself (the real one) who will screw him over and burn him alive as the author of the 1600s books he is after.

Finally, let’s also give proper space to the (extremely welcome) female presence of the diabolical Emmanuelle Seigner and Lena Olin, two spectacular actresses who here literally compete in sexy, seductive beauty.

In short, it is an all-female struggle between sacred and profane, almost a story within the story. Seigner is the protagonist’s guardian angel, not coincidentally first appearing in a conference about witches; a woman who effortlessly fights and wins supernaturally against the more human (but still dangerous) widow Olin.

I consider myself to be a person of ordinary culture, so I may have missed some key elements of this 1999 movie, yet, if any of you would like to advise me on what makes the story and characters of The Ninth Gate special (or not, if you didn’t like it), please let me know in the comments.

movies johnny depp has been in
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