The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is one of my favorite Merchant Ivory movies. Naturally, it was a bomb that barely made it out of the Arthouse circuit alive. Hell, the theater I saw it at is now a hipster furniture store.
No one writes stories about the South like Southern Gothic Mavericks
Carson McCullers is one of the great 20th century writers. But, when she wrote…she wrote like she had all the time in the world to introduce you to every character. For the comic nerds out there, she would make Chris Claremont call her ‘wordy’. But that’s if Claremont didn’t spend years overpowering female heroes to take over for male ones. But that was the early to mid 80s and not now, so you can’t get the Internet to pay attention to it. It didn’t start with Disney Star Wars sequels, neckbeards.
When Edward Albee adapted The Ballad of the Sad Cafe into a stage play, he created a framework for future adaptations. It was less about the characters and more about the world in which they lived. Director Simon Callow understands that, as we begin The Ballad of the Sad Cafe taking a trip past the chain gang and into the dusty dirt colored town. By the time we reach the titular location, we’re very well aware of the film’s location and what’s happening. It’s The Depression.
Edward Albee on top of the McCullers source material is just this one-two punch of Southern depression. While Albee made the material much more worth of film and stage, he opened up something that lives beyond the text. That sense of depression throughout the film is crushing. Everyone is poor and you feel this sense of wanting purpose outside of the identity thrown upon them.
Miss Amelia owns the titular cafe which hides the secret Moonshine still. At times, she looks like Max Von Sydow and other times you understand what Marvin Macy sees in her. Cousin Lymon does his best to help Amelia through her troubles, but this is something that Miss Amelia has to solve on her own. Given the subject matter, don’t be surprised when The Ballad of the Sad Cafe doesn’t have a happy ending.
Fun fact: The Ballad of The Sad Cafe is the feature film debut of a young Harry Knowles. That’s not meant to be anything other than a chance to break up the talk of Southern depression. The rather amazing cinematography by Walter Lassally is criminally underrated. Somehow, he manages to take the beauty of Merchant Ivory films from Europe and India and sprinkles it with a sense of timely wonder.
It’s one thing to make movies about the exotic. However, it takes some special talent to highlight the depressive normalcy of being poor or rural. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe will stay with you for awhile if you’re in the right mindset. However, it feels like the kind of movie that might have passed modern audiences by either in 1991 or now. But, why?
Cohen brings The Ballad of the Sad Cafe to Blu-ray with a new audio commentary and trailers. I’m not shocked to see a lack of special features on this one. It escaped into theaters during its original release and kinda bombed. This had been my first time watching the film in 12 years. Honestly, I’m pretty stunned how much I finally enjoyed it.
I’m not sure if it comes with age or distance, but damn when this movie hits you…it really hits you. I could leave or take Rod Steiger’s character, as he seems to be a hold over from the original story. But when it focuses on Redgrave and Carradine, the film sings.
The A/V Quality is highlighted by a new restoration that shows off the beauty that 1080p still has to offer to older movies. The DTS-HD 2.0 mono track was true to the original sound elements, but it’s not going to win any audiophiles over to early indie cinema.