Cinema: Celtic Twilight

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ZARDOZ Directed and Written by JOHN BOORMAN

John Boorman is always after something new. Much of his work (Having a Wild Weekend, Deliverance) has been a remolding of traditional genres-the musical or adventure film-to suit a more personal, sometimes dour vision. For example, he and Screenwriter Alexander Jacobs transformed Point Blank from an ordinary gangster-revenge story into an essay in gun-metal existentialism and a portrait of Southern California absurdism that is still unrivaled. Zardoz, his sixth film, loses something of its predecessors' fighting trim. Although Boorman excels at expressing ideas through action, too many of them, and too muddled, are tossed off here and left lying about like litter.

Zardoz is basically futuristic science fiction. In the year 2293, a warrior called Zed (Sean Connery) penetrates the Vortex, a bucolic society separated from the barbarous, almost medieval world outside by an invisible force field. Life inside the Vortex has a laboratory air, which is not surprising since it is a world created by scientists who have mastered, somewhat to their regret, the secret of subduing death. Aging is meted out only as a punishment in the Vortex, and no one ever dies. Zed is a functional primitive, an "exterminator" at the service of the god Zardoz; he imports into this world of indefinite lifetimes the possibility of mortality. Bringing death, Zed becomes the messiah, the progenitor of a new race of men whose lives will have limits but whose knowledge may not.

Zed meets all the physical requirements for becoming a new deity, but he somewhat lacks learning. So near the end of the film he undergoes a sort of psychedelic tutorial. Zed takes in his hand the source of all accumulated knowledge, which happens to be a glowing, triangulated crystal. He presses it to his forehead and is magically enveloped by it, absorbing all there is to know.

Like eager quiz-show contestants, Zed and Boorman are not bashful about flaunting their education. Bolstered by his psychic seminar. Zed drops quotes from Ecdesiastes, T.S. Eliot and Nietzsche, whose idea of a superman he now suggests. For himself, Boorman borrows -and cunningly acknowledges-a crucial image from L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. The trouble is that none of these sources is assimilated; they are like footnotes without a source. Fortunately there are some bright intervals of self-deprecatory humor that lighten the occasional pomposity of the material.

Zardoz is visually bounteous. The locale is never specified, but the actors all have one variety or other of English accents, and the film draws much of its bleak, primitive beauty from the Irish countryside where it was shot. The costumes are comic-book eccentric, and fun: the women dress in tie-dyed gossamer, while Zed bounds around mostly in a red loincloth and bandoleers. Boorman gets good work from his cast. Besides Connery, and a fine assortment of character actors, there are the excellent Charlotte Rampling as a sort of stern, fairy-princess scientist; and Sara Kestelman, of the Royal Shakespeare Company, making a welcome debut as a rival of Rampling's.

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