Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) and Cenci (Mia Farrow) don’t say much when they first meet. The right words are never going to exist for what they ask of each other, but it’s still amazing to realize how long they go without talking and then what never gets said, even when they start.
Silence speaks volumes in Secret Ceremony, and that’s thanks to Joseph Losey’s direction. A double-decker bus sets the movie in London. A gravestone includes the cause of death for Leonora’s daughter. The first word Cenci says to Leonora is, “Mummy,” while framed photos in her house confirm she’s the spitting image of Margaret. What Cenci never asks Leonora is if she’ll pretend to be her mother. She just starts treating her like her mom, and not a mother figure. Her actual mum, come back from the dead.
It’s an incredible story made even more incredible by the fact that Leonora and Cenci never discuss what they’re going to do. It’s one thing for Cenci to want Leonora to be the mother she lost, but it’s another for her to have found a woman who not only looks like her mom but is willing to go along with the self-deception.
That’s a distinction that needs to be made, too. In a lot of films that deal with someone pretending to be someone who’s dead (Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) there’s money at stake or something to gain from the charade.
Leonora was a prostitute so there’s no question that living with Cenci, who’s inherited a fortune, comes with benefits. Cenci came to her, though. She wasn’t a mark, and while the wealth might have been what convinced Leonora to say yes, their unwillingness to be direct with eachother speaks to another reason: their shared trauma from experiencing loss.
Later on, viewers are introduced to two of Cenci’s aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown), and her abusive stepfather, Albert (Robert Mitchum), but no one from Leonora’s past ever makes an appearance. What that means for the film is Leonora and Cenci don’t have to face-up to their actions. Isolated from anyone who knows the truth or can be objective about their arrangement, George Tabori’s screenplay eliminates all outside interference until the only ones who can stop Lenora and Cenci are themselves.
An unrelenting film that’s both unnerving and masterful in its use of visual language to fill in where verbal speech fails, Kino Lorber’s release includes a commentary by film historian, Tim Lucas, that’s of the highest order. Starting with a discussion of Debenham House (where most of Secret Ceremony was filmed), Lucas is able to provide production stories, while also highlighting key contributors, like Richard Rodney Bennett (who provided the score) and Reginald Beck (who did the editing). His breakdown of the scene where Leonora slaps Cenci is one of the reasons I love listening to commentaries, and he also points out changes that were made to the film for television broadcast, as well as areas in which Tabori’s screenplay and the source material (a novella by Marco Denevi) differ.
Secret Ceremony is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.