Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is an ageing prostitute mentally scarred since her young daughter died in a drowning accident, so she still cannot let the memories of the girl go. She often visits her grave and places flowers there, but today on her journey to the church she is approached by a young woman (Mia Farrow) on the bus who sits down beside her and stares, tears welling in her eyes. Leonora does her best to ignore her, but once they reach the graveyard she cannot do so any longer and turns to face the stranger, only to see that she actually resembles her daughter. She is Cenci, and she lost her mother...
Secret Ceremony came about at a time where Elizabeth Taylor, still one of the most famous women in the world, was struggling to find a vehicle appropriate to her talents as she grew older. At some point she turned to idiosyncratic director Joseph Losey, known for his individual take on melodrama, and they made two movies together in 1968, Boom and this, neither of which went on to garner huge respect or indeed many takings at the box office. For some, though, the novelty of seeing a big mainstream star in an art film such as this was something to be treasured, and much like that other collaboration, this does have a cult following.
As the credits tell us, this was based on an award-winning short story, and there is a straining towards literary respectability throughout which is curiously undercut by coarse language and scenes that are frankly a bit silly, as if Losey was unaware of how tricky the correct mood to do this justice was to achieve. The one he settles on was a kind of modern English Gothic, and the results are rather odd to say the least, with the relationships between Leonora and Cenci, not to mention between them and Cenci's menacing academic stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum with a stuck-on beard), both overwrought and uncomfortably precious.
The point appears to be to convey the damaged family unit these three represent, so although they are not related Leonora and Cenci take on a mother and daughter connection, with the younger woman acting as if she were a young teenager rather than a twenty-two year old, and the older becoming very possessive of her, markedly in the presence of Albert, who has returned presumably to get his hands on the girl's wealth, but possibly also to restart the abusive bond they may have shared, although even that is difficult to work out how real that may or may not have been. Scenes you would be unwise to put in a drama about child abuse these days would be where they put the blame on Cenci, but we are in no doubt that Albert is the true villain.
Then again, doubts do enter into this with regard to the other characters, and while you appreciate that this new association between the women is filling a gap in their lives, nothing in the way it's put across indicates this is a healthy one. The problem here is that it's all so determined to be difficult and self-contained, with the only other characters getting a look in being Cenci's interfering aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown), that you may well give up on the lot of them well before the end, and the damage that they have done each other, and are continuing to do each other, feels like none of your business by the time the duo have gone on holiday and Cenci is pretending to be pregnant. It could be that fewer audiences respond to Losey's very exacting style in these times, but then he didn't really make too many populist works in his day anyway, and the manner in which these characters are toyed with as if in some twisted doll's house is hard to enjoy, even if you do vaguely appreciate its method. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.