A Haunting in Venice is about a murder (or two or so) — no surprise for something based on an Agatha Christie story — but it’s more about faith and the eternal nature of the soul.
The Book Is Not the Movie (and Vice Versa)
If you’ve read Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, you haven’t experienced the story of A Haunting in Venice, director/star Kenneth Branagh’s third outing as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
BTW, the film was released on Sept. 15, Christie’s birthday.
Published in 1969, the original novel is set at a contemporary Halloween party in England. Starting with the time period and location, the book and film go in different directions.
The common threads are Halloween, Poirot and the appearance of his friend, crime-fiction writer Ariadne Oliver. Her books have featured a thinly veiled version of Poirot and contributed to his fame.
What Is A Haunting in Venice About?
As A Haunting in Venice opens, Poirot is in self-imposed retirement in post-WWII Venice, employing a burly bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) to keep away fans and people with unsolved mysteries.
Then, Oliver (Tina Fey) arrives with an intriguing offer.
She’s invited to a Halloween night séance with a celebrated medium (Michelle Yeoh) at a crumbling Venetian palazzo owned by an opera singer (Kelly Reilly), who hopes to connect with her dead daughter.
Ariadne thinks mediums are bunk, but this one intrigues her (and after a few publishing duds, she needs a subject for a hot new book).
The séance is held after a Halloween party at the palazzo for local orphans, shepherded in by a large number of nuns.
SPOILER ALERT: None of the nuns is a demon, a villain or even has a line. So, we’re not looking at The Nun III. However, the idea of nuns in 1947 in Italy condoning a spooky Halloween party for children is a bit farfetched. But you Italy aficionados out there are welcome to set me straight if I’m wrong.
The Veil Between the Worlds
The film has a fair amount of Catholic imagery, and there is a Catholic character among the suspects. And, remember, as created by Christie (herself a devout Anglican), Poirot is Catholic.
Michael Green’s script also plays with the idea that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on Halloween (or, in Ireland, Samhain), which makes it a good time for some necromancy.
I’ve always understood this idea to have its origins in pre-Christian Celtic folk belief. Not sure how widespread it was in Italy, but again, someone out there might know better.
After the séance goes horribly wrong and ends in a death, Poirot locks everyone in the palazzo until he’s figured out the culprit.
But, are the living suspects (and a cockatoo) the palazzo’s only inhabitants?
So, we have a murder mystery and a bit of a horror film at the same time — and Branagh manages to deftly pull off both.
Surprised by Faith
What surprised me about A Haunting in Venice are the faith elements, which every review I read beforehand failed to mention.
Like his literary inspiration, Branagh’s Poirot is a former Belgian police commander. But in the backstory from the first two films, Branagh has layered in other elements. His Poirot is also a WWI veteran of trench warfare.
He has a lost love, and his famous mustache (a two-tiered one in Branagh’s interpretation) conceals a nasty scar from a war wound.
In A Haunting in Venice, his war trauma, combined with an ongoing involvement in murder and other sordid subjects, has caused Poirot to lose his mojo — and, as he states, his faith.
He says he can’t believe that a good God would allow all the evil he’s seen.
There’s another character in the movie who also suffers from combat-induced trauma, but his young son’s faith in him keeps him going.
When Is a Ghost Not Just a Ghost?
Over the course of the film, the idea of ghosts is discussed in the context of them being proof that the soul lives on after death, and therefore, there exists a supernatural realm and even God.
So, what does the Church say about ghosts? As Monsignor Charles Pope observed in Our Sunday Visitor:
There is no binding Church teaching on the existence or meaning of ghosts. Theologians and exorcists have speculated over the centuries on such matters, and there is some consensus as to the general phenomenon.
The term “ghost” comes from the German word “geist,” meaning “spirit.” Ghosts are distinct from demons. Demons are fallen angels, but ghosts are presumed to be the spirits of human beings. Generally it is assumed that the ghosts of human beings would be those from purgatory, not from hell.
Hence, it would seem that God permits a small number of souls in purgatory to reach out to us on earth to assist the soul in some need. Usually they seek our prayers or give us some warning. In a few rare cases, a ghost has assisted in the solving of a crime by indicating some sort of hidden evidence. Generally, however, it is our prayers they seek.
A Haunting in Venice is a very thoughtful film, which I also didn’t expect, and quite my favorite of the Branagh adaptations.
It’s rated PG-13 for some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements. There’s only mild profanity, and no sexual content or nudity.
As A Haunting in Venice is rather slow-paced and moody, I doubt anybody younger than college-age would be interested.
Image: Kenneth Branagh in ‘A Haunting in Venice’/2oth Century Studios
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