(Netherlands - 1980)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Hans Van Tongeren, Renée Soutendijk, Toon Agterberger, Marten Spanjer, Marianne Boyer, Peter Tuinman, Rutger Hauer
Genre: Drama
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Gerard Soeteman, Jan Wolkers
Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Composer: Ton Scherpenzeel
Runtime: 115 minutes

"Remember that Christianity is a religion grounded in one of the most violent acts of murder, the crucifixion. Otherwise, religion wouldn't have had any kind of impact," - Paul Verhoeven.

I think this quote pretty much describes Paul Verhoeven's style.  He loves to shock his audience, and he knows that if he can shock you he's made an impression. Even working in Hollywood, he's more or less managed to "get away with" what he wanted because he had a string of successful movies that ended with Showgirls since it rated NC-17 and was not a good movie.

Spetters isn't exactly the kind of movie Verhoeven is known here for. It doesn't really have any special effects, and isn't all that violent. It's closest to Showgirls, but this time his goals are much clearer and he understands the characters a lot better. These characters are all rich in detail, and the film isn't exploitive even though it can be "worse" than Showgirls because you can point to how the "bad" scenes really gave power to the movie. It is action packed due to many racing scenes and very sexually frank. It also has that great Verhoeven characteristic of being able to succeed on a realistic level at the same time it's being almost outlandishly satirical.

Spetters is a brutal small town coming of age film. Its four central characters are all searching for what they want in life. They initially believe it's money and a big city, but it's all a big uncertainty. The three men, the spetters (it more or less means hotshots or grease spatterings depending upon whom you believe), are heavily involved in amateur Motorcross. Rien (Hans von Tongeren) is really good, wins all the races. He could take over his father's restaurant, but he's the local hero and actually has a chance to get out so he's not interested. Hans (Maarten Stanjer) is pretty much a loser when it comes to racing even though it's always the fault of his equipment, but the only one that isn't bothered in some way by a family member. Eef (Toon Agterberg) is a good mechanic, but he's too selfish to be relied upon and the strict religious upbringing of his father continues to screw him up. They all look up to Gerrit Witkamp (Rutger Hauer), the professional champion who lets them worship him, but would laugh at them a lot quicker than he'd help them. The final main character is Fientje (Renee Soutendijk), an attractive golddigger who all three bikers are immediately interested in when they see her selling French fries and hotdogs with a special ingredient that we later find out is really for the dogs. In spite of this lame job she shares with her homosexual brother, she is actually quite smart and feisty. She gets what she wants at the time through sex, but she never gets anywhere because she finds the wrong guys and/or has no luck. She is a person that's capable of caring, but who won't open up or stick with anyone unless they can provide for her in a big way.

The characters have a lot of bad qualities, particularly that they are vain and pretty much only think of themselves. It's not surprising because the environment dictates that they aren't worth much unless they have fame and fortune. The thing is, the characters with fame and fortune are really no better. Gerrit gives nothing back and the tele-journalist does the best thing for his show even if that compromises values that should be important like honesty and integrity.

The characters all seem like people you know, but are driven to realizations and changes that, for the most part, you hope no one you like is. After all, Spetters is more a film about lost dreams than it is about dreams. Spetters is not a simple film though. It's better not to know too many specific details, but it covers a lot of territory beyond the norm for this type of story. It's certainly not kind to religion. It shows that giving people hope can crush them when they realize that the promises are empty. There's a great scene where a character in a wheel chair is being prayed over and we see him rising out of his chair like he's going to be able to walk again, but then the heeling energy dissipates and he comes crashing down into his chair. Scenes like this are really played up, but that makes them more poignant. It follows up with a great point about becoming disabled; it's so hard to deal with because in your head you can still do what you used to. Even if you can accept that your body won't respond, you still remember the days when it would, and they haunt you.

The film also makes a key point about sexual preference; it shouldn't matter to you which way you go as long as you accept that you go that way. It takes a brutal gang rape to get the character to admit it to himself, and then he's beaten up by the first person he admits it to. He more or less wants the beating to happen because admitting it to that person might be a "win" even in spite of the typical beating.

Spetters is not the technical masterpiece that Verhoeven is known for, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it. What stands out is his excellent direction and soundtrack by Ton Scherpenzeel. Even though it's somewhat dated, I can't stand disco, and the John Travolta Saturday Night Fever references make me ill, the soundtrack is effective and at times haunting.

In the end, Spetters is a film that you will remember because of its overall harsh and unflinching nature in addition to the fact it will shock you. It will hit a chord, but it's hard to say if it will be sour or sweat. In spite of Verhoeven's cynical nature, there's a lot of what more or less could be called fun to their search, and all the main characters find luck at one point or another. Although the film is often merciless, there's some happiness to the ending. That said, even then things didn't turn out like the characters planned. Such is life.



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