Sundance Film Review: Circle of Power (dir by Bobby Roth)


With the Sundance Film festival currently taking place in Utah, I am currently reviewing films that originally made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival!

(a.k.a. Circle of Power, Mystique, Naked Weekend, and probably a handful of other titles)

The Sundance Film Festival wasn’t always the Sundance Film Festival.

Up until 1984, it was known as the US Film Festival.  Because of the involvement of Robert Redford, it was something of a big deal but still nowhere as big a deal as it is today.  In fact, many of the films that were showcased and celebrated at the US Film Festival have slipped into obscurity.  While winning an award at the US Film Festival may have been nice a ego boost for an independent filmmaker, it certainly didn’t bring a film anywhere near the amount of attention that winning at Sundance does now.

Take the long and strange saga of Circle of Power, for instance.

From my own research, it appears that Circle of Power was originally filmed in 1980.  At that time, it was called Mystique.  It premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1981.  A year later, under the title Circle of Power, it played at the US Film Festival.  It was awarded the Dramatic prize (which was the forerunner for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize).

After that, it still took Circle of Power two years to achieve national distribution.  In 1984, when it was reviewed by Roger Ebert, the film had been released as Naked Weekend, a title that was as commercial as it was misleading.  (There is nudity in the film but probably not the type of nudity that Naked Weekend‘s audience was expecting.)  By the time the film was finally released on VHS, it had picked up yet another title: Brainwash.

That’s the poster for Brainwash at the top of this video.  There are two images on that poster.  One is of a woman holding a riding crop and showing off her bra.  The other is of a naked man in a cage.  Only the latter image actually appears in the movie.

The film’s distributors were obviously trying to sell Circle of Power as an exploitation film.  Actually, it’s not.  It’s … well, it’s hard to describe what exactly it is.  It starts out with a title card, informing us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story.  The rest of the film deals with a group of executives and their wives who are required to spend the weekend attending a “training course” at a beautiful hotel.  The weekend gets off to a good start, with lots of dancing and laughing.  Of course, none of the executives seem to notice that the hotel staff is watching them with a mix of scorn and pity.

(The film continually contrasts the privileged white executives with the largely black and Hispanic hotel staff.)

Before the training sessions begin, all of the executives and their wives are forced to sign a paper that states they understand that they will be psychologically and physically abused over the weekend.  Only one executive objects and he is quickly bullied into signing by his co-workers.  Apparently, they can’t do the training unless everyone agrees to sign.

The men and the women are separated.  (Interestingly, all of the executives are men.)  The men are “trained” by Bianca Ray (Yvete Mimieux, who is chilling in her final performance to date) while the women are left with Jordan Carelli (John Considine).  The training turns out to be a combination of ego stripping and physical abuse.  One overweight executive (Walter Olkewicz) is ordered to strip naked and is then locked in a cage, where food is dumped on him.  An alcoholic is forced to lay down in a coffin.  Soon, everyone is covered in bruises.  What’s remarkable is that only one executive and his wife actually seems to find any of this to be objectionable.  In fact, everyone else reacts to the abuse by hugging their abusers and crying for joy.

It’s a strange little film, one that often seems to be unsure of what it’s saying but which, at the same time, still possesses an undeniable power.  The film may be 38 years old but brainwashing is a timeless subject.  One need only spend an hour or two on twitter to see how easily people can be brainwashed.  While the film probably disappointed those seeking a naked weekend, it’s still an undeniably watchable oddity.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

9 responses to “Sundance Film Review: Circle of Power (dir by Bobby Roth)

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