THE LITTLE BROOMSTICK RIDER is a short animated series filled with wicked humor and a plucky DIY spirit that brings some much-needed demonic hope to the world. Adapted from the 19th century story “The Little Pitchfork Rider” by German folklorist Ludwig Bechstein, the six-episode series tells the story of Linhard, a nine-year-old boy on trial for witchcraft during the Thirty Years’ War. The cruel jurists delight in what they believe to be his humiliation, but they soon find out that Linhard is different from the other “witches” they have persecuted in the past.
Written, directed, and illustrated by Matteo Bernardini, the series’ animation style is unique and exemplifies the innovation and creativity that so many artists and filmmakers are tapping into during pandemic quarantine. The vast majority of the visuals consist simply of black ink drawings on white paper that are moved around on a small set. Bernardini experiments with ways to create tension and explore character with the simplest of techniques, harking back to the days of silent films with a sly self-awareness.
The characters communicate by holding up title cards with their dialogue written on them. Though the energy lags occasionally when the back-and-forth between Linhard and his accusers becomes repetitive, most of the 36-minute runtime is well-paced and charming. Actions as simple as shaking the title cards or changing the tempo at which they appear add to the story’s suspense and humor. Episodes four and six are particularly dynamic, showing off Bernardini’s ability to hold the viewer’s attention and capture hilarious character moments with simple movements of pen-and-ink drawings. Episode four is a triumph of this minimalist approach, almost begging the viewer to pause and take in the exuberantly macabre background details.
Bernardini’s art is wonderfully expressive. There is so much attention to detail in the drawings. The female jurist’s hands have long, claw-like fingernails that emphasize her avarice and cruelty; one of the male jurists has tiny round glasses that hide his eyes and make him look like an evil hypnotist, manipulating the victims of the witch trials into confessing to imaginary sins. The harsh lines around the jurists’ eyes and mouths make it seem like they’ve spent their entire lives scowling at people out of judgment and hatred. Linhard, on the other hand, has wide eyes, a sprinkling of freckles, and a gap-toothed smile that all underscore just how young and vulnerable he is.
THE LITTLE BROOMSTICK RIDER has endless DIY charm, with occasional ink smears or bends in a piece of paper highlighting the underdog nature of its story about a young boy fighting back against the rich and powerful. The opening and closing titles for each episode depict impish demons reveling in Linhard’s story of magic and rebellion. Even the font on the hand-lettered title cards has its own personality, adding a touch of energy and ironic humor. The use of shadow and perspective is equally impressive. Perhaps the best sequence in the whole series occurs when Linhard draws a picture of his Dark Lord: the young boy’s feathered quill dances across the paper in the foreground as the jurists watch in the background, and the sense of space that Bernardini creates with just a camera and a few pieces of paper glued in place is remarkable.
Subversively witty, THE LITTLE BROOMSTICK RIDER is an engaging and cheeky examination of the hypocrisy, misogyny, and classism at play during the witch trials. Linhard’s gleeful, guileless declarations of demon worship are a joy to watch, and the final reveal of his Dark Lord is hilariously clever. Matteo Bernardini’s quarantine film debuting at the Slamdance Film Festival is an act of rebellion: against the persecution of the poor and the powerless, against those who wield religion as a weapon, and against the creative limitations of artistic isolation.