Saturday, 3 October 2015

At the LFF: "Lucifer"

The 59th London Film Festival opens this Wednesday night with the premiere of Sarah Gavron's Suffragette, and runs at venues across the capital until October 18th. Over the coming days and weeks, I'll be reviewing some of the highlights of this year's event, starting with:

Lucifer, from the Belgian writer-director Gust van den Berghe, is one of the few films playing in the first week of this year's London Film Festival to offer viewers an entirely new way of looking at the world. It's presented in what's trumpeted as Tondoscope, wherein the image is rendered as a circle in the centre of the screen: a form that historically correlates to religious portraiture, and which therefore proves an apt frame for what turns out to be a latter-day parable of sorts. Van den Berghe has freely adapted a 1654 tome authored by one Joost van den Vondel - something of a Milton spoiler - in which Lucifer descends to Earth; in this adventurous retelling, he lands in a Mexican shantytown.

It's a droll gag that this dark angel - represented on screen by the remarkable, elongated jawline of Gabino Rodriguez - comes to effect scarcely more mischief and chaos than the locals wreak upon one another. The male half of the married couple he installs himself with is pretending to be bedbound after falling off a donkey; once his better half is out for the day, he promptly rouses himself and calls his pal round to start gambling. Yet van den Berghe is ultimately more interested in what happens when this hotline to heaven just as suddenly disappears, leaving the community - and, in particular, a young woman named Maria (Norma Pablo), whom he seems to have impregnated - well and truly in the lurch.

The film is the third in a trilogy: I haven't seen the other two, but even so it's impossible to miss the considered, quietist aesthetic at work here, assiduously stripping back everything we think we might know about the depiction of faith on film in order to follow a set of non-professional performers winding their way through rocky, muddy locations that don't appear to have changed much since the 17th century. There's something of Pasolini's 1960s adaptations in the mix, certainly: it's there in the steady contemplation of lined, lived-in faces, and the unexpected eruptions of bawdy, street-level humour. Yet the perspective keeps shifting in ways that make Lucifer a far trickier proposition to read.

Every so often, van den Berghe will break the dinner-plate compositions to adopt a panoramic, God's-eye view in which we look down on not just a scene but the planet entire, warped into a single shot - a pleasing effect that gets trippy indeed whenever the director introduces smoke or mist into the frame. (And when at last that frame breaks into standard widescreen, then what? Is it a sign the creator is no longer watching?) You sense van den Berghe looking east for his other influences: to Bela Tarr and Sátántangó, with its community waiting for a shadowy figure who may have defaulted on his promises, and to Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, evoked in the local priest's attempts to construct the tallest church in Christendom.

Such projects take time, of course, and for most of the film, those of us congregated in the cheap seats are left - like our on-screen analogues - waiting for God-only-knows. While you wouldn't want van den Berghe to succumb to the rigged narrative games of American filmed evangelism, you might want him to feel the flames of hellfire under his feet and move a little quicker, and at the last to provide rather more revelation than he eventually does. It's as though this director has been left to his own devices out in the middle of nowhere: at the end of this first encounter, you still can't tell whether he's a missionary or a madman.

That said, the cloak of purgatorial mystery and eccentricity wrapped tightly around the project, made visible in the two-thirds of the screen cast into darkness, is fairly compelling in itself, obliging us to wrestle with what it is we're being invited to iris in on - to walk around the celestial beam of light pooling at the centre of the screen and interrogate the film for its true spiritual meaning. For what it's worth, I believe van den Berghe is at least as sincere in the Christian worldview he's proposing as van den Vondel was back when he wrote the book, which explains the leftfield choice of delivery format. The screen becomes a wormhole, taking us back into the past while allowing this filmmaker to pull certain ideas, ideals and ethics forward into the 21st century. In its own eccentric way, Lucifer is as much as a small miracle as any other perfect circle.

Lucifer screens at the ICA this Wednesday at 6.15pm, and again on Sat 10 at 1pm at the BFI Southbank. 

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