Göteborg 2015 Review: LUCIFER, An Intriguing Reimagination Of A Classic Tale

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Göteborg 2015 Review: LUCIFER, An Intriguing Reimagination Of A Classic Tale
Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe concludes his triptych on the emergence of human consciousness that began with Little Baby Jesus of Flandr and continued with Blue Bird, the enticingly titled Lucifer

Speaking of consciousness, a better-suited mythological figure in the Western canon would be hard to find. The script is adapted from a 1645 play of the same name written by Joost van den Vondel, from which, supposedly, John Milton drew inspiration for his Paradise Lost. Van den Berghe's previous indigo-tinged film Blue Bird was also an adaptation of 1908's symbolist play by Belgian literature Nobel Prize laureate Maurice Maeterlinck. 

The director keeps the classic three-act structure, introducing each act with a particular title, Paradise, Sin and Miracle, that bears more figurative than literal meaning. A ladder hangs from the sky. On his way downtown, so to speak, Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez) stops in an earthly paradise of an inconspicuous rural Mexican village, where Lupita (María Acosta) and her granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo) live their modest lives. They tend to sheep in a day-by-day routine while Lupita´s brother Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo) pretends to be a cripple so he can avoid any work whatsoever, and gamble and drink all day long. Lucifer smells a chance in this household and puts on a Samaritan-healer mask to conjure a miracle of his own, fraud to fraud. 

Van den Berghe subverts a notorious tableaux from Christian iconography, bypassing pitfalls of flat blasphemy or sacrilege. A scene where Lucifer literally saves a sheep or washes "a sinner's" feet do not occur under religious pathos, although it's hard to ignore the ironic bent. Lucifer's docile intervention depicts the character as an intelligent and well-advised entity, as opposed to the popular image of a sadistic devil. His acts unfold according to the Light Bearer moniker as he repeats the stunt from the Garden of Eden, sans slimy guise. 

The Old Testament myth about expulsion from paradise tends to be taken too literally in certain circles, although it accurately illustrates the actual emergence of consciousness as Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. Over the course of 108 minutes, the film evolves more into the statement on human nature and eclipse of consciousness, proving that humans are free but also blinded. 

The film will bring immediately to mind Carlos Reygadas' magnum opus Post Tenebras Lux (production company Mantarraya Producciones stands behind both films), and not only because both of them begin with the supposed embodiment of evil walking among mortal souls. Contrary to Reygadas´ series of surreal-flavoured non-sequiturs, van den Berghe has crafted a more homogenous and linear story, verging on the magical realism that South America is usually associated with. (The film was shot in Angahuan, a Purépecha community in the municipality of Uruapan, in Michoacán, near the Paricutín volcano, the youngest volcano on earth.)  

While corporeality and physicality form an irreplaceable motif in Reygadas´s oeuvre, the Belgian director eludes it by a long shot, including a key scene where Lucifer seduces a virgin, depicted in absolutely non-arousing and non-graphic fashion, leaving everything to the viewer´s discreet imagination.

This revision of van den Vondel´s play slants toward an allegorical reading, due to its employment of a figurative style and intriguing visual metaphors. The substance of Lucifer, both film and play, leans on an arch-narrative about an outer force invading a small community and (non-violently) changing their lives. The perception or personalities therefore trigger a transformation process, as in Passolini´s Theorema or, more recently, Michiel ten Horn´s coming-of-age comedy The Deflowering of Eva van End. Van den Berghe´s lord of darkness disrupts a harmonic coexistence with a few elegant gestures while unaware villagers have already started worshiping the new angel. Moreover, they all accelerate construction work on "a tower of Babel" while equipping it with incandescent neon lights to lure a feigned messenger of God. 

Blue Bird looked as though it was bathed in blue filter over and over; the director invented Uber-Scope for the film, an ultra-wide digital format. Lucifer was shot in soft-focus, reducing the colour saturation. Van den Berghe and his director of photography Hans Bruch Jr. pushed the envelope on the visual style, modulating the frame itself. They experimented with a Tondoscope, a device specially designed and manufactured for Lucifer. Derived from rotondo, the Italian for circular, an optical, cone-shaped mirror forms a circle as a framing shape, transposing the symbolism of Bosch´ or Brueghel´s paintings directly onto the film frame to convey the idea of a paradise. 

A few scenes were shot directly through the mirror, curving the frame around the central axis to fashion a cyclical effect, beginning and ending in the same line, while otherwise the rest of the film is shot with a circle in the centre of the frame, obfuscating frame corners. Despite the director´s laudable effort to enhance the visual aspect by such peculiarities, an indigo filter did indeed more justice to the substance than the circular framing does in Lucifer, even though several moments proved Tondoscope to be an intriguing aesthetic choice. The rest feels more like a mannerism, yet never becoming bothersome. 

Van den Berghe made each part of his triptych in a different country -- the previous two were made in Togo and Flanders -- to accentuate the universal gauge of the story, which is also affirmed by the topic itself. Lucifer, unlike Bible-inspired tales, doesn´t wallow in moralism, and the spiritual aspect invokes the direct contact with the pristine ambiance of nature. The director retells the expulsion from paradise in a rather civil way, not shying away from comic moments that put the whole emergence of consciousness thing in a more humanistic light. Here and there it may be a bit too human, as the villagers grows more desperate and hopeless as their angel remains deaf to their invocatory cries. 

The apex, and most memorable scene, abides in the final act, an unlikely climax of a surreal and suicidal ritual involving KKK-like costumes and a Mexican music band at the tip of the volcano. At this point, Van den Berghe comes as close as possible to Reygadas´ transcendental effort, while not betraying his own artistic vision. Nonetheless, Lucifer is a captivating reimagination of the biblical myth and a mesmerizing allegory on the human condition in a challenging format. 
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BelgiumDramaGust Van den BergheLuciferMexico

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