Review: UNDERGODS Casts a Captivating Spell
Kate Dickie, Ned Dennehy, Geza Rohrig, Burn Gorman and Tanya Reynolds star in director Chino Moya's fantasy thriller.
K and Z drive through a desolate wasteland, made up of crumbling infrastructure and empty apartment buildings.
Picking up the scraps of humanity, there are always stories to tell to fill the time. Ron and Ruth welcome a neighbour into their home. Hans wants to rebuild his mass fortune but his daughter Mona may suffer for his greed. Dominic provides for his wife, Rachel, and stepson until a stranger shows up in their living room. What was once a prosperous place has fallen into despair and ruin and we will see that these lives are a reflection of what goes on around them.
Before we dive into theme and message, we must takea quick moment to highlight the film’s esthetic. Undergods was filmed in Serbia and Estonia, and somewhere in those countries there are decaying buildings and infrastructure which Moya uses to establish his dystopian vision. We would love to know what is real and what is a make up of composite shots because some of the Soviet-era infrastructure is staggeringly unreal. Herein lies our visual cues of countries and cultures in decline. The palate of the film is cold and dark, interrupted with pastels and meeker colors. Quite often the veneer drops and ugliness and disarray is revealed, the class system gets disrupted.
Moving on. Darkly humorous, watching Undergods is still a sobering experience, no doubt. However, Moya chooses to leave some stories open ended and ambivalent, absent a proper conclusion. Perhaps this is the wrong interpretation, but does it mean that Moya believes there is some way out of this? There is sincere beauty in the bedtime story scene between Octavius and his daughter Horatia. However, his bedtime story is of Hans and the repercussions of his greed. Silver linings though, right?
There’s some really great going on here. It’s just hard to put your finger down on what is great about it. It’s like trying to find the silver dollar you dropped in a murky sink. Like trying to hug someone who is stiff arming you. This is terrific storytelling in that the structure of his collection of stories all weave into each other fluidly and effortlessly. Pardoning most of the tales’ absence of a clear conclusion, each one is related to the next. All the characters are interesting and the performances from the cast are top shelf.
It is hard for this ex-pat, a Westernized European, to understand how this all relates to the decline of the continent. Moya is from Spain and the country has no doubt seen its share of ups and downs over the ages. In recent years the impact of the economic decline from the housing bubble was devastating. Elections in the autonomous regions were met with hostility from the government. We are British born so watching the massive cockup of Brexit over the past years was a lot of fun. Sarcasm. Then there’s the refugee crisis and the rise of nationalism. Europe was and always has been a bit of a fuckup, cornering the market on World Wars. It’s no wonder how anyone is still alive over there!
So if we cannot completely relate to it from a European worldview then how and what do we respond to? What was inescapable to us is that these stories center around men and their failures, the result of which can be quite emasculating. This is not a bad thing. It makes you think about how we have been under this cloud of the current pandemic and in this time an anecdote surfaced which suggested that the countries that fared better during the present health crisis were countries led by women. Of that anecdote more than half were world leaders of European countries. At the time of production there would be no way Moya could have known what was coming and how every country would respond during their turn. But it does make you think, no?
We are witness to the fall of the patriarchy and their inability to control their environment. Here is a threat to man, the fall of man. Take for instance, Dominic in the final chapter of Moya’s story. Near the end of the tale there is a karaoke sing-a-long at Tim’s birthday party. Drunk off his ass, you watch as he desperately tries to gain some self respect during the group sing on I Did It My Way. “I did it. I made it. I’m successful. I’m… I’m… grasping at straws here”.
There is always someone who doesn’t belong, a stranger who doesn’t fit in. Henry intrudes on Ron and Ruth. Jan Bijvoet’s The Foreigner and Mona’s boyfriend Johann intrude upon the relationship between Hans and his daughter. The sudden appearance of Rachel’s last husband Sam upsets her present husband Dominic. He himself will not fit in with the other guests at the birthday party for his boss, Tim. All men and all an intrusion or a danger to those around them.
The beauty of a film like Undergods is that it is open for interpretation of its ambivalence. If asked we are sure Moya has opinions of what his film is about. More often than not it would infuriate us when a director would say that what you take away from their film is more important than what they have to say, as if they were dodging their intentions. And here we found something else to take away from Undergods apart from his intended message.
Even if some may find Undergods confusing or non-committal, there is no denying that Moya wrangled together a terrific cast, gleamed terrific performances from all of them, and set it against a backdrop that sometimes made our jaws drop. We found it easy to get caught up in its dystopian spell.
Review originally published during Fantasia in September 2020. The film opens in theaters, on Cable and Digital VOD on May 7, via Gravitas Ventures.