Moloch Tropical Review
10th Belfast Film Festival review
There’s an extraordinary and rather daring concept behind Raoul Peck’s Moloch Tropical and it’s not so much using another film as a reference for his study of the hidden side of power as much the actual film he chooses as a model. Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch (1999) is one of a proposed tetralogy of films by the Russian director which indeed deal with a common theme of examining the private lives of real historical figures of power, but Sokurov’s film on Hitler shows a very particular, poetic vision of the leader of the German Nazi forces. Perched in a misty mountain-top citadel with the sounds of war echoing around as crackling radio signals amidst the peals of thunder, Hitler is depicted like a doddering old fool, a weak and pathetic figure, a failed artist, having picnics and dreary conversations with Eva Braun, his intellectually-challenged generals and cronies, even as they plan the invasion of Russia and extermination of the Jews. It’s a very personal view of Hitler, filmed in the distinct experimental style of the director, one informed more by imagination than the historical reality, but one which nonetheless does touch upon the banality of evil and succeeds in putting a human face on it.
Translating Sokurov’s vision to the tropical setting of Haiti and showing the final 24 hours of a failing dictatorship, Raoul Peck’s film might not be specifically about any one dictator – it’s inspired to some extent by the 19th-century Haitian ruler Henri-Christophe, but filmed in a modern context it’s not difficult to see references to former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide – but the application is appropriate as a wider examination of the abuse of power, the machinations to hold onto power at all costs, and its complete detachment from the reality of the world outside. In Moloch Tropical that distance is marked not only by the position of the residence of President Jean de Dieu (Zinedine Soualem) in a vast citadel perched on top of a mist-shrouded mountain – the real-life Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere, built by Henri-Christophe uncannily similar to the citadel in Sokurov’s film – but by the distorted view of the world the president has of the world, seen only through the representations of it on the television.
Echoing Sokurov’s mystical voices of radio signals reverberating through the charged atmosphere, it’s the modern media of the television channels that bring the president news of his current precarious political position. Five years in power, after a return from exile and having been "democratically" reinstated on the say-so of the American government, that support has apparently been withdrawn as the abuses of President Jean de Dieu’s regime become an embarrassment to the international community, with violent protests being seen on the streets of Port-au-Prince and the press starting to openly attack the presidency. It couldn’t come at a worse time, as the country is preparing to celebrate 200 years of independence from France, but all the world’s leaders are declining invitations to a reception to commemorate the event – at least the ones who matter and can give legitimacy to the regime. The president is kept informed of the rapidly declining situation by his staff and members of the cabinet, but there is little he can do to combat the threats that face him.
Seeing power slipping from his grasp, the president’s actions accordingly become increasingly desperate. The only way he can combat the dissent of the media from openly challenging him in public is through the traditional means of arrest and torture of journalists, while striving to keep a nominal distance from the horrendous acts that he is fully aware are being committed in his name. The exercise of a sense of power and authority that is rapidly dwindling can also be seen in his attempts to seduce one of his young female servants, the hobbling president looking even more pathetic having accidentally stepped on a broken piece of glass earlier that morning. All of this has echoes also of the final days of the regime of General Rafael Trujillo in the neighbouring Dominican Republic as recounted in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Feast of the Goat, giving Moloch Tropical a sense of authenticity for the actions and the human face of a failing regime that can be attributed to some extent by Peck himself being a former Haitian Minister of Culture, but it also justifies the director’s decision to make the film in a fictional context in order to have wider application.
The decision to shoot the film moreover in a manner influenced by Sokurov’s Moloch Tropical is also justified by nature of the fact that the director finds a means to make it work exceptionally well, particularly through the imagery afforded by God-like vantage point of the Citadel Henry – majestic and sinister at the same time – not only mirroring Sokurov’s poetic depiction of Hitler’s Alpine retreat, but also being historically meaningful. Peck also succeeds in reducing the image of an omnipotent leader down to a human level with his base lusts and desperation, perhaps even more so than Sokurov. Moloch Tropical however lacks the originality, experimentation and artistry that is evident in the work that inspires it, offering a more conventional view of the fall of a dictator, but it’s not without some artistry of its own – the use of music on screen and on the soundtrack in particular is highly effective – or indeed some humour, and through the uncomfortable blend of influences, reality, impressions and experience, it ultimately succeeds most impressively in its aims.