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Review: Raoul Peck’s Biting & Captivating ‘Moloch Tropical’ (Tonight at Maysles Cinema)

Review: Raoul Peck's Biting & Captivating 'Moloch Tropical' (Tonight at Maysles Cinema)

EDITOR’S NOTE: New Yorkers should take advantage of a retrospective of the filmmaker, set to run at Maysles Cinema, starting today, January 22nd to January 25th, 2015 – a series curated by Michelle Materre and the Creatively Speaking Film Series, co-sponsored by the Haiti Cultural Exchange and The DDPA (Durban Declaration & Programme of Action) Watch Group. Titled “Raoul Peck: Après the Earthquake,” the filmmaker himself will be present for part of the series, to participate in post-screening chats. “Moloch Tropical” opens the series tonight, screening at 7:30 PM. It’s a film I first saw about 4 years ago, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend! My thoughts on the film follow. For full details on the entire series, as well as ticket information, click here.

The plot should feel familiar to anyone attuned to global politics, as it’s a story that could have taken place in several conflict-laden nations, past and present.

In short, a president of a country with North American interests is elected “democratically,” backed by the US government, with Obama-like promises of hope and reform that are never fully realized, after he gets comfortable with his power – a limited power, since he’s still very much a puppet for a foreign, more powerful government. But just don’t tell him that; after all, he’s the man in the high castle – literally. And just like the Philip K Dick novel, there are a collection of characters; some know each other, while others are connected indirectly, as they all cope with living under near-totalitarianism. Plus, there are multiple subplots, as well as the proverbial story-within-the-story.

It’s a familiar story, one that recent history is littered is. Eventually, the constituency who appointed the president becomes impatient, realizing that their leader is just a figurehead, with his own personal interests, absent of any real power, nor desire to affect change; and sure enough, they turn on him. Insurgency groups form, intent on dethroning the president, and in time, opposition voices become quite overwhelming, so much that the outside world takes notice, and sides with the revolt. This forces America (and its allies) to abandon support for their puppet, disassociating themselves from him, throwing him and his entourage to the wolves, or in some cases, dethroning him by force, when he becomes too heady for his seat. 

That, in a nuthsell, is “Moloch Tropical’s” core story – which doesn’t immediately become clear until about 30 minutes into the film, as the myriad of characters in this maze are individually introduced to the audience, each with their own subplots; But thankfully, none becomes a distracting side show. However, to reveal each segue will be to spoil the fun for you who haven’t seen it. It’s best to watch it all unravel – both the people and their stories.

Beautifully staged and photographed, with a kinetic camera and what I’d call a meticulous attention to detail, there is quite a lot to take in on screen, and I recall feeling slightly overwhelmed at certain moments, with countless bodies moving in and out of frames (memorably, stunning Rwandan beauty, Sonia Rolland, who held my attention whenever she was present; Her introductory shot is noteworthy, with good reason), the attire, the colors, the art work hanging on walls, or in the form of statues, the background music, all while reading subtitles.

I noticed a dearth of closeup shots throughout the film, with director Raoul Peck settling for mostly mediums and wides, which, we could say, ensures that we never really get to know what’s behind the veneer of each face we encounter, but also allowing for more items to fill each frame. It’s a busy screen, and I didn’t want to miss anything, with “colorism,” religion, class and gender issues all at play. It’s definitely a film worth seeing multiple times, with each viewing, paying even closer attention to each and every detail.

I did feel that my broad strokes of knowledge of Haitian history and politics wasn’t enough for me to walk out of the theatre believing that I’d fully understood all that was presented on screen – a remark here, a visual cue there, symbolism, “insider” jokes and such – which contributed to my anxiety as I watched it. But, in a good way. If anything, I was encouraged to expand on my knowledge of Haiti, past and present, and go from broad strokes to specifics, then watch the film again, armed with new information.

But I could also just be digging too deep, making the film seem more esoteric than it really is, when it’s ultimately just as straightforward a story as I initially laid out. Its descriptive, somewhat cryptic title speaks volumes – specifically, the word moloch: a harmless, spiny lizard which feeds chiefly on ants.

If I had one gripe it would be that I didn’t get a good grasp on how much time actually passed from the beginning of the film to its end. It felt like it all took place in a matter of a day, yet there were cues that indicated otherwise. But maybe that was intentional on Raoul Peck’s part; The president is a mad man, almost literally, especially when he’s off his meds, and he is at the center of the narrative, so, I suppose it would make some sense if the hours just seemed to melt into one another.

There’s even a subplot about the staging of a play with Toussaint L’ouverture as its main subject. To portray the various parts, Black American star actors are flown in to Haiti, at the behest of the commander-in-chief, as if to flex his American ties, bringing a “legitimacy” to the production. The guests arrive at the presidential high castle, hiding up in the low clouds, completely cut off from the the people he is to be governing – people who universally mock him from afar, as his head remains, sans equanimity, and quite literally, in the clouds.

This staging-of-a-play side-story provides some comedy as the American actors are portrayed in that common unflattering stereotype of Hollywood stars as vain, obnoxious, arrogant types, on their cell phones, taking calls from Quentin Tarantino (yes, really), as if to mock the system from which they come. 

Interestingly enough, the entire film felt that it could very well be a stage play, given its overall structure.

As the film progresses, it seems to become increasingly absurd; Chaos reigns, in this world gone mad, with biting, humorous critiques of class and power, all reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” as favorite Peck themes, notably, broadly, colonialism and its remnants, are unpacked.

It’s a profile-rising, star-making performance for French-Moroccan actor, Zinedine Soualem, as the proverbial man in the high castle, so don’t be surprised to see him on this side of the Atlantic in the future, especially if the film attracts attention stateside. Even Jimmy Jean-Luis, likely the most recognizable face in the picture, usually relegated to bit parts in cinema Americana, impresses as an opposition journalist – a leading voice of the impending insurrection, and, eventually, martyr.

There’s more than enough in “Moloch Tropical” that I strongly recommend it. It’s sadly an underseen and under-appreciated work of art, so if you’re in New York today, you should make an effort to see it! Again, it screens tonight at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, starting at 7:30pm. Ticket information can be found here.

Watch 2 clips from the film below:

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