Monday, May 03, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Moloch Tropical

The “Priest of the Slums” lives in a heavily reinforced citadel. He is not Aristide. He just happens to be a Haitian dictator restored to power by Bill Clinton. Jean de Dieu also seems to be going mad in Raoul Peck’s Moloch Tropical, which had a special screening to benefit Handicap International at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

To satisfy his vanity, de Dieu has planned a gala celebration to mark the anniversary of Haiti’s independence and his own ascension to power. The nature of his anniversary is highly controversial, since he refuses to count his years in exile against his duly elected term of office. Nearly the entire population disagrees with him, but the dictator only hears what he wishes to hear. Unfortunately, the developed world is largely skipping the shindig, including France whom he has antagonized with an unrealistic demand for colonial reparations. Hollywood is there in force though, with several big name stars playing in a didactic historical play written by his ex-mistress.

The President is clearly a monster. Past merely being out of touch, he is slowly sinking into a madness marked by a pronounced martyr complex. He believes all the exaggerations the leftist press once wrote about him and now tortures those who dissent from his rule. He desperately entreats the Clintons and the Kennedys to intercede on his behalf with the Bush administration, but they know a loser when they smell one.

Peck is a hardcore leftist filmmaker reportedly at work on a Karl Marx bio-picture, but he loses control of Moloch’s political implications—and the picture is much the better for it. The parallels between de Dieu and Jean-Bertrand Aristide are inescapable, as are the atrocities he commits in the name of the people. Even Hollywood activists take a skewering, as the African American actors marvel at the beauty of his palace, while willfully blinding themselves to the suffering of the Haitian people.

As an apparent attempt at ideological purity, Peck probably tries to draw a parallel between de Dieu and President George W. Bush by including occasional news footage from the Iraq War, but it is far from convincing, unless viewers are so dogmatically rigid, they need it in order to appreciate the film.

Indeed, the film itself is remarkably accomplished. Jean Luc Le Floch’s production design creates a presidential fortress worthy of a gothic horror movie and Eric Guichard’s cinematography viscerally evokes the burgeoning madness within its walls. As de Dieu, Zinedine Soualem brilliantly brings to life one of the worst kinds of monster: an ideological monster who is absolutely convinced in his own moral superiority, even while hassling the domestic servants with his pathetic advances. His steady slide into insanity becomes the logical extension of his character.

Visually striking and possibly more nuanced than Peck intended, Moloch is a richly intriguing film. An interesting choice for Tribeca’s benefit screening, it is film likely to inspire quite a bit of debate. Further information about Handicap International, which has been very active in Haiti in the wake of the recent hurricane, can be found here.