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Non-Review Review: Angelo

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Angelo is perhaps as good as “what if Barry Lyndon, but with slavery from a European filmmaker?” could hope to be.

The basic premise of Angelo owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a period piece that largely eschews many of the conventional trappings of period productions to offer a more philosophical meditation on man’s relationship with the larger world. Both Angelo and Barry Lyndon are stories about people trying to navigate the complicated networks of human relationships in an unstable world, their own pursuit of stability and self-actualisation subject to arbitrary forces that exist outside of their control. Both are stark moral fables that border of nihilistic, shot in a much a colder manner than most of their period movie contemporaries, eschewing a lot of the warmth and romance traditionally associated with the genre.

Of course, Barry Lyndon was the story of a peasant Irishman who found himself fleeing to the European continent and trying to make a living for himself, whose star would rise and fall along the way. In contrast, Angelo is inspired by the true-life story of Angelo Soliman. Writers Alexander Brom and Markus Schleinzer take obvious liberties with the basic story of the black man who integrated himself in some of the most exclusive circles of nineteenth century European royalty only to discover how fickle such associations could be. This creates an inherent tension within Angelo. This is a film that opens with Angelo’s abduction from Nigeria, and which returns time and again to his status as a slave. However, it does so without really grappling with that reality.

Angelo threads the line about as delicately as possible, focusing more on its abstract thematic preoccupations and philosophical musings than any concrete details. However, there is a sense of cynicism about the film, a sense that the movie is utterly uninterested in the particulars of Angelo Soliman’s life or the finer details of what life as an actual slave (and later a freed slave) would be like in the nineteenth century. Instead, Angelo avoids these smaller questions by asking bigger and bold questions about the very nature of human existence as a whole.

“What does it represent?” a woman asks late in the film, confronted with what little remains of the movie’s subject. Her conversational companion offers his own assessment, “It’s an allegory.” He seems to be speaking as much for the film itself. Director Markus Schleinzer clearly sees Angelo as a vehicle through which he might ask questions about how human beings exist within an organised society, and how an individual’s identity is often defined by others rather than by one’s own self. Indeed, this is explicitly rendered as a defining attribute of Angelo’s childhood. Angelo is purchased as a slave by the matriarch of a wealthy family intending to conduct an experiment to determine to what extent a slave might be impacted by treating them as a free person.

Angelo is hardly subtle in its meditation upon these themes. The film is packed with scenes in which various characters – obviously including Angelo, but extending far beyond him – strain and stretch against the roles that have been established for them. Indeed, theatre is a recurring motif within Angelo, one darkly funny (and deeply depressing) interlude finds Angelo cast within a minstrel show. Even before that point, he establishes himself as a conversation piece through a repeated and memorised monologue that offers a sensationalist and clichéd depiction of his homeland for the amusement of European onlookers. Even beyond that, Angelo features a scene in which the Emperor complains that – despite his status as a ruler – even he is ultimately “a servant.”

There is something darkly comic in all of this. Indeed, one of the blackest comedic moments in the film comes when the eponymous character has crossed his benefactor once too often. A messenger is dispatched with solemn news. “The Emperor has decided to punish you,” the messenger explains, “by granting you your freedom.” In the world of Angelo, it seems that to be a free man is the worst of punishments, because it means stripping somebody of the securities and comforts provided by a rigidly defined role. It’s an interesting exploration of the human condition, and Angelo invites comparisons to Barry Lyndon just in terms of the raw cynicism on display.

Of course, there is something a little inherently uncomfortable in trying to repurpose the story of Angelo Soliman as a broader allegory about the human condition, to reduce the horrors of slavery to a broader metaphor about how nobody is really free. Treating slavery as a metaphor for something else can potentially downplay the real and visceral horror of slavery itself. (And also plays into broader cultural concerns about diluting the reality of what slavery was.) To be fair to Angelo, the film is just about canny and self-aware enough to get away with this. It does not so much avoid the uncomfortable aspects of using this particular story to address these particular themes as it at least admits those uncomfortable aspects exist.

The closing scenes of Angelo make a point to focus on the wealthy white people appropriating the character’s story for their own ends in a series of increasingly grotesque ways; publishing his diaries for consumption of the chattered classes is perhaps the least horrific violation committed. There is a sense of reflexiveness in this, a film that is largely aimed at a comfortable middle-class audience coopting this man’s story for their own ends that concludes with a sequence pointing out the shallow and self-serving nature of a comfortable middle-class audience coopting this man’s story for their own ends. Angelo could certainly handle the material with more depth and nuance, but it seems at least aware of the minefield that it is navigating.

Setting aside this discomfort, Angelo is a staggeringly beautiful film. As with Barry Lyndon, there’s an emphasis on natural light and naturalist environments. Indeed, some of the environments might be too naturalistic; fluorescent bulbs are visible in several shots of the industrial warehouse that serves as both auction house and mortuary, a choice that suggests the scenes exist outside the time frame of the rest of the story. Gerald Kerkletz’s cinematography is striking, preferring naturalistic earth tones and the yellow glow of candlelight to the warm colours usually associated with period pieces. Indeed, dressed as a court jester, Angelo himself is often the most colourful element in any individual scene, allowing him to stand out all the more.

Markus Schleinzeris not afraid of silence, and not afraid to hold a shot. Even the titlecards that introduce each of the three acts seem to stay on screen for an inordinate amount of time, while Schleinzeris will happily allow his characters to wander across frame in an unbroken cut. Given the simplicity of its broad-to-the-point-of-universal theme, this imbues Angelo with an almost meditative quality. There is a sense that the camera and the audience themselves are just as passive as any of the characters, just as incapable of controlling or shaping the narrative. Schleinzeris has a striking eye for composition, and lend the film’s naturalism an almost ethereal quality. The bright green forests of Angelo’s youth give way to the grey fields of his middle age.

Angelo is an uncomfortable film, but a beautiful one nevertheless.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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