The Devil Made Me Do It
“I work for people. I do what they need.”
Lucifer, Gust van den Berge’s tondo-cropped pearl of a film, loosely adapted from the 1645 play of the same name written by Joost van den Vondel, describes the descent of Lucifer from heaven, where he touches the Earth for a little while, leaving his mark on humankind, before moving on to his his new kingdom – Hell. Lucifer, the bringer of light, as his name states, is described by van den Berg as “once God’s favorite – [he] has been banished and is on his way to Hell. He is no longer an angel, but isn’t yet a devil and is therefore never depicted as such in the film. He was the first being to carry within himself both the knowledge of good and of evil. It is Lucifer who gave us this knowledge. And therefore it is he who is responsible for the original sin and also for the emergence of human free-will and consciousness.”
I beg to differ. At least with what I saw in the film. In van den Berge’s parable, Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez) comes down a ladder from heaven – unseen, but believed in by the villagers living near Parícutin, one of the newest volcanoes on Earth. A place where time seems to have stood still. He comes across Lupita (María Acosta) and her granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo), who live with Lupita´s brother Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo), an old geezer who pretends to be bedridden so he can avoid work and spend his days gambling with and fleecing his buddies. Lucifer sees this sham clearly and says he will deliver a miracle of healing to old Emanuel. His miracle is simply to threaten Emanuel with spilling the beans. Blackmail is the devil’s work. And it’s also miraculous. The idea of Lucifer giving us po’ folk knowledge of sin, belies the fact that Emanuel knows he’s doing wrong. He’s got the knowledge. Perhaps Lucifer shines his light on sin, making us, reluctantly, good.
He proceeds to knock up Maria, kinda Holy Spirit-like – we don’t see it, but we acknowledge the miracle, one of the tenderest and most subversive reconsiderations of the God/Lucifer/Christ myth that van den Berge illustrates with the simplest economy. That along with equating Lucifer with Christ – rescuing a lamb – van den Berge posits a sort of structuralist continuum of myth and symbols. That’s where Lucifer shines – not in any straight reading of what’s largely be relegated to the Apocrypha and pushed into some sort of simplistic dichotomy of good and evil.
Lucifer soon disappears from the scene. Maria is quickly castigated, by those not touched nor direct witness to, as the seductress of the delivering angel, blamed for his leaving. Things fall apart within the widening gyre. The Federal Marshal (Fernando Silva), with the most insincere and devilish smile appears, demanding back taxes from Lupita, a result of her brother’s duplicity. In the meantime the village priest (Sergio Lazaro Cortez) is on the rampage to get a new church built, with a speaker tower – a newer, crasser Tower of Babel.
We will wait for you here
Miracles, though will happen. The birth of Lucifer’s son. The deaths of Emanuel and Lupita, ripped out of a B Traven dream. And sacrifice and redemption, though not necessary for the miracles, seem to be the misapplied logic to seal the deal. In the denouement, the villagers make a surreal and wondrous pilgrimage to around the rim of the volcano with Lupita joining a group of prisoners, of her own volition, to walk on their knees until one of them dies, giving absolution to the villagers. It’s heroic and meaningless. It keeps the myth and the reason for being alive.
Van den Berge shot Lucifer in what he calls tondoscope, a circular format. He has a rather hilarious website devoted to it here. There are a few scenes that are shot in genuine tondoscope, a fish-eye-like process. But most of the film is matted, shot through normal lenses. He justifies the use of this format by saying, “The film is shot in a circular format because for me paradise is enclosed, with Heaven at its centre. The approach is philosophical, connecting the micro cosmos with the macro cosmos: we look at the world, as if from heaven, we see it in its true planetary form. At the same time we find ourselves looking at the world through a periscope, and experiencing it as molecular tissue.”
Which I would suggest is pure bullshit. Though his explanation doesn’t demean the effect of watching his genuinely intriguing meditation on myth, faith and the propensity for humans to construct stories and justifications for the facts and mysteries of everyday life. However, the very thing he doesn’t allude to, the elephant in the screening room, is the iris shot. One of the mainstays of silent film grammar, and an effect still used – and brilliantly used by the likes of Sam Fuller and Francois Truffaut and Chuck Jones.
Sam Fuller / Forty Guns
Francois Truffaut / Tirez sur le pianiste
Chuck Jones / Wiley Coyote
The iris. The direct relation of the camera lens to the eye. The camera has a mechanical iris that mimics the human eye. Do we see paradise through this eye? With heaven at it’s core? Apart from the willful confusion of two different ideas – heaven above, paradise below, heaven the place we (Christians) aspire to go to, paradise the place that we will never return to – the tondo, the circle, the iris speaks of limiting the vision (despite what renaissance artists may have said in justification). Sure, the metaphor of the circle – completeness, the world, the whole – but the fact is the limited, the micro, the specific. Van den Berge is a little more truthful in the second last part of his statement, short of the periscope metaphor. I prefer the telescope for my metaphor. He suggests running silent, running deep. I suggest the tool of the voyeur. Which is what cinema is really all about – despite all those WWII movies about submarines.
Robert Wise / Run Silent, Run Deep
Alfred Hitchcock / Rear Window
Not to denigrate van den Berge’s accomplishment. It’s a beautiful and intriguing movie. He presents his case as slyly as Lucifer. His justifications, his words hide what lies behind. There are myriad explanations for phenomena, for how the world works and functions, for why we make movies. Ultimately, words fail us. And justifications too. What’s left is the light on the screen, on the monitor, that illuminates a few things, that casts a new light on the world. The way Lucifer and savvy filmmakers like van den Berge do.