Faith is such a tenuous concept that it’s hard to believe that it has the strength that it does. The act of believing in the existence or the potential of a supreme being despite any earthly evidence or causation should be treated with suspicion or disdain right from the outset. Yet the strength of it lies in the human need for structure and balance; as long as there is a plan then we can accept the most diabolical punishments in this life if there is some kind of reward in the next. Belgian filmmaker Gust van den Berghe explores these notions in a satirical way in his remarkable and hypnotic film Lucifer.
Filmed in Tondoscope (the process of filming within a circular frame), Lucifer finds the titular angel (Gabino Rodríguez) the moment he is banished from Heaven as he arrives in the Mexican village of Parícutin. Here he meets Lupita (María Toral Acosta) and her granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo). He is welcomed by the village as a saviour and after ‘curing’ Lupita’s slothful brother Emanuel (Jerónimo Soto Bravo), disappears. In his absence the village obsesses over his return while Lupita and Maria’s lives are irreparably altered, leading Lupita on a metaphysical journey.
Hypnotic and strange, Lucifer calls to mind the films of Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky but these similarities end with van den Berghe’s adoption of Tondoscope where almost the entire film is seen through a circle in the middle of a black frame. From the first to final moments this directorial choice proves to be a perfect one as the circular frame allows for impressive and indelible images – a man pulls an invisible rope to ring the bell of a ruined church, Lucifer holding court on a makeshift throne adorned with raw meat and black shrouded prisoners reconnoitring the rim of a volcano – that become imprinted straight on to the cerebral cortex.
The performances of the main cast are also terrific, particularly Rodríguez who not only has an unsettling countenance but also a bearing that suggests an otherworldliness that makes his Lucifer feel at once human and inhuman. A lot of the humour in the film is borne by Bravo as Emanuel, the lazy, mostly drunk layabout who is confronted with his sins. But the film is carried on the shoulders of the diminutive Acosta and Pablo, as Lupita and Maria respectively, and they are more than capable of the task. There is world-weariness and a devotion to faith that makes Lupita’s journey all the more heart-breaking and Acosta infuses this into her performance beautifully.
Lucifier is also a satire on organised religion and a rather cutting one at that. The way the villagers dote on Lucifer and their obsession over his return represents the nature of faith and worship through a microscope which is enhanced by the circular frame. The audience is positioned to view, through a lens, a citizenry defined only by their relationship to God and the divine where every action and decision is made in reverence or in relation to the Almighty. Watching from above, we can’t help but see the futility in their certainty and desire, like an indifferent deity. Even the village’s rebuilt church is fitted with an enormous neon sign with an arrow pointing down reading “We Will Wait for You Here.” A simpler, more direct indictment of organised religion has never been clearer.
Yet, there is a Gnostic undercurrent that runs through the film that reaches its apotheosis toward the climax when Lupita’s journey moves toward the spiritual. Lucifer takes on the role of the ‘demiurge’, the creator of the material world which in Gnosticism is recognised as evil. When Lupita is stripped of all her physical possessions she enters a more metaphysical or non-material world which to the Gnostics is recognised as good. Lucifer appears to anchor the villagers in the material world and leave them with a taste of the divine for which they will be forever trying to reach but will never attain, while Lupita is able to transcend this world and achieve gnosis.
Strange, hypnotic and beautiful, Lucifer is a unique film from a visionary filmmaker who is not afraid to experiment. The application of Tondoscope is a wonderful cinematic device that fits perfectly with the intention of the film and brings the audience into a whole new way of seeing, let alone of watching, film. The satirical representation of global religiosity is incredibly intelligent and perhaps a little angry but van den Berghe applies a lot of humour and wit to balance it out. Having said this, the film is certainly not for everyone and some will definitely find the circular frame off putting and it’s pacing somewhat soporific. For fans of challenging and distinctive cinematic experiences, this is a must see.