First published by Vérité
“Every judgment is meaningless” declares a voice at the beginning of Belgian director Gust van den Berghe’s Lucifer, before launching into a mythic account of the perfect knowledge attained by ancient peoples, and of the eventual “downward path” (with which the speaker expressly identifies himself) that came with humanity’s developing awareness of the difference between good and evil. It is a fitting introduction to the tripartite parable of moral devolution that will follow, as well as a sly indication to the viewer that the film itself will defy the norms of interpretation. Yet most striking of all (if entirely apt as the background to a discourse on the meaningless of human judgments) is the near indecipherable image that accompanies what we hear. Within an uneven ring of rock, there is a milky blotch of cloud, with a black dot in the middle, suggestive all at once of a pupil and iris, and of a distorted view from the ground up to the heavens. In other words, Lucifer offers a new way of seeing that presents the universe in microcosm while mimicking the eye itself.
Our view of the world extends as far as our peripheral vision can stretch, and although it certainly comes with limits (we cannot, for example, see what is happening 1000s of kilometres away, or just behind our own heads), it would be difficult to ascribe an actual shape to the outer contours of what we can see. Cinema, however, does just that, arbitrarily confining its presentations to the equilateral Academy ratios of old, or to the widescreen oblongs that are currently in fashion, and so offers its perspectives in a neatly wrapped box, instantly marking what we see on screen as bundled, bounded art rather than as the chaos of reality.
Yet if cinema is mostly like paintings on a wall (with added movement), not all paintings have rectangular frames, and just as the ‘tondo’ paintings of the Renaissance were round, Lucifer is the first feature to be shot in Tondoscope, which reduces its visions to a circular frame. Apart from their rounded perimeter, most of these images are conventionally shot, with the difference between Tondoscope and, say, Cinemascope, becoming especially pronounced whenever a doorway or window provides a contrasting internal rectangular frame for events. Occasionally, however, van den Berghe engages in a more radical visual defamiliarisation: sometimes he simply inverts the image, so that, e.g. we first see Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez), immediately after the film’s opening monologue, lying upside-down on a roof of rock, with the cloudy sky beneath him; and sometimes, as with the opening image, what would more normally be just the bottom of the shot is curved around a full 360º to form the outer circumference of the frame, with everything that would conventionally be above that now pushed to the image’s centre.
The trompe l’oeil effect of these stylised circular panoramas makes this mundane community of a small rural village in the Michoacán region of Mexico resemble in its perspective something like Correggio’s fresco ‘The Assumption of the Virgin‘ in the cupola of the Cathedral of Parma. It is a heady visual analogue to “the link between heaven and earth” that the local priest (Sergio Lózaro Cortéz) hopes to reestablish by “build[ing] a new church on the ground of the older one. A stronger one, a higher one, a better one.” Of course, with his visual experiments van den Berghe is also, in his way, attempting to build a new kind of cinematic church on the old one.
The priest wishes to reconnect his lost flock with God, and expressly regards the edifice that he is raising as a sort of communications tower (that will employ similar broadcasting apparatus to the tannoy system used by the villagers to make their public announcements). In fact the celestial traffic goes in both directions. Ordinary-looking angel Lucifer has recently descended from above via a miraculous ladder that we, unlike the villagers, do not see, and though “just passing through”, he manages during his brief stay in the village to inspire the priest in his rebuilding, to ‘cure’ the (feigned) paralysis of 75-year-old Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo), to injure the neighbour’s son, to sow religious doubt in Emanuel’s sister Lupita (María Acosta) and to leave Lupita’s virgin granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo) with child.
In Lucifer, contradictions and clashing juxtapositions abound. It is shot near Parícutin, in a landscape still being formed by the youngest volcano on earth, where fumes from beneath the ground are actively belched into the sky. The village itself seems both Christian and pagan in its rituals and superstitions, both modern-day (the loudspeakers, trucks) and ancient in its traditions. Onto a style perhaps most closely allied to cinéma vérité (non-professional actors, near-documentary observations) is imposed not just Tondoscope’s rounded perspective, but also a range of mystic frames (the story of the fallen Lucifer, and of the Virgin Mary, and of Jesus’ ordeals). Satan himself takes on the form of a smiling Federal Marshall (Fernando Silva) come to collect debts and confiscate property. In search of the missing Maria, Emanuel enters the ruins of the old church – ruins which also represent, as the voice of God reveals, his “spiritual inner self.” Meanwhile Lupita, both brought low and elevated by a series of Christ-like trials, finds herself in dialogue with the divine on the shores of birth and death. The space in which this drama is set is both everyday, and bristling timelessly with the numinous. Only in the very last sequence does a widescreen format – and something like reality – return, but by then both the world and the way that we look at it has been forever transformed.
If every judgement is meaningless, then the three stars being apportioned here should be regarded as entirely provisional. While a difficult film to love, Lucifer is certainly paradoxical and perplexing, its fable and fantasy fitting into its social realist frame (or is it the other way around?) as uneasily as a square peg in a round hole. As such, Lucifer occupies a middle ground between good and bad, heaven and hell.