Moloch Tropical -- Film Review

Overflowing with ideas, an absurdist political drama set in beleaguered Haiti is a slow going slog.

MILL VALLEY, California -- A fictional, democratically elected President of Haiti -- a rough composite of the country's failed leaders, the Duvaliers, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the 19th century King Henri-Christophe -- goes mad inside his fog shrouded, hilltop fortress in writer/director Raoul Peck's intellectually ambitious, emotionally unaffecting "Moloch Tropical," a film that combines farce, Shakespearean and Greek tragedy and contemporary political drama, a hash of elements that never coalesce.

Of passing interest as an artifact of avid, politically engaged minds, "Moloch" won't engage or attract wider audiences once it finishes making the festival rounds .

A satirical indictment of a petty despot with a messiah complex and earthbound carnal appetites, the disjointed, sluggish script (co-written by Peck, who once served as Haiti's Minister of Culture, and Jean-Rene Lemoine), gets bogged down by a surplus of characters, glacial pacing and leaden dialogue.

In the midst of organizing bicentennial celebrations and welcoming a roster of international celebrity guests, President Jean de Dieu (French actor Zinedine Soualem), a former clergyman, and his lackeys must contend with the inconvenience of a popular uprising. Not one to tolerate insurrection lightly, he decrees it must be crushed and dispatches a youthful gang of thugs to put it down, while in the bowels of his residence, a henchman is torturing Gerald (a dignified Jimmy Jean-Louis), a principled adversary and an eloquent, courageous voice for freedom who possesses the gravitas and integrity the president lacks.

Corrupted by power, deluded, self-pitying, and consumed with dominating rather than serving the people he professes to love, de Dieu lashes out and has a royal meltdown worthy of a 2-year-old. His wife wants to leave him but he holds her against her will. He kicks his child's puppy, then the American government deserts him but we hardly care. However, a scene in which Gerald's bloodied, torn body has been cleaned up and de Dieu forces him to dine with him contains an absurd, well-written exchange whose drama temporarily perks up the film. That Gerald is the biggest man in the room in every sense seals his fate.

Palace and prison, the citadel aerie where the President acts out, both protects and isolates him. With its ancient, interior brick columns, luxurious French Caribbean decor and immense stone terrace enveloped in a near constant mist, it's not only a potent metaphor but the most compelling character in the story. Jean-Luc Le Floc'h's production design, which fuses haunted old-world elegance and arrivisteaspiration, is spot on, and cinematographer Eric Guichard artfully contrasts the primeval beauty of the island with its brutal regime and the soul of a petulant dictator, who would devour it in the name of democracy.

Venue: Mill Valley Film Festival
Production: An ARTE France presentation of a Velvet Film prod., in association with Arte, Velvet Film Group Haiti, with the participation of Center National de la Cinematographie
Cast: Zinedine Soualem, Sonia Rolland, Mireille Metellus, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Oris Erhuero, Nicole Dogue
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenwriters: Jean-Rene Lemoine, Raoul Peck
Producer: Raoul Peck
Director of photography: Eric Guichard
Production designer: Jean-Luc Le Floc'h
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Costume designer: Paule Mangenot
Editor: Martine Barraque
Not rated, 107 minutes

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