Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is Humanity Worth All the Trouble?

The Annunciation (1984)
Director: András Jeles
Seen via: Undisclosed Source
Rating: 7.5 / 10

You know the story: tempted by Lucifer and exiled from the garden of Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve walk forth into a life of regret for their abandoned innocence. This is how The Annunciation begins, but it quickly falls into stranger territory after Lucifer causes Adam and Eve to hallucinate different eras throughout the future as a ploy to convince them that nothing but ruin and pain await humanity.

The first thing you'll likely notice about Hungarian director András Jeles' The Annunciation (adapted from the 1861 play The Tragedy of Man by fellow Hungarian Imre Madách) is the odd decision to populate the film exclusively with children. It's the obvious symbolic choice for the opening scene. But what about the remainder, which is soaked in high-level discourse, blood, and cryptic iconography? Imagine the most sincere grade-school stage play you can, rife with questions about determinism, the corrupt nature of society, and the fate of mankind, all taken with the utmost seriousness by its young actors. It sounds ridiculous, but Jeles manages to push it into the realm of the surreal with what seems to be sheer force of will.

The tone is aided by elaborate costumes contrasted against relatively sparse settings. What appears to be the same outdoor location is used to represent multiple time periods throughout history, upon which massive set pieces such as a towering guillotine and a stone labyrinth are laid. Against these foreboding settings, the film takes on a degree of aplomb which refuses to be undercut by the youth of its actors. The kids stare off into the distance or directly into the camera as they recite their lines, often while performing slow, deliberate motions (think rituals plucked from a Jodorowsky film). The meticulous staging at times gives the impression of a classical painting - there's a often a definite lack of motion, as if the players are as stuck in their setting as humanity is in its petty quarrels. It's filled throughout with small fascinating details, such as a piece of lace that falls over the camera like a curtain, remaining there for several minutes while the film plays on. The languid, oneiric quality of the film is further multiplied by the score, which frequently deviates from orchestral or choral pieces into experimental territory.


After it leaves Eden, it's often baffling - no attempt is made to orient the viewer to the current setting other than quickly displaying the location on-screen. First, a story about Byzantine soldiers in a city where a single syllable spells the difference between heresy and piety (homoousion/homoiousion, both obscure theological terms referring to the nature of the divinity of Christ). Then a segment from the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler, bleeding into the French revolution where kids dressed as soldiers lie around in languor musing on Equality, Fraternity, and Liberty.


Through all of this, four young actors play recurring roles and bookend the film as Adam, Eve, Lucifer, and Death. If there's a thematic trajectory that each of their performances follows, I'll be damned if I can see it. In fact, other than the general arc of the story, it's hard to pull any meaning from the sea of dialogue. (How much of this is due to translation, I'm not sure. Somehow I think that's not the primary issue.) The film is so dense and cryptic that teasing apart its meaning takes a backseat to the captivating visuals. This is the film's primary weakness: the signal is too frequently lost in the noise. I'm unsure that I would walk away more enlightened were I to watch it a second time.

All this is in the end just a trick by the devil - a plot to convince Adam he should abort the fledgling human race before it begins. In a conclusion that's surprisingly trite given the heavy philosophical meandering that preceded it, Adam concludes that With God All Things Are Possible, and that he'll soldier on against the cruel future. Despite this ultimately simple message, the bulk of The Annunciation is difficult to pin down. It's the sort of film that sounds completely preposturous when described, but remains interesting despite its seemingly deliberate attempts to mire itself in art-house impermeability.

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