In the universe of Shakespearean adaptations, few are more distinctive than Alexander Abela's "Makibefo," an austere version of "Macbeth" located amid the coastal dunes of Madagascar's southern tip. After a theatrical run in France, pic is set to roll out in select territories, and deserves attention from art-friendly North American distribs.

Makibefo - Martin Valy Makibefo - Noeliny Narrator - Gilbert Laumord Bakoua - Randina Arthur Danikany - Jean-Felix Kidoure - Boniface Makidofy - Jean-Noel Malikomy - Bien Rasoanan Tenaina Murderess - Nobel Mahatsinjo Witch Doctor - Victor

In the wide universe of Shakespearean adaptations, few are more distinctive — and only “Forbidden Planet” may be further afield from the original setting — than Alexander Abela’s “Makibefo,” an austere version of “Macbeth” located amid the coastal dunes of Madagascar’s southern tip. Pic’s novelty goes far beyond anthropological interest, cleverly pointing up the universality of the themes of regal authority and the temptations of power, which can occur as easily among a remotely situated society on a quiet patch of beach as in Scotland’s Highlands. After a year-long theatrical run in France, pic is set to roll out in select international territories, and — with English narration a plus — deserves strong attention from art-friendly North American distribs.

The British-born Abela and sound and tech assistant Jeppe Jungerson were sole crew in late 1999 for lensing, which involved close collaboration with Antandroy tribesman (speaking in native Malagasy tongue), few of whom had ever seen a movie. Comparable to the lauded “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” also a tragic epic enacted (and also lensed) by indigenous people, “Makibefo” is a considerably greater and more satisfying artistic achievement.

Gilbert Laumord, speaking like a storyteller of old directly to the camera, intros pic’s concept of altering Shakespeare’s characters names to the Malagasy lingo. It’s a shrewd conceit; Laumord’s narrative serves to relieve the tribal thesps of a good deal of dramatic heavy lifting, and permits Abela to stage a nearly silent film, interspersed with minimal dialogue.

Decision to shoot in high-contrast black-and-white proves to be a brilliant move from the start, showing Makibefo (played by Martin) chasing down and capturing enemy Kidoure (Boniface) across astonishingly huge, white sand dunes. A witch doctor (Victor) suddenly appears before Makibefo, foretelling his ascendancy to the throne and the weaknesses of current king Danikany (Jean-Felix).

That these visions are confirmed sends a bit of a chill through Makibefo and his wife, Valy Makibefo (Noeliny), but it also sets them on a course to fulfill the visions, which plays in many ways even more convincingly in pic’s non-stratified social context than the play’s original setting.

Play’s build-up of tension, violence and lust for power climax with the intercutting of Makibefo’s arranged murder of one of Danikany’s generals, Bakoua (Randina Arthur) with the (real) sacrifice of a water buffalo –more chilling than in “Apocalypse Now.”

Staging cleverly utilizes available resources, so that when Makibefo begins to go mad and see visions of his victims, they appear in the flesh, but with ghostly white-painted faces. The play’s depiction of armed troops becomes here an armada of catamarans invading Makibefo’s strand of beach.

Cinematic influences recall the F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty collaboration, “Tabu” and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ great black-and-white Cinema Novo work to several of Orson Welles’ projects, from “It’s All True” to his own “Macbeth.” Yet Abela’s pic emerges as an entirely fresh response to Shakespeare that should attract both fans of the Bard and B&W cinema.

Stripped down thesping and filming are exceptional. The Antandroy actors appear to have easily incorporated some of their own customs (plus many not their own) into the playing. Lensing is distinguished by dramatic depth-of-field shots and terrific, old-school day for night scenes. The screened print was marred by some subpar lab work; future prints are promised to be pristine.

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U.K. -France-Madagascar

Production: An Epicentre Films release (in France) of a Blue Eye Films presentation. (International sales: Blue Eye Films, Paris.) Produced by Alexander Abela. Directed, written by Alexander Abela, based on "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare.

Crew: Camera (B&W, Metrocolor), Abela; editor, Douglas Bryson; music, Bien Rasoanan Tenaina, Donald; sound (Dolby), Jeppe Jungerson. Reviewed at Pan African Film Festival, L.A., Feb. 9, 2003. Running time: 75 MIN. ( Malagasy, English dialogue)

With: Makibefo - Martin Valy Makibefo - Noeliny Narrator - Gilbert Laumord Bakoua - Randina Arthur Danikany - Jean-Felix Kidoure - Boniface Makidofy - Jean-Noel Malikomy - Bien Rasoanan Tenaina Murderess - Nobel Mahatsinjo Witch Doctor - Victor

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