Few helmers deserve the title “maverick” as much as Gust Van den Berghe, whose ceaseless experimentation resulted in the intriguing “Little Baby Jesus of Flandr” and “Blue Bird.” His latest, “Lucifer,” the final part of the religious-themed trilogy, moves further into uncharted territory with the use of a newly invented round format called “Tondoscope,” in which the image is like an iris, shot via an optical cone-shaped mirror. The idea, tailored to this story about Lucifer’s Mexican hiatus as he shifts from heaven to hell, is to convey the sense of paradise as an enclosed, eternal space. That’s the idea; the outcome isn’t quite so expressive, though the Grand Prix at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival may convince adventurous programmers otherwise.
Round artworks certainly aren’t new: The Italian word “tondo” is generically used to describe circular paintings and sculpted reliefs, and the form was fashionable throughout the Renaissance. Its efficacy in cinema, however, can be called into doubt after “Lucifer,” Tondoscope’s first feature, best described as a noble failure. Van den Berghe states that he drew visual influences from Hieronymus Bosch and other artists: Bosch’s “Creation of the World,” as well as Giovanni di Paolo’s work of the same subject, depict enclosed circular spaces reflecting the era’s general conception of celestial paradise. The problem is adapting this vision into cinematic language.
The narrative is loosely adapted from 17th-century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel’s classic “Lucifer,” written 13 years before Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (the end credits also acknowledge Zhuangzhi, Rumi and others), with the setting transitioned to Paricutin, in rural southwestern Mexico. As in the helmer’s previous films, the cast — with the important exception of Lucifer himself, played by Gabino Rodriguez (“La ultima pelicula”) — is entirely made up of non-professionals.
A ladder is seen miraculously hanging from the sky, portending the arrival of an angel from heaven. When Lupita (Maria Toral Acosta) and her granddaughter, Maria (Norma Pablo), meet Lucifer, he’s rescuing one of their injured lambs (a nice bit of irony, putting Lucifer in the role usually reserved for the Good Shepherd). “I work for people. I do what they need,” Lucifer tells the awestruck women as he seems to miraculously get Lupita’s drunkard brother Emanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo) up and walking for the first time in four years.
As quickly as he appears, so he’s gone, leaving the villagers bereft of their angel. Maria is convinced he’ll return for her, but the local scuttlebutt is that she tried to seduce the heavenly guest, which is why he departed. Everyone demands another miracle, but instead they get a Federal Marshal (Fernando Silva) demanding back taxes and threatening to confiscate all their property. Meanwhile, the village priest (Sergio Lazaro Cortez) is agitating to get a new church built, with a speaker tower whose proposed audacious height recalls the Tower of Babel.
Just as Renaissance artists often worked in triptych form, so Van den Berghe conceived “Lucifer” as the final “panel” in his trilogy: “Little Baby Jesus,” with its Brueghel influences, revolved around faith and temptation, while “Blue Bird” delves into the loss of innocence. This third piece looks at humanity’s fall from grace. Lucifer, the angel cast out of heaven, travels through our world, instilling doubt and calling into question God’s ability to effect change on earth. The seeds of knowledge, of good and evil, have been planted, and their germination begins in earnest.
Intellectually, the idea works wonderfully, and is especially ripe for conversation among those with a theological bent. Man’s position as the center of the universe is the sort of hubristic conceit that springs from the expulsion from Paradise, offering visual elisions with the theme at hand. However, Tondoscope, whatever its technological fascination, creates frequent barriers to any engagement with the subject. Van den Berghe and d.p. Hans Bruch Jr. sporadically make interesting use of what’s within the circle, but haven’t quite figured out how to effectively play with space just outside the frame, and how figures move within and without. Via the cone-shaped mirror, they create shots in which the surroundings often hug the outer rim of the picture, very much in common with certain Renaissance paintings, yet even as a gallery installation, it’s unlikely the concept will hold enough interest for the full 107 minutes.
A further problem is that the image is almost always too dark, and the choice of soft focus (judged from the projection viewed) makes for a misty, if not downright murky, aspect. As with the director’s invention of “Uberscope” for “Blue Bird,” it’s unlikely Tondoscope will find many more applications in feature-length works, though experimental shorts could take advantage in undoubtedly stimulating ways.