Moloch Tropical, which follows the political and mental disintegration of a fictional democratically elected president in Haiti, is the latest from Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, who tread similar territory a decade ago in Lumumba, the story of Congo’s heroic prime minister Patrice Lumumba. However, it’s not his own earlier work that Peck has audaciously repurposed, but Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch, a chamber piece detailing the mundane existence of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun at their Bavarian hideaway. (At least I think that’s what Moloch is about—having seen it in the late ’90s at a surreal Russian Film Festival screening with German subtitles and a live English translation.) Peck himself is a frustrating talent, one whose grandiosity is simultaneously his strength and his weakness—not unlike the lead character of Moloch Tropical.
The film opens with exquisite images of a fog-shrouded Haitian mountainside, then quickly turns its attention to the light-skinned black president (Zinedine Soualem, bearing an odd resemblance to Albert Brooks), who, along with his beautiful wife and daughter, poor black servants, and wealthy black confidantes, is sequestered atop the palatial residence, awaiting the fall of his own personal Rome. After cutting his foot on a broken glass, he limps around his castle, holds a press conference demanding restitution from France, pays his personal maid for sex (who then gives the money to her saxophonist boyfriend), welcomes a Hollywood film crew making a movie about Haiti’s founding father (starring a cowboy hat-wearing smoothie who name-drops Tarantino on his cell), and eventually grants his mother a meeting after lecturing her for not making an appointment. In other words, Peck has created a delightful satire in which even the (female) minister of culture—a position Peck himself once held—hits on the maid’s saxophonist boyfriend with the line, “Got a big cock?”
All of which would make the film a shining comedy were it not for the fact that Moloch Tropical is as schizoid as its pill-popping president, part farce (leaving the actors to play ideas rather than flesh-and-blood individuals we come to care about) and part serious drama, which winds up diluting the power of the whole. Failing to mesh well with silly sight gags like a cockroach crawling over a bust of the president (later followed by a servant’s fumigating the statue) are the television broadcasts of the Abu Ghraib photos and of Saddam Hussein’s capture, the torture of a onetime-ally-turned-rebel-leader by the president’s henchmen, the unleashing of the president’s military Chimeras to wreak havoc in the streets, and an earnest ideological dinner discussion before the main rival is set on fire.
Once the president stops taking his medicine, causing him to run off naked into the mountainside spouting bibilical passages, Peck’s Shakespearean grandeur turns to shrugging ludicrousness. “When people start joking it means they’re not happy,” the president’s mother advises after she hears a woman in the street making fun of her son’s French restitution plan. If only Peck had stuck to the punch line.
Moloch Tropical will play on June 20 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.