The Sydney Film Festival is in full swing, and opening night was a banger for me. Markus Schleinzer’s Angelo tells the tale of a young African boy transplanted from his homeland and inserted into the Aristocratic world of 18th-century Europe. Adapted from historical events, the real value of this film lies in the series of contradictions it presents between culture, identity, narrative, myth, and excess.
The film opens with a series of young African boys brought ashore in their new homeland, Europe. However, the reality of Europe becomes quickly obscured by the manufactured warehouse in which these boys are lined up for inspection. Free from speaking, a process of assessment is undertaken in order that an Aristocratic woman might select the boy that is fit for her purposes. However, this all takes place under fluorescent lights, in a warehouse that is floored with contemporary concrete and supported by steel beams that are clearly not the product of 18th-century manufacturing. We are intentionally prepared to watch a story unfold under a highly fabricated context. In other words, this is not a “true story”; it is a story that communicates a truth.
A boy is chosen. Promptly, he is incorporated into the symbolic order of 18th-century, Aristocratic, European life: he is baptized and given a French name, Angelo. The baptism takes place in what is also an oddly-staged cathedral setting. We aren’t brought into the halls of an elaborate and historical church. Instead, we are gazing at a stage. And in this staging of the baptismal ritual, Angelo’s introduction into the European order begins.
However, shortly thereafter, the boy falls sick. Unaware of the “organic” cause of his ailment, those around him turn to God for help. The tools of material reality have failed, but as the boy was introduced into the symbolic order, there are ways of accessing the storehouses of meaning contained in the apparatus of semiotic capture that is the Church. That is, there are European religious technics that can be resourced in order to save the boy. Nevertheless, he dies.
Angelo #2 is chosen. And while we have been thrown for a loop, now we meet our protagonist. But the process of inculcation into the symbolic order is the same, save that now we also see that ‘Angelo’ bears some value in itself as a signifier. As Angelo grows through his instruction in the house of a European noblewoman, he is taught music, manners, fashion, and, most of all, language. However, he does not speak. He is spoken to, but he never speaks back. There are only two instances (one sequence) when the young Angelo communicates freely. The first is when he releases wild birds from their cages and the second is when he is being punished for this act. As he is being instructed to accept his punishment (10 lashings from a cane), he saunters away from his punisher, only to be chased down. At this point, he screams. A primal scream. This is the only verbal sound Angelo makes in act one.
In act two, we are presented with adolescent Angelo; speaking Angelo; performing Angelo. After a few years of training, discipline we might say, he has become an accomplished musician. He plays concerts for other Aristocrats and has seemingly begun to find his place in their world. In fact, his mistress goes so far as to say that he has honored them all by demonstrating how he is now finally one of them. This harkens back to an earlier scene when she was teaching the young Angelo about how adventurers report their findings from their journeys throughout the world so those who cannot travel to distant lands can be brought to the truth about that which is beyond their limits. Stories about the north, the “savages” in the Americas, and, of course, the inhuman “negroes” in Africa. This earlier scene echoes through the adolescent Angelo’s concert scene as now we are to believe that his mistress and etiquette trainer is bestowing “humanity” upon this once inhuman creature.
Adult Angelo has progressed beyond just music entertainment. Now, he is a performer, an actor, a storyteller in his own right. He stands on central stages before rooms of bedazzled Aristocrats and tells a scripted myth about his origins. He comes from a land of wild and fire and mountains. He is a great warrior. He possesses almost magical qualities. But this story is not his own. It is one he must tell as he embodies his role and takes his place in the order that is becoming more his.
It is when there is a blackface gala that the first reversal is introduced. The throngs of white European elites mingle at a ball, while the real black face is left askew. Although they can perform his skin, he is not the centerpiece. Rather, he is the inspiration; not his body itself, but the myth that they have foisted upon him through the fable that he has come to embody. This is the skin they wear. The black mask of their own creation.
But there is a woman, a white woman. She is nameless throughout, but she becomes his erotic companion. Their first sexual encounter is at the blackface party. It is as though she is able to first connect with him only through her performance of the black myth mask. But her naked white body speaks the truth of excess for both from their respective positions. Regardless of this, their relationship is sweet, tender, passionate, and sincere.
They must marry in secret, but their secret romance is successful for a time. They get a house together and build a relationship. Though, through their sincerity the excess of their positional identities causes friction. There is only an honesty within prescribed limits. So he promises to tell her the truth about himself. She covers his face with white lace before he speaks, and he begins to recite his origin story: the myth that he knows. However, he cannot complete the performance in her presence, for he is aware that it is a marred sincerity – an insincere honesty.
When they are caught in their forbidden tryst, Angelo is punished with his “freedom.” This is the most profound moment of the film, as there is a melancholic tone surrounding his gift. He has been granted freedom? How is this a punishment? Precisely because his freedom is also a being cast from the comforts of the Aristocratic life that had constituted his identity until then. And this leads to another wonderfully portrayed reversal. As his wife meets him in their home where they can now live freely and indiscreetly, she asks for him to say something of comfort to her. But he cannot speak. He has no symbolic position from which he can communicate any longer. There is nothing for him to say in this new position, for he has only known to speak from the conditions in which he was raised; in the courts of the European order. Thus, he must find a way to speak again.
In what is perhaps the most profound set of scenes between himself and a Viennese prince, we are introduced to Angelo’s profound anxiety. He does not want to be viewed as excessive or unique. His desire is not to be the “negro.” He does not want to be “special.” All the prince can say in reply to this desire is “good luck.” For the prince too is conflicted. He himself is a fabricated image, an abstraction that is not his own. Or, as he pointedly asks: “Am I just a work of art?” But this is not meant as something beautiful. For the German word translated as art is actually konstrukt. The prince senses that he too is a construct. Thus, his sympathy with Angelo is more asymptotic than orthogonal.
It is in the company of the Freemasons that Angelo eventually finds a new symbolic order, a new place that will let him speak, that will allow him to live. He may have lost his previous chain of meaning, but he has been initiated into a new order, complete with all the benefits of fraternity, equality, and freedom that come from a community of brothers.
Act three introduces us to the elder Angelo. His wife no longer in the picture, we meet his adult daughter. Bearing a limp and a complete detachment from Africa, she has a longing to experience something that will give her comprehension of the excess that marks her skin. During a tour of a museum under construction, she and Angelo are brought into a room with half-drawn murals portraying distant, exotic lands. The African wall is sketched with outlines of the Pyramids of Giza and palm trees. “Is that really it?” she asks. Angelo nods without hesitation. Is he ignorant of the home that was once his? Or is he merely giving her a morsel of truth to satiate her heart’s desire? They embrace and she cries tears of joy.
As the tour continues, they walk past a crate of foreign taxidermy birds. Their tour guide, a young and exuberant young intellectual, praises the value of science as it brings that which is typically beyond us into our purview. This is the value of the museum. We can rearrange the nature that has been upended in its original ecosystem and re-present it for our educational purposes in a new setting. Perhaps this is a commentary on the arrogance of science: that it is always extractive in some sense, even when it is seeking to represent the truths of reality. Science too is a form of myth-making. There is always an excess that escapes what any re-arrangement offers. Like in his childhood when his mistress spoke of the great value of adventurers bringing truth from afar to European minds, there is a violence of uprooting something from its original context and an excessive out-of-placeness when it is resettled into an ecosystem different from the one which formed it.
This is expressed in the following scene when Angelo, sitting quiet, begins to hear the squawks and chirps of wild birds. But not just any birds, the very birds he once released from their cages as a young boy, before he was incorporated by the European order. The wild that can never be contained behind bars or language can be settled but never quashed. The excess that is marked by his skin and by the cry of the wild speaks of what Gilles Deleuze refers to as “Immancence: a life.” It is that excess that is forever beyond, that forever escapes interpellation by structure. The vital impulse. Elan vital.
The film closes with Angelo dead. The vital impulse has ceased… or so we may be tempted to think. The truly grotesque manner in which his corpse is treated is not far from historical reality. His body was skinned and mounted upon a dummy’s body for display in the museum halls he had previously corralled. Displayed in stereotypical garb, the man that Angelo had become is now reduced to that mere phantom that always marked his body in the European world: he is the “exemplary savage.” A moniker for the European upper classes to marvel at as they constitute settled minds relating to distant realities. Frederic Jameson speaks of decolonialization as the catalyst for postmodern skepticism toward traditional orders of meaning. It is precisely in disrupting this sort of taming encounter with an “other” that he is insinuating. In making the other Other, decolonialization is the irruption of radical negativity into a seemingly placid symbolic order, scrambling the codes and rearranging networks of meaning in the process.
Unfortunately, there is no such vindication in Angelo. As with the real corpse of Angelo Soliman, his display case was burned in a revolutionary uprising during the 19th century. After his body had served its purpose, it was placed into a storeroom. However, perhaps the scene fixated on the flames engulfing the vulgar casing speaks of that vital impulse still flowing. This is why the true culmination of the plot is few scenes prior when his daughter bursts into the museum and demands to see his exhibited body. After breaking through security, she sees him, almost picked apart as a carcass in the grips of vultures; ripped from what might be particular in order to feed the ambitions of Western colonialism. She screams. A primal scream. It is this scream and the fires that burn that speak of the vital impulse, the excess that is only ever abstracted, but never quenched.
In the end, however, Angelo doesn’t provide any answers. Instead it asks a singular question that is nearly endlessly divisible into sub-questions. Schleinzer’s previous film was called Michael. Michael… and now Angelo. MichaelAngelo. Considering that Angelo also deals with the notion of a fallen angel (when Angelo falls from his position of grace by marrying a white woman), we can see this film as a way of examining the role of art and the artist in history and society to offer some form of redemption. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, humanity is only sparked to life by the outstretched hand of God. Prior to this, we are captives to our technologies.
Joseph Wright Derby shows us this with his painting “The Captive,” in which we see a prisoner untouched by God who is reposed like Adam on the ceiling, but foreclosed from the outstretched hand of God. More recently, Emma Tooth’s retread of Derby’s painting, her own “The Captive,” speaks of our present state of captivity within the banalized world of media receptivity, the culture industry, and corporate capitalism. However, for Derby’s captive there was no spark of God, whereas Tooth’s spark comes from the remote control that gives us access to the mediatized images that spark us to “life.” But when we are sparked to life, if that life-giving source is only interpellative then what form of Life can we ever access? If we are ever being brought into regimes of semiotic capture, in what way can we speak of that excess that forever contests and resists incorporation?
How can we ever find the true spark of the Beyond?