Antillean Cinema in the Absence of Ruins: the Case of Felix de Rooy
Instead of searching for ruins as the visible emblems of suffering, barbarism and cultural deracination, Antillean cinema looks instead to the results of confrontation for its subject matter. Written on the Antillean body is the grammar of survival, adaptation and acculturation. And nowhere is this more visible than on soulscapes of the “internal plantation.” It is an interior that is defined by racial phantoms, colonial fantasies and power relations framed by the complexes of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. On the “inner plantation” one finds the monuments of language, cultural fusion, religion and mythology: the essence and heartbeat of the Creole subject.
As I will demonstrate later in my reading of de Rooy’s feature Ava & Gabriel it should be apparent how the film’s plot, narrative drives and characterizations are framed by Fanonian concepts of cultural location and identity. In fact, the “internal plantation” is predominantly a Fanonian space, in which there have been a number of experiments in literature and painting. Its presence has been felt in the fury and beauty of Walcott and Cesaire’s poetry, in the passions and subliminal terrors of Wilfredo Lam”s paintings, in particular his 1945 masterpiece The Antillean Parade, and in ]ean Rhys’s literary masterpiece of the Creole imagination Wide Sargasso Sea.
In de Rooy’s films the tragic and the mythological co-exist as optical devices through which the Antillean soul can be revealed as torn between reason and passion as it struggles to ascend on a crest of power and excess. Driven by Dionysian concerns, de Rooy’s narratives are explorations of the self, the body and the powers of transgression. Racial and sexual codes are subverted by the archetypal status of mythological tropes and legends. In deploying these devices, de Rooy achieves a complex recasting of Antillean identity: sexual, racial, historical. Identity is in freefall, no-thing is fixed, everything is fluid and mercurial. These films are driven by cultural flows, they express Gilles Deleuzel’s observation that: “Cinema considered as psychodynamics or spiritual automation is reflected in its own content, its themes, situations and characters. But the relationship is complicated, because this reflection gives way to oppositions and inversion as well as to resolutions or reconciliations.”
As in his paintings and collages, Deleuze’s notion of spiritual automation finds an echo in de Rooy’s cinema, with Curacao as the landscape that continues to fire his imagination and in turn gives substance to his vision of a cinema with distinctive concerns. Those concerns are to do with the mixing of blood, sex, racial fusions, religions and Antillean mythologies. In a curious manner it appears that Western reason, framed as it is by Apollonian desires and projection, capitulated to Dionysian drives and excesses in the Antilles. The Antillean experience of identity is probably symbolic of the struggles of Apollonian and Dionysian desire. It is the presence of Dionysian elements in the narrative construction of Almacita, Soul of Desolato that gives the film its epic dreamlike qualities as its protagonists ascend to an epiphanic resolution through resurrection. While in Ava & Gabriel it is the foregrounding of sexuality, miscegenation and biblical messiah mythology that produces the film’s climactic moment as Antillean tragedy.
Creolization is therefore the grammar of brutality, miscegenation, negotiation, racial fusion/exclusion, mimicry and parody. European, African and Amerindian cross-pollinate, hybridity is born, a drama of Dionysian excess. It is this drama of encounters that de Rooy has often referred to as a “colonial orgasm” the recognition that the Antillean is a product of this orgasmic flow — the mixing of blood, language and culture.
As an Antillean artist, de Rooy is himself a product of this “colonial orgasm” and his films are emblematic of this existential experience. In other words, de Rooy approximates C.L.R. James`s notion of the ideal artist: A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future.
As has already been noted, Almacita, Soul of Desolato is the most dreamlike of his two films; it expresses most clearly Bergman’s insight that when “cinema is not document, it is dream.” Its hermetic resonance is what makes this film magical and revelatory.
As Nietzsche suggests: “Nothing is more your own than your dreams. Nothing more than your own work, content, form, duration, performer, spectator - in these comedies you are all of this yourself.” ”Almacita, Soul of Desolato is an exploration of the ancient messiah myth through an epic narrative structure in which de Rooy uses cinematic techniques that best serve the epic tale. Almacita, Soul of Desolato is set in Curacao at the turn of the century among an agrarian community of former slaves in the village of Desolato, with the life of its inhabitants intertwined in magic, ritual, religion and self-sufficiency. With the ontological status of former slaves the community has constructed a society far removed from the racially codified existence of the “shons” - the white plantocratic class, their former masters. But with Alma Sola, patriarch of the “shons” and the personification of evil, roaming the red earthen plains which circulate Desolato like a net, the people of Desolato forbid all contact with the “shons.” But Alma Sola’s identity goes further than a mere symbolic representation of evil. His identity is defined in terms of fluidity and flows, and invested with a Dionysian sexual personae, he is capable of psychosocial transformation: from male into female or animal. With the capacity for assuming different identities, Alma Sola’s treachery is only revealed when the vigilance of Desolato’s inhabitants is weakened. However, it is Alma Sola’s powers of self-transformation that makes him seductive and transgressive, this being the source of his powers. I contend that Alma Sola’s display of transvestism is a Dionysian identity trope that enables him to enter the universe of female experience. To embrace female personae is to pass through the dark tunnel and into the terrain of feminine sensibilities. Here we have Alma Sola’s affirmation of his radical identification with the mother. One should also note that Alma Sola also has a nomadic existence which is related to the mother-cult, the bearer of light.
Desolato’s spiritual guardian is the priestess/matriarch Solem, a herbalist and a spiritual mediator. Solem has had to sacrifice her fertility for the well being of Desolato. It is her transgression of this role that announces confusion and chaos in Desolato. Forbidden from having relationships with men, Solem’s desire to experience the “mystery of physical love” provides Alma Sola with the opportunity to lead her into the theatre of physical ecstasy. While in search of food and herbs, Solem, accompanied by a young boy, Lucio, encounters a wounded man. Moved by a profound compassion, she hides him in a cave and nurses him, but in doing so Solem violates the rules of Desolato. Seduced by the man who later disappears, Solem is expelled from Desolato when her pregnancy becomes known. Her pregnancy is associated with evil forces. Again de Rooy returns to the tropes of nomadology, racial fusion and “spiritual automation”. Solem is turned into the wanderer/nomad as she, Lucio and the newborn Almacita leave in search of Matriz di Piedat, the place of dwelling spirits. Solem’s journey becomes a quest for the light of the spirit world, which will cleanse her and Almacita of the ravages of evil. But with Matriz di Peitat located in the region of Alma Sola, Solem’s efforts are threatened by sabotage. Her struggles with Alma Sola result in the death of Almacita, and it is Lucio who carries the body to Matriz di Piedat, where she is reborn into the world of ancestral spirits. Almacita’s tragic death and rebirth becomes a kind of consolation for Solem when she finally arrives in Matriz di Piedat. Cleansed of evil forces, Solem and Lucio return to Desolato. Eros, the life force, conquers the death instincts and redemption is secured through rebirth. In some of the film’s most intensely lyrical passages, the Dionysian vision is expressed in a ritual of song, dance, music, caves, and the symbolic references to red earth. Existence becomes a ritual of worship to the powers of nature.
Where Almacita, Soul of Desolato is an exploration of the legend, and the powers of religion and mythology, Ava & Gabriel deploys one central semiotic regime through which de Rooy examines artistic vision and the politics of patronage, colonized and colonizer and the psychosocial dynamics of sexuality. The narrative revolves around the ancient messiah myth and its archetypal status in Antillean culture. I differ from those who claim that Ava & Gabriel is a historical drama set in an exotic location. That kind of textual reading serves only to imprison the film into the madhouse of realism and historical determinacy. An alternative reading of this film would necessarily have to exist outside of the formalist excesses of realism. As a product/construction of the Creole imagination, the film’s nomadic structure indicates an attempt to develop a cinema free of boundaries, a cinema in which genre is made redundant and the Apollonian temple upon which genre is built crumbles.
But the film is also de Rooy’s most intensely Fanonian interrogation and dissection of the Creole psyche and he does so through a series of interlocking narrative tropes: religion, miscegenation, homo-erotica and cultural confrontation. The film is set in 1948 colonial Curacao and de Rooy uses the painting of a Black Madonna as a primal scene of catharsis to deconstruct the insular decadent morality of colonial settlers and hypocrisies of the church. The narrative hinges on a radical re-interpretation of Christianity’s most enduring trope: the Immaculate Conception. It focuses on the myth of the Archangel Gabriel, who brings joyful tidings to the world, impregnates the Virgin Mary and then returns to the spiritual world through death. It is de Rooy’s imaginative use of this myth that permeates the film’s narrative composition and embellishes his characters with complex psychological dispositions. It is very much about what happens to people when the sacred is revitalized and when the Antillean artist attempts to express in his painting the grammar of Creole existence. This dilemma is most clearly expressed when the painter Goedbloed presents his sketch for the Madonna to his patrons, the ecclesiastical order of the Catholic church and the island’s governor and his wife. Their reaction to the painting of a Black Madonna represents a series of splits, which is a statement as much about race as it is about the modernist movement in painting. The first reaction comes from Louise, the governor’s wife: “This really is most interesting Mr. Goedbloed. Eccentric. Those Antillean elements combined with Western technique.” But the governor’s reaction is somewhat circumspect, when turning to Goedbloed he says: “Technically not bad, but a Madonna against an Antillean background doesn’t seem historically correct.”
From this difference of opinion the narrative unfolds from one cathartic moment to the next. It is Gabriel’s (the painter) vision of a Black Madonna for the Antilles that precipitates character transformation, because his vision of art with historical and racial relevance appears scandalous to this Antillean community. The emotional and spiritual chaos that this causes is two-fold. First, Gabriel is not a native of Curacao. His existence is nomadic; he is from Suriname. He is an outsider and his presence signifies disorder. Second, he chooses a young local teacher, Ava Recordina, the Creole daughter of an Antillean mother and Dutch father as his model for the painting of the Virgin Mary. This symbiotic relationship is further problematized when Ava becomes sexually involved with Gabriel. This has the effect of forcing her lover`s - the white police chief Carlos Zarius- disapproval to turn into fear (psychosexual anxieties), which will later result in violence against both painter and model.
In the end the painter falls victim to the scandal that his vision has fuelled. The moment he arrives he is warned by the police chief Carlos Zarius: “We are easygoing people, Mr. Goedbloed, but if necessary we can be mean motherfuckers.” In the resulting tragedy de Rooy weaves a complex machinery of Antillean characters to produce a portrait of Antillean existence that is both celebratory and transgressive. But it is the characters’ Fanonian personae that remain one of the film’s outstanding achievements. Initially, before her encounter with Gabriel, one imagines Ava to have an identical psycho racial existence as does the Antillean figure of Mayotte in Fanon’s seminal text Black Skin, White Masks. Mayotte asks for nothing more than a piece of whiteness in her life.
Ava’s encounters with Gabriel, first as model and later as lover, represent catharsis; the origins of her later personal transformation germinates in this encounter. It is a statement about the powers of art to transform conceptions of self and personal location within the larger fabric of cultural flows. Again, in an ensuing confrontation with her mother, the smashing of her father’s photograph and her battles with Carlos Zarius’s family, these are instances of Ava struggling to cleanse herself of racial demons. Without having to get stuck into micro analyses of character psychology, my fundamental contention is that de Rooy’s complex study of racial psychosis, sexual personae and the powers of artistic vision to provoke, scandalize and heal racial lacerations are emerging as a central feature in Antillean cinema.
Undoubtedly, these questions will remain a central feature for epistemological and ontological inquiry. There is little choice in the matter, for this is the Antillean`s cultural and historical inheritance. And as the literary giants of the “internal plantation” have done, Antillean filmmakers will have to do likewise. The task is to continuously invent new Ways of addressing our existential states; like Fanon has done in psychiatry and Walcott in poetry it is now the turn of filmmakers to achieve this in cinema.
Radical Film Criticism and Theory (no. 32 Fall 1993)