The king is dead

By Jonathan Ali

Moloch Tropical, directed by Raoul Peck (107 minutes)

Still from Moloch Tropical

Zinedine Soualem (at centre) in Moloch Tropical. Photograph courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival

The Citadelle Laferrière is a massive grey fortress perched on a mountaintop in northern Haiti, 30 kilometres south of the city of Cap-Haïtien. It was built by Henri Christophe, former slave, revolutionary, and ruler of Haiti from 1807 to 1820 — or rather, Christophe had up to twenty thousand of his fellow newly independent countrymen build it, the construction beginning in 1805 and ending some fifteen years later.

The ostensible purpose of the Citadelle Laferrière (or the Citadelle Henri Christophe, or simply the Citadelle) was to defend the country against a possible French incursion. The attack never came, but the Citadelle served another purpose: testament to the absolute power and ambition of a man who, in the space of a few short years, went from general to president to self-declared king of his country, before a military revolt led to his suicide by — as legend would have us believe — a silver bullet through the brain.

How apt, therefore, that Raoul Peck’s latest film, a fictional study of a corrupt, brutal president on the verge of being overthrown, is not only set in the Citadelle, but shot entirely on location there. Inspired by Moloch (1999), Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov’s dramatised portrait of Hitler — as well as Sokurov’s subsequent films on Lenin and Emperor Hirohito, respectively — Moloch Tropical is a sort of Caribbean companion-piece to those films.

I say the film is a fiction, but that’s not strictly true. Consider the synopsis. The year is 2004, and the president, a former Roman Catholic priest, is about to inaugurate festivities to celebrate Haiti’s bicentennial. A popular uprising begins to take shape, and the president, who is serving a second term in office after the first was ended by a military coup, is forced by the US government (who helped bring him back into power) to resign and go into exile with his family.

If all of that sounds familiar, it certainly should. But it would be unwise to set down Moloch Tropical as merely a dramatisation of the final chapter of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency, even given the fact that that Raoul Peck (whose previous films include the excellent 2000 biopic Lumumba) served briefly as Haiti’s minister of culture under Aristide before resigning. For to say that Moloch Tropical is a film à clef and no more is to deny Peck’s considerable gifts as a filmmaker as well as the potency of this film, both as scathing political satire and inventive, sophisticated chamber drama.

The action begins with Jean de Théogène (Zinedine Soualem), known to his inner circle as Jean de Dieu, under monogrammed silk sheets in his massive bedroom on the morning of what will be his final day in office. Already we know all is not well: Jean de Dieu wears a sleeping mask, and his face twitches, as do his fingers, which lie upon an open bible; candles burn before a statue of the crucified Christ in an alcove visible in the background. As he stumbles from his bed, Jean de Dieu knocks over and smashes a tumbler, cutting his foot on a shard of glass. Thus hobbled, he limps through the rest of the film, the symbolism subtle and effective.

Jean de Dieu is married to a younger woman, the ravishing Michaëlle (Sonia Rolland), who sleeps apart from her husband and shrinks from his touch. With good reason: the president is a shameless womaniser, demanding favours of a servant girl one moment, propositioning a guest at a champagne reception the next. Sexy as she is, Michaëlle is no trophy wife; a lawyer with connections in Washington, DC, she understands realpolitik more clearly than her husband, and recognises before anyone else that the Americans intend to “drop” him.

After the president records a combative address to the nation (“We have democratised democracy,” he declares, before demanding twenty-two billion francs in restitution from France), he and his mandarins begin to prepare for that day’s bicentennial festivities. As violent protests against Jean de Dieu’s administration spread through the streets, however, the invited dignitaries begin to cancel, until the African delegations are the only ones left. “I need more whites!” one of the president’s main advisors shouts. (The razor-sharp script is by Peck and Jean-René Lemoine.)

Peck skilfully keeps a number of interlinked subplots going with various lubricious ministers as well as lesser functionaries and servants, giving the film an agreeable Upstairs, Downstairs feel. There is a storyline featuring the president’s elderly mother, who has to see her son by appointment and who — in a sly nod by Peck to the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo — accuses Jean de Dieu of whitening his skin. There is also an amusing storyline featuring a brash American actor with a limited command of French (Oris Erhuero), who is set to portray Toussaint L’Ouverture in a play commissioned for the bicentennial. This is a clear jab at the Hollywood actor Danny Glover, who for some years has been broadcasting his intentions to make a film about the Haitian Revolution.

The film veers into the realm of the grotesque and reaches its climax in a plotline featuring a journalist and outspoken critic of Jean de Dieu (Jimmy Jean-Louis), who is held in the Citadelle’s dungeons and repeatedly tortured, then brought up to farcically dine with the president. “Democracy is costly,” Jean de Dieu says, before having the journalist executed via necklacing. (To spare the squeamish, I advise those ignorant of the term to google it.)

As the uprising worsens and events continue to spiral out of control, the Citadelle’s inhabitants flee the fortress like rats from the proverbial ship. Refusing to step down, Jean de Dieu continues to come undone until, naked and mumbling passages from the Gospels to himself outside the Citadelle’s walls under a full moon, he is forced to sign a resignation letter presented to him by the Americans. Thus humiliated, he rides off into exile with his wife and young daughter, accompanied by the plaintive strains of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”.

Key to the success of Moloch Tropical is the lead performance, and the French-Algerian Soualem is perfectly cast. He plays Jean de Dieu with just the right touch of caricature, and gives us an erratic, capricious pill-popper who is at turns charismatic, repulsive, baleful, paranoid, and pathetic. Soualem is well matched by Rolland, a former Miss France, and the two share a series of gripping scenes.

As much a character in the film as any of the actors is the majestic Citadelle itself. Peck and his cinematographer Eric Guichard wisely resist the temptation to inundate the film with lengthy beauty sequences of the fortress, restricting themselves to a few extreme long shots. Particularly effective are the long shots of the president limping along the Citadelle’s battlements, emphasising his weakness and looming downfall.

Yet perhaps the most memorable image in Moloch Tropical is not of the Citadelle or the president, but rather of his bodyguard, sprawled out in a bathtub with a fatal gunshot wound to his head, a pistol in one hand and a balled-up Haitian flag in the other.


This review is part of the CRB’s coverage of Caribbean film supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival

The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Jonathan Ali is a freelance writer and the editorial director of the trinidad+tobago film festival.