Alone on the parapet of a fortress, stumbling between sky and void, a sovereign howls his rage against the world.
“The burden is heavy!” he bemoans in a display of self-pity and pathos.
This is not a monarch in a Shakespearean tragedy, and though we’re at the Citadelle Laferrière, this is not King Henry. It is Jean de Dieu, the President of Haiti, in Raoul Peck’s last film: Moloch Tropical.
Completed just months before Haiti’s devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake, Moloch Tropical is a narrative of ambition and loss that explores the corrupting influence of power stated in Lord Acton’s dictum:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you add the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it. ”
Although Peck has stated the film is not confined to the Haitian experience and the main character is a composite of corrupt leaders in the world, there are so many obvious references to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that it is difficult not to view Moloch Tropical as a film “à clef”. There is an episode of “necklacing”, a practice he endorsed which forever tainted him in the public’s eyes, the President’s weakness for inserting foreign language phrases in his speeches is parodied, and it is clear that Mother Teresa who unleashes the “chimeras,” the President’s personal enforcers, is Annette Auguste; but is Jimmy Jean-Louis journalist Jean Dominique? And who is the sexually predatory Minister of Culture played by Nicole Dogué?
Therein lies the weakness of the film. I admire Peck’s ambition but I wish he had decided which film he wanted to make. Either a universal tale of the perversion of power, or the perversion of power by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. There was the possibility of a great film in both. As it stands, Moloch Tropical has moments of greatness, but it is not a great film. There are times when the film is touched by grace and absolute grandeur (Jean de Dieu’s descent into folly as he stumbles naked through the wild bushes surrounding his fortress, the tête-à-tête dinner he organizes with the journalist- his former friend- viciously tortured because he denounced the President’s betrayal of the people and the repressive nature of his regime.) and some of the actors are very good (both Mireille Météllus and Jimmy Jean-Louis are excellent.) but very often, as elements of gross farce are introduced (the fight between the saxophonist and the orchestra conductor and the ensuing mêlée, the African ambassadors running like cartoon characters after the musician is shot at the ball) and some rather inexplicable choices are made (the film ends with the musical theme ”Don’t it make my brown eyes blue”) the depth of Peck’s satire is diluted.
Where Peck is absolutely successful is in the development of the Jean de Dieu character and its casting. Jean de Dieu is a man obsessed. Obsessed with his detractors, railing against them with desperately paranoid scatological and homophobic rants; obsessed sexually with his maidservant and the American actress, to whom he addresses nonchalantly lewd and vulgar comments. As the disgraced President sequestered in his fortress, isolated from the Haitian people who elected him democratically, French-Morrocan actor Zinedine Soualem is magnificent. He portrays Jean de Dieu as a classic tragic figure, tortured by the notions that fate has betrayed him and his political allies are abandoning him. There is such sorrow and lassitude on his expressive face when he attempts to defend the indefensible and watching his self-pitying rants about being an innocent martyr destroyed by sinister and hypocritical forces, one is spellbound by his performance.
So in the end what do we learn?
That we look for hope in our darkest hours, we look towards a savior in our moments of fragility and we entrust our leaders with almost godlike powers, but, being human, they will invariably fail us.
Michèle Voltaire Marcelin