Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival. In this article, Jennifer Osei-Mensah reviews Markus Schleinzer’s new film, Angelo.
I will admit straight out of the gate that I went to see Angelo at the French Institute for a class, as part of this year’s London Film Festival. It isn’t something I would necessarily have chosen, or indeed found, off my own back. So I went in with expectations of a dramatised biopic along the lines of Belle, and was faced with a much more complex watch.
Angelo is based on the true story of Angelo Soliman, who was abducted into slavery in the 18th century, and ended up in the Viennese court society. Little is known about where he was born or the first few years of his life, but he has become a kind of legend in Austrian history, although it is difficult to work out exactly what kind of role he played in court society. The film is in French and German, and follows different chapters in Angelo’s life as he is passed from home to home.
What struck me from the start is how the audience is made to feel like something is constantly being hidden from them: characters and props move in and out of a very still shot, and often exit the scene, leaving the audience staring at an empty room for a few unsettling moments. Ceilings of rooms are often not captured. We very rarely see the sky. There is no soundtrack except for diegetic music and titles marking a new chapter. All of this contributes to a feeling of bewilderment, entrapment and frustration, which is presumably the director’s intention; to put us into the shoes of Angelo.
This detachment between action and viewer, however, does have a very cold and clinical feel. Other reviews have compared the scientific eye of the camera to an experiment, as we are encouraged to view and judge the people of the court. Of course, Angelo makes extremely important points about racism and the impenetrable white society Soliman is forced into as an object of exotic fascination. A scene that draws attention to these issues is when Angelo sits in an almost sulking silence next to another black man, presumably a slave. Here, we see a gaping social distance between the two men, and yet they are considered by the Duke as kinsmen. Angelo’s secret relationship with his white wife is shown as playfully sexual, which is somewhat refreshing in an otherwise sombre film, and the audience feels loss when they are torn apart. We see that a black man, albeit an intelligent and educated man, will never escape his social ranking.
Angelo was difficult to watch, not just because it dealt with challenging themes, but because some of the creative choices made it seem heavy-handed. In some scenes strip lighting is used, perhaps aiming to take historical events out of context and have them considered as contemporary – but at the time I found myself wondering if they had just run out of budget. However, the final scenes of the film are an exception. After his death, Angelo is skinned, stuffed, and put on display in a museum, showing candidly and poignantly the objectification he has endured throughout the film. His daughter’s screams on seeing his body are a strikingly painful contrast with the preceding silence. The film ends with the case containing Angelo’s remains setting on fire. This scene of combustion slowly fills the frame until everything is consumed, producing an angry and raw conclusion to an otherwise terse film.