I’m more torn about Angelo than I’ve been with any movie at the Festival this year. On the one hand, I really couldn’t stand it. On the other, there is a lot of good stuff here. I’m kind of tempted to put it down to cultural differences between me and the Austrian filmmakers but it might just be that I can’t stand their style.
Angelo begins with captive black children being led off a boat. We next see them being thoroughly examined in a weirdly modern warehouse. The captives are lined up and an overstuffed Viennese lady agonises over which one to pick. In the background we see modern plumbing, concrete and fluorescent tube lighting. Once selected, the child is taken back to a palace, baptised and promptly expires with a fever. The process is repeated and a garish inter-title smashes onto the screen with a giant 1 on it, accompanied by some blaring music. This it would appear signifies the first captivity of Angelo (his original name is never revealed). And so it goes, through three iterations of Angelo before he dies in old age.
The movie you see is about the varying assimilationist attitudes of 18th Century Viennese society and in that, it is quite interesting. The pernicious way that each captor treats Angelo is pretty on the nose and of course entirely relevant today, though each would be horrified at the use of the word ‘captor’ to describe their ‘kindness’ towards the ‘savage’. Angelo goes through the hands of various noble people, up to the point where he has the audacity to not only purchase his own property but also to take a white wife. At which point the white charade comes crashing down and he is cast with no small amount of fury out of privilege and is ‘punished by being given his freedom’.
This last act frames so well a myriad of issues around the treatment of slaves before and after their emancipation. Angelo of course has no freedom at this stage as he has constantly been moulded to whatever whim his entitled captors have shoved in his direction. Spun out of the only life he really knows is utterly a punishment, ironically for the crime of wanting his own freedom.
The movie is full of vignettes that highlight over and over again the horrific attitudes towards Angelo, perfectly summed up by a museum proudly showing him it’s depiction of the African wilderness, the delighted curator seeming to genuinely expect Angelo to have any memory of 1 - something that he only witnessed as a tiny child before being stolen and 2 - almost certainly didn’t exist as depicted.
Sadly the deliberately mannered style of filmmaking left me feeling wholly uncomfortable watching this movie, but not I suspect for the reasons the filmmakers expected. The movie takes each of its three chapters and throws them violently into your face whilst its characters prance and swirl in their period outfits. Angelo’s final indignity is too horrible to write about here and I have absolutely no doubt it did happen but for me, by that point, I was already squirming too much at the style of filmmaking rather than the clearly still relevant racial issues it flags. And the modern warehouse featured at the start and again at the end? If anyone watching this needs those images to realise that the issues in the movie are still current to this day, then the rest of this movie is wasted on them already.