Not rated. It's more of a talking movie than a visual experience. Even the scene of sexuality is more talked about more than it is actually shown. Because the movie is shooting for a philosophical and cultural change, it goes in depth with the angst of what it means to be Black in Europe, but that is more of a concept than a single image to be absorbed. It's bleak, but that doesn't affect an MPAA rating. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Med Hondo
Do you know how much precious time I wasted trying to find an image in the proper aspect ratio? I have to apologize because the only image that I found that was high res enough was 16:9 and that bummed me out pretty hard. Listen, I recognize genius here, but it's not my specific brand of genius. This feels like I'm trying to backpedal out of racial responsibility. It's not the story of the Black man finding a place in White society that I find a problem. It's just that I'm not really a fan of overtly avante-garde films.
Visually, Hondo ticks all the boxes. That opening absolutely might be one of my favorite openings of Criterion films. The simple animation quickly establishes the motifs of the film in such a way that I went into the movie running. Even the opening sequence of the colonized Africans being shipped off to war is fantastic. The bigger issue that I had with the film is the jumping between what I would consider narrative against what might be antinarrative. I think I said the same thing about Last Year at Marienbad, but I don't do well with antinarrative. Soleil, O at least offers a grounding character with a clear message, so it is easy to let yourself be washed away with the visuals and the story. But I often think that the movie suffers with attempts to be lofty coupled with a message that needs to be said. Hondo is mostly very clear with that message: Colonization has destroyed Africans and Black people in general. There is no easy fix, mainly because White people only see things that directly affect them. Everything that Hondo says is meant to deliver that message.
But there are times where the intent of a scene might be lost. We get that through the eyes of the Visitor (I'm going to capitalize it because it is unofficially the name of the protagonist), that France (and, by proxy, the West) sucks, especially when it comes to African immigrants. But this movie is a textbook in all of the ways that the West is terrible due to colonization. I'm now wondering what the audience for this movie is. The obvious (but perhaps too obvious) answer for this is the marginalized Black community. I think that might be accurate, but this movie is too smart to simply be a complaints amongst the choir. I'm watching it through my eyes: a White man who wants to know better. I want to learn. I want to change and help bring about change. From that perspective, there are some really heady concepts that are delivered in the movie. But the visuals and the upsetting chronology of the movie almost bury some of the bigger concepts of the movie. It's odd, because the more challenging stuff tends to be associated with tricky editing and cinematic choices while the easy-to-grasp stuff is presented quite conventionally.
I had a bit of this problem in college. I would read all this really smart stuff for my theory classes. While I acknowledged that this stuff was brilliant, I tended not to like the really hard stuff because I didn't understand it. Avante garde stuff seems to hit me the same way today. I am better than I used to be. I used to dismiss the really heady intellectual stuff as useless because I didn't understand it. I don't see Soleil, O in the same way. I am going to chalk that up to a bit of maturity on my part because I watch Soleil, O and it mostly works for me. It's just that I feel so robbed of the parts that I don't understand. I think the parts that bother me are the shifting framing narrative of the interviewer with the Visitor. The clear narrative that we get comes from the Visitor's perspective. The Visitor, clearly looking for a job where people need jobs, is given a bunch of guff from various forms of racists. Some of the racists are dismissive, not offering a job "just because". Some racists are Karens, going out of their way to point out that there are too many of his kind walking about. That's the kind of stuff that I know and the film presents clearly.
Then there's the other stuff that I get later in the movie. There is a part where the Visitor, to someone's face, just states that Black immigrants are the reason that France exists. They make very little money and make all of the products that France lives on. They take the garbage jobs that are beneath White people and are still scoffed at for hanging out with other Black people. It's great. There's also a handful of scenes where the message is pretty clear. Two racists at a bar dislike the presence of Black immigrants in their bar. One immigrant starts to sing. Everyone has a good time. The racists change their minds. Okay. That's cool. But it's that darned interviewer. It's about half the movie. The interviewer scene casts the VIsitor in these almost anthology stories about the plight of the immigrant, but these are nuanced stories that I don't really understand.
And then there's the end. There's a 10% chance that I missed some cruical exposition (even though I watched every minute. I watch these movies without a phone near me and I'm staring while on a treadmill). But the mind wanders. I didn't understand the Visitor at a White family's house. The kids are crap and suck and everyone just ignores the bad behavior of the kids. The Visitor, left alone with the children, leaves. I don't know how he got out to the woods. I don't know is relationship with the guy who invited him out to the woods. It then goes into a bunch of photos and screaming. Okay, the photos I get. I get the photos are those martyrs to the cause. But the shift from the table sequence to the screaming out in the woods is so artsy that I feel like the message is lost. Or maybe the message isn't lost, but isn't as effective as it needs to be. Or I'm just the wrong stupid audience for this movie that is clearly smarter than me.
I'll admit when a movie is smarter than me. I don't like it. It's why I'm afraid to read certain books because after I read Ulysses, I just freaked out about every impressive book from that point on. But that's kind of my reaction to the Criterion Collection to begin with. Not all of them are trippy revolutionary movies. A lot of them are, but not all of them. Also, there are lots of trippy revolutionary movies that just click with me. But this one only half-hit. I'm not going to stop watching things that are too tough. I just have to be adult enough to admit that I don't get every element of a movie sometimes.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.