by Vassilis Economou
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: Inspired by the controversial figure of Angelo Soliman, Austrian director Markus Schleinzer delivers a historical drama on the acceptance of the other, which feels extremely contemporary
Having already forged an acclaimed career as a casting director, Austria’s Markus Schleinzer has collaborated with numerous filmmakers from his homeland, including Jessica Hausner, Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke. In 2011, his provocative feature debut, Michael [+see also:
film profile], was selected in Cannes’ Official Competition, while in 2014, he co-penned the period drama Casanova Variations [+see also:
film profile] by Michael Sturminger. Seven years after his directorial debut, Schleinzer returns with his sophomore feature, Angelo [+see also:
interview: Markus Schleinzer
film profile], which premiered in the Platform section of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival.
At the beginning of the 18th century, a ten-year-old boy is abducted from Africa and brought to Europe. Sold to a countess (Alba Rohrwacher), the boy is baptised “Angelo” (Kenny Nzogang), becomes another exotic treasure in her collection and is “civilised” through an educational experiment. As he’s growing up, serving a new owner, Angelo (now played by Makita Samba) becomes a valet and acts out fictional stories from Africa to entertain the enlightened high society. His success propels him even higher, and he becomes closer to the Emperor of Austria. When he decides to secretly marry Magdalena (Larisa Faber), a young, white maidservant, Angelo loses everything. Despite his initial acceptance by the Viennese elite, this mistake will inevitably change the course of his future.
Divided into five chapters, the historical drama follows the true story of Angelo Soliman, one of the most controversial figures in the Viennese Enlightenment. Schleinzer was fascinated by him, and so he conducted further research into his personality. His biography is fairly fragmented, and little is known about his childhood and youth in particular, so a good chunk of the script is fictional, co-penned by the director and Alexander Brom. Soliman is usually characterised as an example of how Europe thought of cultural integration in the 1700s. The noble, educated high society was both trying to explore the unknown and attempting to mirror its own vanity and superiority through the “otherness” of exotic ornaments, humans among them. Europe was trying to form a new cultural identity through exploiting anything that was different.
This paradoxical approach makes Angelo a historical but simultaneously contemporary film. Soliman’s role has multiple interpretations when considered over the ages, and Schleinzer strives to strike a delicate balance between his social acceptance and his adaptation, as he must become transparent. Thanks to his chameleonic skills, Soliman evolves, and after being a slave, he becomes one of the leading Freemasons, apparently gaining equality within the Viennese aristocracy. However, despite his efforts to achieve full integration in a foreign environment, the very same society that abducted him still actively avoids him. The superficiality of this acceptance is cruelly portrayed in every phase of his life.
The solemnity of the story is enhanced by the meticulously crafted setting for each of the chapters in Angelo’s life. Framed in Academy ratio by experienced cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz and unfolding in sets courtesy of production designers Andreas Sobotka and Martin Reiter, each scene leaves the viewer with a feeling of eerie emptiness as the story develops – especially when the past still feels alarmingly like the present. Schleinzer hints that this deeply rooted racist behaviour towards those who are “different” hasn’t changed since the 18th century – especially now, in just another “modern, cultured and united” Europe, where such social and racial matters were considered solved but are disputed, and where people’s tolerance of the “other” is vanishing at an alarming rate.
Angelo is an Austrian-Luxembourgish co-production by Alexander Glehr and Franz Novotny (Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion) with Bady Minck, Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu (Amour Fou Luxembourg) and Markus Schleinzer. Paris-based sales agent Playtime is handling the world sales.
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