Niles Atallah / Chile, France / 2017 / 90 mins
At Filmhouse Cinema until Thurs 11 Jan 2018
Based on the real-life endeavours of Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a 19th-century Frenchman who sought to establish and reign over a kingdom within the independent region of Araucanía and Patagonia in Latin America, Rey (‘King’ in English) seeks to be a film worthy of its royal title. While Niles Atallah’s film may be a spectacle enriched with symbolism and visual effects, these strengths also found themselves being the weak narrative’s downfall.
When it comes to the visual elements of Rey, Atallah appears as equally ambitious as his protagonist. The film opens strongly with a surreal series of images of Tounens as he is coronated as the leader of his new kingdom. What follows is less a feature film but rather an art installation or piece of experimental theatre, as Atallah imagines his journey through experiments with masks and the manipulation of images through various creative techniques (including burying some footage to age it). While Rey exemplifies Atallah’s ingenuity as a filmmaker and artist, all these impressive elements do not make the film enjoyable to watch. The purpose of all of this distortion may be intended to reflect his own questions of truth and illusion when it comes to Tounens’ legendary story; however, the symbolism here is not distinct enough that it will successfully be understood by all those watching. Moreover, while it is likely that audience members will appreciate the risks Atallah is taking, the narrative itself is so fragmented and inconsequential that Tounens story is eclipsed the same way it was within Latin American history.
This all proves to be such a shame when you consider what Atallah’s intentions were when making this film. Rather than telling the story of a rich, self-entitled Frenchman with extreme illusions of grandeur, Rey reveals itself to be part of a greater discourse about colonialism throughout history. The fear and threat of the colonisation of America gently stirs throughout the film, erupting in the final moments that are aptly entitled “Apocalypse”. Atallah’s respect for Latin America, its history and its culture is the root of what makes this film beautiful, provocative and occasionally humorous. Yet, once again, not everyone will appreciate it; those who don’t speak Spanish or know of Latin America’s history will unwittingly overlook much of what makes Rey admirable. Even then, it’s only in the days after that the magnitude of Atallah’s project becomes clear. In the moment, however, Rey feels like a dizzying piece of experimental film that many may well struggle to enjoy.