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Proteus (2004)
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Preaching to the converted"
3 stars

Winners write history. Proteus tells its story from the perspective of the repressed, those normally relegated to historical footnotes.

Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown) is a “hottentot” - 18th Century Dutch slang for an African native. The year is 1725 and he is arrested in the colony of Cape Town for assaulting a Dutch citizen. His sentence is 10 years hard labour on Robben Island. There, his life entwines with two other men. Rijkhaart Jacobz (Neil Sandilands) is a fellow convict, a sailor contemptuously branded a “faggot” by his fellow prisoners. The other, Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth), is a Scottish botanist cataloguing the family of King Sugarbush plants that grow abundantly on the island, which he eventually labels “proteus”. Both men have the hots for our Claas, but Jacobz is first to act on his desires – with disastrous consequences.

Co-writers and co-directors John Greyson and Jack Lewis are obviously passionate about their subject and their film makes real the sort of human rights violations normally overlooked in accounts of the period. Under the eyes of Dutch law of the time, and – of course – comparable laws in the world today, their blossoming love amounts to no more than the crime of sodomy. Not only is Blank gay, he is black in a society that viewed his race as a transitional stage between ape and human. The set-up is intriguing, the central relationship poignant and the injustice of the situation clearly felt. Technically, Proteus also looks good, despite being low budget and shot on video. Guilio Biccari’s camera captures the desolation of banishment to Robben Island - where, a closing title informs us, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

Unfortunately, Proteus also encapsulates the bad of queer cinema, as well as the good. The actors portraying the lovers are chosen for their looks as much as their acting ability. Jacobz and Niven are both permanently fashionably stubbled, and Sandilands’ role is initially limited to casting secretive, smouldering glances at Blank. It’s so rare to see more than a gay kiss in mainstream films that queer movies often over-compensate, with love scenes more obligatory than erotic.

Greyson and Lewis introduce contemporary elements to the period setting, to jarring effect. A woman in 18th Century gown flicks off a radio; a prison guard drives up in a jeep; prisoners handle plastic shopping bags. I don’t know if this was a deliberate stylistic choice, or an imperative of the low budget shoot, but it threw me out of the movie and I’m not sure what it was trying to say – if anything.

It’s not everyday you see a gay costume drama, let alone a Canadian/African co-production with predominantly Dutch dialogue. The unusual historical setting of Proteus adds interest but Greyson and Lewis do not avoid the failing that makes so much queer cinema a drag. Blank and Jacobz are martyred mouthpieces, symbols of a society’s injustice rather than strong characters in their own right. The politics they represent comes across as overly earnest because the filmmakers are preaching to the converted.

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originally posted: 06/27/04 20:13:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/24/05 Nelson Matthew 678-789-4101 Excellent Movie I want to buy it. How? 5 stars
10/06/04 Ninja Sheldon I found the subject and the illustrations appealing and admirable 4 stars
8/24/04 Lee Magnuson Upsetting to my sensitive sensibilities, but good. 4 stars
8/21/04 Tom Worth seeing; dialogue hard to understand b/w soundtrack & multiple languages 4 stars
8/12/04 G Thompson I thought it was superb 4 stars
7/23/04 Ari Varello It is 5 stars
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  30-Jul-2004 (NR)
  DVD: 07-Dec-2004



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