“Language bearers. Photographers. Diary Makers. You with your memory are dead, frozen. Lost in a present that never stops passing. Here lives the incantation of matter. A language forever.”
These are the first words we see on screen as the film ‘Begotten’ by Edmund Elias Merhige (1990) begins. Soon after the sweeping ambient soundtrack rattles in and we are thrust into an entirely black and white world, devoid of familiarity and yet entirely concerned with our origins and our current structure of existence.
Some people hate this film, some praise it as experimental and ground breaking. Others are left distinctly confused. For a long time I was the last category. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, it was just because I didn’t know what to think. The film has no dialogue, only the beautifully haunting soundtrack mentioned previously along with what sounds like distorted human voices echoing painful emotions. The piece is a series of disturbing and yet poetical images and scenes, playing out a re-imagining of the story of Genesis. Of course I only know that now after reading my own body weight in articles about it. Yet even before I knew the context of the film, there was still something about it that stuck with me. It evokes the classic horror reaction of morbid fascination, being repulsed by the gore and the suffering portrayed in front of you, and yet not being able to stop watching out of some primal fascination of the unknown. Now days I would say it’s one of my favourite surrealist pieces. Though many would not necessarily class it as surrealist, I believe it’s reliance of the visceral and physical lyricist images hearkens back to the automatic writing techniques of the early surrealists – as well as the focus on the immediate reaction of our minds on subject matter in its rawest thematic form.
So yes I’ll grant you that the plot is hard to follow. I made sure not to read anything about it before watching. At the end I would not have been able to tell you about the plot, apart from the fact that a woman is born out of a dying man, gives birth to another man, and both have to survive while being chased by a group of nomads in what can most accurately be described as an early 20th century Mordor. So let’s run with this for now. As I mentioned the film can be broken down into a series of images, mini scenes if you will, that each hold their own terrifying presence. Each is difficult to watch and manages to shake you to the core without the use of words or specifics. Even the black and white visuals are grainy, and the movements of the films characters are jagged, jittery. It reminds me a lot of what we talked about in Silent Hill. Even more so it seems reminiscent of physical theatre, in art forms such as Butoh (which you can read more about in my previous article.) Take the first scene, where we’re introduced to what looks like a figure with a sack over his face, disembowelling himself and twitching frantically to a series of muffled howls which feel like they could be coming from outside or from the man himself. Now this section obviously contains some gore, it’s right there for you to see but for some reason my first impression was not one readiness. I have no problem with gore in cinema, but this seemed different. The gore wasn’t what repulsed me, it was the movements of the character, and the complex mix of pain and joy he seemed to be expressing. That mixture of feeling is what scared me. Honestly, I was happier looking at his bleeding stomach than I was his masked face.
The same applies to other scenes in the film. Much like when another man (who was born from a woman in an earlier scene and appears in adult form yet strangely infant like) vomits natural material and flowers when kidnapped by the nomads in the desert. Again, the way the nomads torture him and other seemingly lost souls in the awe inspiring, desolate landscape wasn’t what frightened me. What frightened me was his movements, and the mass group of naked arms juddering and wailing. Each character seemed like a physical form trapped in world without a voice. Frankly the nomads were the only characters that didn;t scare me. And I think this is what I mean about ‘Begotten’. The physical presence it’s characters, shots and setting brings to the screen is unparralelled, and whether I like the film or not, I think that has to be admired. It’s a thoroughly surreal technique – whereby the seemingly nonsensical construction strange and occasionally disturbing imagery creates a stronger response sometimes than more structured or ‘logical’ imagery. Here we see the visceral reception of a viewer playing more into the films ethos while our rational brains try to work out some semblance of plot, story or emotion. But of course the emotion is there right in front of us, we as viewers just have to open up to it.
Mehinge did in fact have an intended meaning to the film, which I suppose partially rebukes my argument but to be honest I think it’s still applicable. When first watching it I got some sense of religious symbolism with the nomads holding up dusty, ancient banners and torturing people on the ground – it’s all a bit reminiscent of the Salem witch trials meets Vatican crusades. And as it happens that pairs up with Mehinge’s parody of the biblical epic of Genesis. It retells the story in the basest of ways. Conveying the same sense of divinity but with the horror and suffering of the corporeal form – demonstrated most I think by the fact that a lot of the film was actually shot on a construction site. This truly is a story about dirty gods.
Mehinge intended the film to follow the three characters we’ve already outlined briefly. The mna at the start is in fact God, killing himself and possibly representing the dying form of divinity in a base sense, and instead the rise of the decadent and exaggerated opulence of religion. Here we can see language as a restriction, and the word of God as something that cannot exist, for how can our language possibly embody the will of the celestial. This is how I saw it at least, and that’s not to say Mehinge is defying the nature of God entirely, but I’m fairly sure he’s having a go at the institution and potential abuse of religion and the views that follow it. The second character, the woman born from God,and that extricates his semen to become pregnant, is mother Earth. The man she gives birth to is of course the son of Earth (also referred to as ‘flesh and bone’.) This then brings an entirely new structure to the film that wasn’t there before, and watching it again makes for entirely new experience. The murder of Mother Earth and the abuse of her son seems far more symbolic with this added context. So in a way, Mehinge’s criticism of religions practicality in human culture adds an entirely new layer to the film’s content. Yet even after this layer is added, what scares me most is still the raw physicality of it. It doesn’t matter to an extent whether the man at the start is God or not, i’m still terrified of looking him in the eyes.
I think both layers work together, granted the added symbolism does give a certain direction to the film, something which a lack off puts most people off. As well I should reiterate that there are several scenes that sensitive viewers may find disturbing, so if you might be sensitive to sections of gore or sexual violence I would recommend giving this one a miss.
I suppose I’m not really doing the film justice, as i’m sure there are many articles out there that go into more details explaining the specific parodies of the Bible. But for me it’s that physicality, that raw, frightening form, that sticks with me. It made me consider my primal urges and the routes of my very identity as a human. All without uttering a single word. It brings divinity back into nature, into the corporeal – away from the churches and into the forests and fields. This is a piece of art that demonstrates that transition with horrifying potency an surreal beauty. As Mehinge says, this is indeed the incantation of matter, the language of the body, of the physical, and of our origins. A language that came long before words. A language forever.