In 1860 a French lawyer named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens travelled to South America. Believing that the Araucanía region in southern Chile to be independent of that country’s authority, he attempted to establish a kingdom there with himself as head of state. He actually convinced several local indigenous tribes to join his kingdom, with each chieftain taking up a ministry within his new government. Ultimately de Tounen was betrayed by his own servant to the Chilean government, and they violently disabused him of his assumed status and had him exiled back to France. He lived the rest of his life as a self-proclaimed king-in-exile.
This curious footnote to South American history has been adapted by Chilean director Niles Atallah in Rey, a new and challenging arthouse drama. Viewers looking for a straight-forward narrative film will likely find the film a maddening experience. Those seeking a genuinely original style of feature film that demands the viewer work a little to receive their entertainment will be much more satisfied.
Atallah understands that history is, in part, a fictionalised narrative. There is no one alive who can speak to precisely what happened to de Tounens: what elements really happened, what part were exaggerated or fabricated, or just how fanciful his notions of an Araucanían kingdom were. In presenting the story of de Tounen’s struggle, Atallah actively forces the audience to confront the loose, half-forgotten and unreliable nature of the story. He does this with a few key techniques.
The first is in how the film is framed as a series of flashbacks, each brought on by debate during his trial for treason against Chile. De Tounen’s journey south, his conversations with tribal groups and the spiritual experience he has there are all related in very subjective ways. On top of that the trial itself is performed by actors in papier-mache masks, giving everything a deeply unsettling and artificial feel. The courtroom scenes are spectacularly performed, with the cast emphasising physical gestures and poses to compensate for their hidden faces.
The flashbacks to de Tounen in the wilds of southern Chile showcase regular sequences packed with magical realism and surreal imagery. These increase in ambition as the film goes on, suggesting a gradual loss of sanity on de Tounen’s part. Rodrigo Lisboa is excellent as de Tounen, His performance gives the character as messianic quality.
To emphasise the disjointed, half-forgotten nature of the story, Atallah shoots the picture in a variety of film formats. He blends his own work with scratchy archival footage, and then also took freshly shot film reels of his own and buried them in his own back yard for several years. The dug-up footage is scratched and degraded to the point of almost being unwatchable; Atallah nonetheless edits that footage in as well. It admittedly makes following the story an occasional struggle, but it is breathtaking in its technical ambition. It guarantees that Rey is unlike any other film you are likely to see this year.
Straightforward narrative drama is perfectly good, but it is sometimes worth stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and experiencing just how innovative and imaginative filmmaking can be. Rey is a difficult film in many respects, but for any moviegoer willing to go along with Atallah’s vision is in for a remarkable and utterly unforgettable experience.