Cinema has always been rectangular. There have been attempts at curving the projection screen to surround the viewer (Cinerama, Omnimax) or curving a lens (anamorphic, fish-eye) to warp perspective, but, as far as I know, no one has ever composed a movie entirely within a non-rectangular frame. Enter director Gust Van den Berghe who has composed Lucifer entirely within a circular frame. This process, dubbed “Tondoscope,” was developed specifically for the film and harkens back to pre-cinema — magic lantern shows, zoetropes, daguerrotypes — as well as the circular paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and the Breugels, whose work was a direct inspiration for the film.
Van den Berghe’s most stunning use of the circular format comes in a series of “mirror shots” sprinkled throughout the film, produced by shooting down at a conical mirror pointed toward the sky. The effect is like a portal to the heavens. It is in these images that Van den Berghe truly earns his comparisons to Bosch, visualizing a spiritual unity between the earth and the sky as breathtakingly totalistic as Bosch’s own. The ideal projection of the film would be on the ceiling of a planetarium, the audience staring up at the sky.
If I have focused on the technical aspects of Lucifer over its narrative and thematic content, that is because I’m not sure Van den Berghe’s material is quite up to his innovations. Retelling the story of Satan’s fall in three acts (Paradise, Sin, and Miracle), Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez, all piercing eyes and jutting chin) climbs down a ladder from the sky into Paricutin, a remote village in southwestern Mexico, where he proceeds to play around with the locals’ lives before, presumably, descending to Hell. The arrival of an angel causes a stir in the town, especially after he performs a fake miracle. Lucifer leaves shortly, but not before bedding Maria (Norma Pablo), an Eve-like girl who, after Lucifer disappears, is accused of seducing the angel and thus driving him away. Things go south (of heaven?) from there, with a federal marshall showing up to repossess the home of Maria and her grandmother and a push to build a new and bigger church to lure the angel back.
Van den Berghe approaches this theologically charged material with a quasi-comic eye, playing at times like an arthouse version of The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Skeptic.” The simplicity of the premise — Satan engaging in some very low-level mischief on his way down to Hell — seems at odds with some of the grander Nietzschean pronouncements Lucifer delivers in voiceover (e.g., “Every judgment is meaningless.”).
Additionally, Van den Berghe has not quite realized the full potential of the circular frame. The roundness is most striking in closeup, where the roundness enhances the portraiture, and in small group sequences where Van den Berghe utilizes the boundaries of the frame to interesting effect.. But most of the narrative sequences work much the same as they would in a rectangular frame.
Lucifer is of a piece with two other recent works from Latin America that have played with the traditional boundaries of the cinematic image, Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux.” But unlike those two films, which integrate their formal permutations into a larger aesthetic vision, Lucifer is ultimately cowed by its circularity. Van den Berghe has stumbled onto potentially fruitful aesthetic ground, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to reap what he’s sown. Here’s hoping someone else takes up the challenge.