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Begotten (E. Elias Merhige) 1991


    Begotten, the warmly received experimental first film from director E. Elias Merhige, is a passion play that wavers between amateur-hour incompetence and an undeniable directorial vision. It presents an unrelentingly bleak vision of the universe, to be sure, but itís also one thatís been tempered with some unfortunately shoddy production values and some narrative uncertainty that leaves the viewer confused as often as mystified (a second viewing answers many questions but also reveals flaws that you suspected, but couldnít confirm the first time through). Some of the movieís power relies on this bewilderment, and the movie offers so many layers of abstraction (the black and white film, the graininess of the rephotographed film stock, the inverse negative, the bizarrely natural soundtrack, etcÖ) that what we see becomes almost subconscious. Images dart past us, and weíre not sure if what we think weíve seen is what we actually we saw, and oftentimes weíre hoping what we thought we saw isnít what was actually shown, because of its graphic nature. In its best moments, the movie takes on the hyper-real sensations of a fever dream in which everything we perceive is amplified, distorted, and unbearable. Itís unfortunate then, that much of the film consists of plodding dead space that connects these moments of epiphany, despite its relatively short running time.


    What little plot there is in the film seems to tell a primal and forgotten creation myth (the first character we see is later named ďGod Killing HimselfĒ in the end credits), and much of the movieís power comes from the primordial groove that the series of violent births, deaths, and rapes that the movie sets up. Though the movie might have a simple narrative, it is ambitious in its attempts to work through powerful iconography, and as much as itís a film of ideas, itís a film of visceral gut reactions, and thatís something of a rarity in movies. Itís definitely not for the squeamish or unadventurous, and there are too few works that truly warrant that sort of warning, but itís also not for those who place high value on having easily classifiable experiences (and even less so for those looking to be entertained). Begottenís biggest problems lie in Merhigeís inability to sustain the illusion that the spasmodic figures that dot its desolate landscapes are as archetypical as the movie would needs us to believe. Whenever that singular illusion lapses, and we manage to get our bearings, the movie crumbles apart into a pretentious and murky muddle. Itís tough to guess to what any given person might get out of Begotten, since itís such a highly subjective experience. Although I personally didnít relish my experience with the film, I wouldnít think anything less of a person who had.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman