“… in the image of God he created them”: Begotten Review

Posted in The Screening Room by - August 29, 2017
“… in the image of God he created them”: Begotten Review

As far as bizarre cinema goes, I’ve never been much of a fan myself. As much as I love delving into the obscure and abstract when it comes to themes, imagery, and storytelling, weird cinema isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I prefer my strangeness with a side of cohesiveness and structure – however loose.

Which is exactly why I didn’t really enjoy Begotten; not because I didn’t understand the film’s message, simply because the approach was more graphic than I’m used to. It, like so many other ambitious yet terribly outlandish films, was a labor of love that took years to complete. An irrefutable technical masterpiece, Begotten occupies a cold and shadowy corner of cinema history. Helmed by relatively recognizable director and cinematographer E. Elias Merhige, Begotten is regarded as something of a cult classic amongst the underground cinema crowd. Responsible for mainstream hit Shadow of the Vampire, Merhige pulls no creepy punches in this earlier pursuit. In fact, Merhige reportedly dedicated 10 hours of work for every minute of this 78-minute film; a level of dedication that delayed the film’s release to 1991 despite filming having been wrapped in 1989.

In its opening scene, this wholly black and white film features a man later identified as God in the credits horrifically eviscerating himself. Shortly after, a woman identified as Eve emerges from the body and inseminates herself with his corpse. She then gives birth to a son and embarks on a pilgrimage with her newborn. Things take a turn for the worse when the two meet a nomadic tribe of humans who kidnap the child and abuse it in increasingly gruesome fashions.

What Begotten attempts to be, and what most of its fandom appreciates it for being, is an allegorical work that denounces mankind’s savage and relentless abuse of Mother Earth and her children. Eve, in this case, being Mother Earth and her son, the primary victim in the film, being the “Son of Earth.” Merhige evidently envisioned Begotten as being an experimental retelling of the book of Genesis with an underground edge and message relevant to the modern day. As far as his message goes, Begotten is rather unimpressive and at times, terribly pretentious. From the oftentimes indecipherable, grainy, over-exposed black and white imagery that pollutes the film to the barely audible sound and complete lack of sensible structure, Begotten offers a painful viewing experience to even the most resilient and experienced cinephiles.

There remains a reason, however, that explains why the film, despite all its attempts to alienate the viewer from continuing to watch it, remains so popular amongst the underground crowd. For one, those who tend to enjoy films that occupy the peripheries of the traditional cinematic spectrum have an acquired taste for films that reject the norm. Films that, despite their cryptic storytelling and bizarre techniques, remain intriguing and attractive to fans of the unconventional. Even to the most traditional, mainstream viewer, it remains evident that an enormous amount of care and effort went into making Begotten. The grain and undecipherable aesthetic that defines the film is anything but random and nonsensical – it is carefully and precisely rendered in such a way that those feelings of disgust, discomfort, and anxiety reach the viewer in their most potent forms. For Merhige’s goal was not to simply show the viewer in allegorical terms the consequences of desecrating the earth, he wanted his audience to feel physically repulsed by the way in which we do it and in how callously we let it happen all around us.

As far as experimental dark fantasy horror films go, Begotten is an excellently crafted labor of love. I’m not one for the genre myself, but I can recognize effort when I see it. For those less acclimated to films that push the boundaries of fear and discomfort, it’d be best to look for something a little more tame for your Friday movie night.

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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