The King is Alive has all the ingredients to be the epitome of the forbidding, self-important foreign film, from its use of the Bard to its elusive approach to plot and character. Yet, despite the film's artsy attitude and bleak subject matter, The King is Alive proves a compelling and accessible experience that succeeds on the visceral level as well as the cerebral one.
Levring filmed The King is Alive under the Dogma 95 precepts for cinematic "purity" established in such films as The Celebration and Mifune. Dogma directors must sign a "vow of chastity," requiring that films have such constraints as being shot in color, on location, with hand-held cameras and no special lighting or sound recording after the fact. The best Dogma films have a raw immediacy, like method acting applied to directing, but have rough visual textures, like the way home movies looked back before home movies were shot on video.
The King is Alive, however, has the saturated colors and spectacular vistas of a film like The English Patient, thanks in no small part to the lighting and landscapes of the Namibian desert, which at times resembles the surface of Mars. Levring takes a looser approach to the Dogma rules, at times offering dizzying helicopter shots and dislocating flashes during the transition from one scene to another.
The film's primary locale is a long- abandoned mining village, where a group of Anglo tourists and their African driver are trapped when their bus breaks down. The ghost town has empty homes, leftover cans of carrots and roofs for collecting dew, but no means of contacting the rest of the world. Among the people stranded are a bickering married couple (Janet McTeer and Bruce Davison); a needy, hedonistic American chick (Jennifer Jason Leigh); an aloof Mademoiselle (Romane Bohringer); and an aging alcoholic (character actor Brion James in his last screen role).
The first night, the group blows off steam by partying, playing the radio, drinking and arguing about John Travolta films. As time passes and hopes of rescue seem dim, scholarly former actor Henry (David Bradley) suggests they rehearse and perform Lear. Staging Shakespeare's most pessimistic and apocalyptic tragedy seems like the worst kind of tempting fate: Wouldn't something like Gigi or Barefoot in the Park be more upbeat?
King Lear includes themes of jealousy, insanity and humanity stripped to its essentials before an indifferent Nature, and such things begin happening to the tourists. Levring and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen don't force parallels between the film's characters and Lear's, but when the group's emotions begin to boil over, you're not sure if the play is creating the tensions or if it's simply offering a framework for feelings brought out by the pressures of their predicament.
The drawback to The King is Alive is that we never get to know the characters with much depth, and thus the events of the film may strike some audiences as superficial where others will find them richly symbolic. The premise does provide the fine ensemble with opportunities both with Shakespearean poetry and improvisation, with Leigh coming across as unusually relaxed and sympathetic. McTeer reveals in her scenes both a ferocious rage and an arresting stillness.
The King is Alive's greatest strengths are its mood of impending madness and painterly compositions from its digital video camera. An act of violence before a campfire is shot as if the antagonists are being consumed by flames, while the tourists' procession over dunes at twilight resembles the silhouetted climactic shot of The Seventh Seal. The film has an effective framing device of an elderly African (Vusi Kunene) regarding the tourists from a detached distance, and his subtitled observations provide an unexpected echo of King Lear's regard of humanity in an indifferent, merciless universe.
The King is Alive will be screened by the Peachtree Film Society Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. at General Cinema Parkway Pointe, 3101 Cobb Parkway. $7.50, $6.50 for members. 770-729-8487. www.peachtreefilm.org.