I’m no stranger to abstract filmmaking. From Jodorowsky to Lynch and many others I have certainly seen my fair share of films that eschew standard narrative conventions. Often times these films are so laden with symbolism and metaphor that the story itself can be incomprehensible upon initial viewing. The best of these have meaning behind each image and in-depth examination can peel back the layers to uncover the profound truths that the artist has hidden within. The worst of these are simply a nonsensical series of images that are nothing more than weird for the sake of weird, occasionally containing meaning that has been so obscured by the filmmaker that it is utterly indecipherable. Begotten is definitely abstract, so the question now is where along this spectrum it falls.
There isn’t much to go on as far as a standard plot, but I’ll do my best to summarize it in broad strokes. The credits alone give you a pretty good idea of the kind of film this is and the entire credited cast is as follows: God Killing Himself (Brian Salzberg), Mother Earth (Donna Dempsey) and Son Of Earth-Flesh On Bone (Stephen Charles Barry). The grainy, high contrast, black and white film starts with God Killing Himself living up to his namesake via a brutal disembowelment with a knife. Mother Earth emerges from under his corpse and after some postmortem masturbating of his erection is able to graphically inseminate herself with his cum. She becomes pregnant and before long Son of Earth is born fully grown and spends most of the remaining runtime being tortured by mysterious people in long, hooded robes.
It’s best to think of Begotten not so much as a movie but as a visual experience. There isn’t any dialogue or a linear plot to follow and the various gruesome scenes are accompanied only by ominous music or sound effects, such as the droning buzz of flies. To really get an understanding of what is going on (and what any of it truly means) would require a great amount of rewatching and dissection, for anyone who would be so inclined to do so. What I was able to deduce is that the piece seems to be a representation of the creation of humanity and our inherently violent, destructive nature with a heavy dose of religious allegory thrown in.
More important than what it all means is what the viewing experience itself is like and in that regard it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are some very interesting visuals here, the suicidal god being the most recognizable and iconic image from the film, and the gore and suffering on display is well-crafted and convincing. From the grainy black and white footage, to the atonal music and disturbing imagery, everything about Begotten feels like it was carefully engineered to try and set a record for creating the most uncomfortable and upsetting viewing experience possible. Watching the film start to finish is somewhat of an endurance test of nightmarish imagery and that is what I liked most about it. This isn’t a movie to be passively watched but rather an art piece of unconventional expression to be studiously observed.
Not every art piece has something profound to say however and while the lack of dialogue and conventional plot help to successfully create the immersive, nightmarish atmosphere, it is also the film’s weak point. Absent a compelling narrative you are left with only the visual experience which starts out bold, shocking, and intriguing but soon gives way to long scenes that feel repetitive and dare I say, boring. I enjoyed the moments of harsh, upsetting imagery found occasionally within this film and while the surreal journey is a unique one that’s worth taking, it ultimately felt too meandering to be fulfilling.Writer/director E. Elias Merhige has an interesting and provocative short film here, it’s just unfortunately buried within a feature-length runtime that doesn’t sustain it.