The Dark Prophecies of ‘The Congress’

Fevers are dangerously useful tools, in storytelling as in human biology. The same way they overheat the body to exterminate undesired pathogens, a narrative fever can melt away the vices accumulates in decades of genre cinema, franchise-building and Hollywood homogenization. In physics, heat is created by the random oscillation of atoms. In storytelling, this would be the introduction of something outlandishly arbitrary, absurd and random to the point of creating humor and unexpected twists. However, a careless flirt with heat can as easily kill the patient. To enrich the same old archetypes with illogicality and mystery is a formidable challenge: stirring up magic maintaining clarity is the kind of trick only master con-artists can pull off.

Ari Folman is one of those magicians. The Israeli director gained international fame in 2008 with Waltz with Bashir, a rotoscoped animation on his experience as a soldier during the Lebanese Civil War. The alienating style, of a not-quite-human and uncanny quality, merged perfectly with the narrative uncertainty of the protagonist’s struggle to remember his year’s under arms. Conflicts are usually the epitome of certainty, with both sides asserting a monopoly over truth and over their right to victory. Waltz reflected these facts back to the audience, like a deforming mirror, enhancing and highlighting how rhetorics can give birth to the contradictory, irremediably inconsistent bestiality of war.

A similar approach had been taken in the 1970s by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, author of novels like Solaris and Cyberiad. Like many fellow writers beyond the Iron Curtain, Lem regularly clashed with censors, who feared his works could set a dangerous precedent, namely that of criticizing the Polish regime by hiding political positions with interstellar camouflage. His novels, to be fair, often offer much room to satirize his homeland: characters are often grotesquely obtuse, powerful people deceitful. Like Folman’s work decades later, Lem had a tendency to channel the alienation of his plots through his narrative style.

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