Runnin’ with the Devil
By Jordan Cronk
Atarrabi and Mikelats
Dir. Eugène Green, France, no distributor
In Eugène Green’s 2018 short film How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal, the eponymous Portuguese poet helps create a soft drink slogan, which provokes the ire of a local authoritarian government fearing the influence of American consumerism on Portuguese society. With characteristic wit and intelligence, Green brought this parable of early 20th-century European art and politics to life by drawing ironic parallels between the conservatism of the day and contemporary notions of neoliberal capitalism. Despite their differing ideologies and diverging art-historical concerns, Pessoa has in recent years become one of Green’s primary inspirations; in addition to the film, he’s also written a book about the author, whose sensibility is widely associated with the Portuguese concept of saudade, or melancholic longing. It’s here where Green and Pessoa’s approaches most clearly overlap, around, as Green has phrased it, a kind of joyous melancholia that the 73-year-old French-American filmmaker has long since fashioned into a singular cinematic worldview. In this perspective, history and its aesthetics are not only alive but also of such aching influence on our present condition that they transcend the temporal and cultural boundaries that less imaginative artists hold as sacrosanct.
Green’s eighth feature, Atarrabi and Mikelats, opens with a quote from Pessoa’s 1934 poem Ulisses: “Myth is the nothing that is everything.” Working from a scenario written by Basque author Itxaro Borda, Green updates the Bayonne-born writer’s allegorical tale of two brothers being raised by the devil to present-day France, combining the story’s religious particulars with Pessoa’s interest in mysticism and the occult—themes that for Green were subject to something of a dry run in his previous feature, 2017’s little-seen Waiting for the Barbarians, in which a group of strangers, fleeing an unseen mob of savages, take refuge in the home of a sorcerer and sorceress. After years of scaling his work down to only a modicum of formal and linguistic gestures, Waiting for the Barbarians literalized a number of the director’s longstanding concerns—namely theater (it was produced as a part of a workshop for stage actors and shot largely in just a few sparsely decorated interiors) and the evils of technology (smartphones and social media being two of its primary targets)—proving that his lovingly anachronistic approach to history could sustain a simultaneous critique of both tradition and modernity.
In Atarrabi and Mikelats, the secular and the spiritual finally face off. In a brief prologue, a woman (Adelaïde Deraspe-Lafourcade) arrives by night at the farmhouse of an unidentified male. Indifferent to the man’s impending nuptials, she seduces him into impregnating her. (“You’re the one I have chosen,” she declaims matter-of-factly to cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne’s camera.) As is typical for Green, he stages this liaison in humorously discreet and deadpan fashion; after getting her way, the woman, wearing a crimson dress and black veil like a Baroque bride-to-be, announces that no mortal can sleep with her and survive the experience, but that he will produce some fine offspring all the same. With nary a chance to respond, the man is left behind as the woman, announcing herself as the goddess Mari, adjusts her veil and exits the house, summoning an unholy fire in her wake. As the scene ends, the camera slowly pans over the man’s body—lifeless, lightly charred, and still lying in bed.
This evocative introduction sets the episodic course for the remainder of this wondrously inventive film, which then jumps forward a few years to when Mari decides to give up her two sons, named Atarrabi and Mikelats, to study under the tutelage of the Jesuit-schooled Devil (a lithe and seductive Theirry Biscary), who lives, works, and makes hip-hop beats in a candlelit cave with a group of all-male acolytes. A decade later, Atarrabi and Mikelats, now young men and played by real-life brothers Saia and Lukas Hiriart, have become polar opposites. The soft-spoken Atarrabi, older by just a few minutes, has grown weary of the Devil’s teachings and decides to head out into the world on his own, while the weak-minded Mikelats—all cocked eyebrows and devious vocal inflections—opts to stay behind to continue his indoctrination. Once free, Atarrabi tries his hand at becoming a monk, but his immoral upbringing thwarts his attempt, while a later relationship with a young woman named Udana (Ainara Leemans) is similarly compromised by his conflicted sense of good and evil. Meanwhile, back home, dancing and indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, Mikelats is evolving into one of the Devil’s most loyal disciples.
Diving fully into the fantastical, Green has here turned the allegorical dimensions of his prior films inside out. Steeped in myth and satirical humor, the film betrays a playfully perverse sense of humanity and moral comeuppance, inverting a bit of the Catholic mentality that the earlier films so archly applied. Atarrabi’s quest, in particular, follows a highly symbolic, stations-of-the-cross-like trajectory as he encounters a variety of fanciful characters—including a trio of lake-dwelling dwarfs and a giant, hairy Basajuan, a Basque-derived creature that lives in the woods—on his journey to spiritual enlightenment. With no one in his company, Atarrabi takes to conversing with the spirits of the natural world, who speak to him through a wide-range of animals and plant life. When he meets Udana, he seems to finally find some semblance of purpose, but his indecision about their future—brought on by intimacy issues and Udana’s earthbound spirituality—ultimately derails their romance. Crossing paths years later, the two are cordial but forlorn. “Are you happy?,” Udana, now married with an eight year-old daughter, asks her former lover. “All I’m missing is the light of God,” Atarrabi responds.
For all its whimsy, Atarrabi and Mikelats is one of Green’s darkest and most quietly devastating films. When Udana’s daughter falls ill—the result, it’s suggested, of a wordless but menacing encounter with Mikelats—Atarrabi is called on to bless the child and pray for her recovery. Sensing his ineffectiveness, Atarrabi begins his final descent into madness, culminating in a scene set in a church that harnesses a power to match Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009) or Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), while pushing the existential ramifications of the moment past the point of mere tragedy or redemption and into a realm of pure transcendence. Throughout the film, Green’s images evince a beatific and wide-eyed sense of the world, but in these closing passages they take on a gravely metaphysical weight worthy of such spiritual forefathers as Bergman and Dreyer. If, as Pessoa wrote, myth is the nothing that is everything, so too, Green seems to be saying, is life itself. As the hawk and the dove that appear in the film’s enrapturing final moments confirm: darkness and light are one and the same.