MANY great men – and many great stories – get lost in the vastness of history.
Niles Atallah’s biopic, Rey, uncovers the mystifying and intriguing story of an individual that many will have never heard of. A man who, in the words of the filmmaker, ‘time and neglect have eroded the memory of.’
His name is Orelie-Antonie de Tounes, a French lawyer who set sail to Chile in 1858 with curious ambitions. Upon his arrival, the Frenchman (played by Rodrigo Lisboa) recruited native speaker Juan Bautista Rosales (Claudio Riveros) and headed into the forested unknown clinging onto a blue, white and green horizontally striped flag. His goal: to seek out the Quilapan people and establish his own Kingdom. Tounes would become Rey (King) of Araucania and Patagonia.
Rey follows Tounes through four chapters on this journey, dreamily switching between his adventure into the sparsely populated wilds and his later trial by the Chilean government. The two different narrative threads are marked distinctly by Atallah’s stylist choices. On Tounes’ horseback journey, his camera pointedly looks to the moon, sweeping clouds and snowy mountains as Tounes proclaims to have a purpose and connection to nature that goes beyond that of a normal man.
Atallah also uses a crackling, damaged film that paired with Tounes’ soothing, completive narration creates a transporting effect. As does the use of symbolised stock footage that furthers the film’s sense of mythologising – among these veiled images are feeding birds, scared women and collapsing pillars.
This hallucinatory style begins to dominate in the latter chapters of the film – with the epilogue falling somewhere between an acid trip and a lengthy gaze through a kaleidoscope. It makes for a lost world experience that is almost as immersive (not quite) as Ciro Guerra’s 2016 black-and-white work Embrace the Serpent.
The trial scenes, however, in which Tounes is accused of being a French spy, are marked by the use of papier-mâché faces. The bloated and tortured faces lend an added sense of unease to the darkened trial and act as an interesting counterpoint to the naturalism of Tounes’ search for the Quilapans.
As Tounes’ journey unfolds, it is hard to decipher whether he is plain mad or a man possessed by a great sense of purpose and driven mad by a thwarting of it. One thinks the former (as did the French government), but Atallah draws a hazy enough line between the two.
Mad or not, Tounes’ story and Atallah’s film leaves an imprint. A film as bold (and perhaps as barmy) as its subject. One that touches on the destructive nature of modernity, colonial discrimination and a sad loss of cultures – many of which tragically end up as ashes.
A story well worth knowing. A film well worth watching. Long live Rey.