Some films are as generic as can be and love to blend in, others are so singular they can't help but stand out. The latter category rarely appeals to larger audiences, but a cult following can carry them quite far if they're unique enough. E. Elias Merhige's Begotten is such a film. It may be a rather tough sell on paper and it isn't the most accessible watch, but fans of experimental (genre) cinema would do well to give this one a fair shot. I wasn't quite sure how well it would hold up the second time around, but I'm happy to say the appeal is more extensive than its most glaring gimmick.
Begotten is part of a niche that harks back to the early days of cinema. It's not out to serve a more polished and contemporary take on silent cinema (like The Artist did), instead, it embraces early cinema's visual limitations and uses that to create a very peculiar atmosphere. Think of the cinema of Méliès or the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. The effect isn't unlike that of the found footage horrors that boomed a decade ago: moody and frightening films, but don't expect to make out what exactly is happening on screen. The terror comes from within people's minds rather than from what's being shown.
Begotten takes that premise to its extreme. If you want to follow along with the plot when watching it for the first time, it's no doubt best to read up on the film upfront. It isn't until the final credits (listing the characters that appear in the film) that you actually get some kind of handle to make sense of it. And even then, it would require multiple viewings (and a strong focus to glare through the high-contrast black-and-white imagery) to actually see what is happening. Then there's even more work involved in trying to combine everything into a logical whole. To each their own, but I feel it's better to experience the film as is and search for meaning afterward.
There is something that resembles a plot, but I gladly admit it's not something I could've pieced together myself. The themes (resurrection, birth, and death) are a bit easier to discern, even so, it's up to the audience to find meaning and sense in them. The film starts with the suicide of God, his body left behind only to be found by Mother Earth. She impregnates herself with his semen and births a son, a malformed man who is left behind to fend for himself. He is then found and taken by a group of passing nomads, who usher him along with them as their slave.
The visuals are by far the most divisive, but also the most significant element of Begotten. The extremely rough and grainy black-and-white cinematography is unrelenting. The effect is so harsh that it poses practical challenges for people who want to see what is actually going on. At the same time, it adds a level of mystery and intrigue that is crucial to the appeal of the film. Remembering Begotten is like remembering a fever dream. It's pretty vague and shapeless, but there's a strong emotional connection that makes a lasting impression if it hits you in the right spot.
The soundtrack is pretty atmospheric too. The choice to go for distorted soundscapes and ambient melodies was a smart one, though the technical (and creative) limitations of the time stand in the way of an even stronger score. Ambient isn't the most technical or innovative genre of music, but the connection with the visuals feels a tad primitive. A more tailored blend of visuals and music could've elevated the film further, but that's obviously just nitpicking. It's an excellent, entrancing score that makes up an essential part of the mood, just as you'd expect from a film like this.
As for the acting, well ... I'm not sure what to say really. There is a cast of different people, who are technically doing their job, but due to the abstract cinematography, there's no way to properly assess their performances. It's often impossible to make out what they are doing, let alone catch a glimpse of their facial expressions or body language. They are either convulsing profusely and freaking out, or keeping themselves busy with indecipherable tasks. That's not a critique, mind, just a practical observation. Safe to say, if you think acting is an integral part of cinema, this is not the film for you.
Begotten is not so much a narrative as it is an experience. It's not easy to say what exactly makes this film such a success, but the realization that you're watching something singular and unique certainly plays a big part in it. It's a shame the best scenes are bang at the start of the film, but they do help to set the tone and give you the necessary crutches to get through the rest of it rather easily. Your mind may wander at times, and some scenes may leave you scratching your head, but I never felt detached or left behind. Of course, this is very personal, if the style doesn't grip you, I imagine it'll be hell to sit through.
Begotten is not a film for everyone. It's a dark mood piece, experimental cinema infused with a strong dash of genre, not quite devoid of a plot, but a downright struggle for anyone who wants to have things spelled out. The grungy cinematography is the highlight of the film, the moody score a perfect companion, and the mysterious plot the icing on the cake. It's one of those films you should try out regardless of expectations, as it's such a unique and incomparable experience that the only way to form an opinion about it, is to watch it with your own eyes. Well recommended.