“Moloch Tropical” doesn’t reach its ambitions

TV movies rightfully get a bad wrap. The Lifetime television network alone deserves a separate section at the Razzie awards. But, disproving the notion that TV movies are trash by nature, “Moloch Tropical” is an admirable attempt at making a lot with a little.

The film follows fictional disgraced Haitian president Jean de Dieu Théogène’s (Zinedine Soualem, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) final days in the midst of a violent uprising.

Théogène is a terrible person all around. He’s racist, homophobic, an adulterer and endlessly pitiable. He sits like a god-king in his mountain fortress, surrounded by perpetual fog and people he couldn’t care less about. Soualem plays this sleaziness well, painting Théogène as a tragic figure victimized by his own hubris.

Weirdly, the supporting cast members are all emotionless. In the film, it seems like they exist only to raise Soualem up. Occasionally, Théogène’s adviser, Rachel (Mireille Metellus, “White Skin”), pulls out a good performance, but she hardly gets enough screen time to strut her stuff.

To begin with, it’s not clear where director Raoul Peck wants to fix his camera. Vapid Americans come and go from Théogène’s compound with little development or explanation. Storylines come and go inconsequentially and the result is a meandering meditation on, well, it’s not clear what. Politics? Religion?

Even though the movie regains a bit of focus in the last 20 minutes, the damage has already been done.

“Moloch” tries its hardest to conceal its TV movie identity, but it doesn’t work. A laughably bad torture scene pulls the movie down considerably, and what violence is emphasized doesn’t reach the visceral depths it’s aiming for. What the viewer gets is a poorly slapped together montage of stock punching noises and half-hearted screams.

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This is doubly sad given that the cinematography is the best part of the movie. It’s vibrant and colorful. Visually, each scene pulses with life even when the performances don’t.

Even though it doesn’t reach its allegorical ambitions, the film is an admirable effort to represent societal collapse from the bottom down. Sometimes, it works. Its power can hit unexpectedly and, at points, the viewer may be shaken. But otherwise, prepare to sit still and admire the scenery.