By the time you read this, Donald Trump may already have announced our withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. Last week the New York Times reported that the president, prodded by his senior adviser Steve Bannon and the conservative Institute for Energy Research, plans to issue an executive order scrapping the Obama administration’s regulations on coal-burning power plants, a building block to the Paris agreement. There’s a special place in hell for those who play political games with the fate of humanity—as Chinese director-cinematographer Zhao Liang might attest. His 2015 feature Behemoth, screening this week at Facets Cinematheque, invokes Dante’s Inferno as a metaphor for the human and ecological ravages of coal mining and other industries in Inner Mongolia. Straddling the line between art film and documentary, Behemoth takes as its ostensible subject the pollution of the planet—but it also explores the pollution of the soul.
Zhao was already on location, shooting images of a tiered open-pit coal mine, when producer-coscreenwriter Sylvie Blum, noting his frequent comparison of the place to hell, asked him if he’d ever read the Divine Comedy. “I found the description of hell—going down level by level—so similar to the mines I saw,” Zhao told writer Kelsey Bosch. The epic poem provides Zhao with some much-needed structure for what might otherwise have been a rambling pictorial study. Early in the film he introduces a man carrying a large mirror on his back, who leads us through Inner Mongolia just as Virgil the poet guides Dante through hell, purgatory, and heaven. In the film’s second half, Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso provide the framework for a trio of vignettes that fade in, respectively, from screens of pure red, gray, or blue. Even more than structure, the Comedy gives Zhao a spiritual lens through which to record a temporal crisis. Many ecological documentaries exhibit a sense of outrage—not so many a sense of sin.
The Inferno may get its own vignette, but in fact the entire first half of Behemoth seems like hell on earth. Zhao opens with an extreme long shot of a mining crater, its horizon capped by a cool blue sky; one section of the crater erupts into a storm of black earth, immediately shrouded in billowing gray and red smoke. Later Zhao surveys a pit after the blast as steam shovels scoop up loose coal and deposit it into the dump trucks that snake through the crater. “Ridge after ridge, descending with my guide, I see the monster’s playthings carrying out invisible orders,” declares a voice-over narrator, the film’s lone speaker. Panoramic long shots make up much of the film, with gorgeous images of the unnatural landscape. Touring an ironworks, Zhao captures a rich blue sky nicked in a lower corner by flickering orange flame, then cuts to an image of a giant furnace flame casting a muddy brown glow in the night sky. This is a beautiful film about ugly things, the sort of film you might feel guilty enjoying.
Zhao breaks from the landscape only to visit with the migrant workers who feed the beast, though his gaze is no less penetrating. There are no talking-head interviews, just long takes of these poor bastards puttering around their bare-bulb living spaces: stained walls, metal bunk beds, a folding chair, an ancient TV set, extension cords running this way and that. Many of the workers are plagued by pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease; the focus of the purgatory segment is a treatment facility where workers lie in bed, photographed in close-up as they stare at the camera and fight for breath. In a nearby operating room, a doctor and nurse use a suction hose to transfer gray fluid from a patient to a large bottle on the floor. “Step by step, I behold many living beings enduring the agony of toil,” the narrator says, sounding very much like Dante as he descends the nine circles of hell.
Not surprisingly, Behemoth got a cold welcome in China, the world’s worst polluter, where it has barely been screened at all. Interviewed by Slant, Zhao claimed that the film was disappeared from the Chinese Internet after being chosen to compete at the Venice film festival, and that none of the 100-odd Chinese reporters at the festival interviewed him. Behemoth implicates every one of us in the fossil-fuel economy—there’s a reason the guide carries a mirror on his back—and if Dante was correct, we can look forward to eternal damnation in the fourth circle, where the greedy drag heavy weights around. But farther down lies the eighth circle, offering even greater torments for the Trumps and Bannons of the world: the evil counselors, whose souls are wrapped in flames; the sowers of discord, who are constantly mutilated by a sword-wielding demon; and the falsifiers, who are consumed by pestilence and frenziedly claw off their own scabs. That’s why they call it a comedy. v