***½/**** Image B- Sound B
directed by Jonathan Demme
by Walter Chaw Reminding a great deal of his remarkable Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme's now-inspiring, now-shattering The Agronomist is another portrait of a doomed storyteller embellished with subtle audio cues and almost mnemonic camera movements--the stamps of a gifted filmmaker who may never be better than when he works with the stuff of real life. Demme is a superior anthropologist and only a so-so fabulist, his liquid cool visual acuity always second-fiddle, after all, to his gift for background flavour, i.e., the contextualizing power of the right music, the right settings, and the right personalities in supporting roles. Demme's films are each documents of the underneath that find explication in hindsight in his apprenticeship underneath Roger Corman while simultaneously explaining how quickly his auteur identity and better judgment can be subsumed beneath too much legacy (The Truth About Charlie) or too devouring an ego (Oprah's The Beloved)--making his upcoming remake of John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate an iffy proposition at best. Demme is himself forever just a step away from his vivid gallery of outcasts and iconoclasts.
For The Agronomist, Demme's portrait of an outspoken Haitian journalist, Jean Dominique, forced by the historically unstable Haitian government into multiple stints in exile (Demme interviewed him between fifteen and twenty times during one such period in 1993-94), the director's unusual empathy for the oppressed and the colourful finds a keen, vibrant, moving vehicle that is, when taken with the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming to Cambodia and the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, career-defining. Herein, Demme manages the near-impossible: a current, important biography that is unapologetically political without sacrificing artistry, and unapologetically sentimental without sacrificing backbone. In tracing the colonial history of Haiti and the ultimately unpopular attempts on the part of the United States to impose a democratic process with an occupying force (the CNG, circa 1986), Demme arrives at obvious wonder that the United States never seems to learn from its mistakes--as well as the wonder of America, a country that believes so much in freedom it will smother it to achieve it. We are Munchausens by Proxy parents of liberty, and the ways that The Agronomist and Dominique speak of the genuinely magical qualities of our twin fathers of freedom of discourse and civil disobedience remind us that in the state of our state, with its centralizing of media and attendant quashing of dissenting viewpoints, we've stashed those grey fathers away for their own alleged good.
Dominique is a jolt to old democratic muscles, eschewing doctrine for a passion for communication and art, and Demme's film, by its own proficiency, stands as a manifestation of the same. Influenced by movies while an exile in Paris, Dominique established Haiti's first and last, short-lived movie club, screening pictures in love with their freedom like Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Fellini's La Strada, finding in them a catalyst to drive a few of his compatriots into shepherding Haiti and the Creole language onto the world stage. The Agronomist is an act of supreme optimism, something close to hagiography that attempts to do for the choir what Dominique did for his nation. Although Demme's presentation is too oblique despite its transparency and its title (which refers to Dominique's training as an agriculturist ("Without land," his older sister offers)) is sure to turn the uninformed away, for the committed, the film succeeds as a prod. It's the intellectual older brother of the infantile, prurient The Passion of the Christ, capable in the same manner of renewing convictions, strengthening resolve, and inspiring a defensiveness for the causes of freedom from persecution, freedom of the press, and freedom to hope that one person, convicted and articulate, can still make a difference.
by Bill Chambers The Agronomist comes to DVD on a skeletal platter from TH!NKFilm. Taken from the celluloid blow-up of the video master, the fullscreen presentation is at the mercy of source material best described as mercurial. Interview segments range from bleary to gleaming (if still subject to the ghosting artifacts of a tape-to-film transfer) depending on their recency, while the archival footage that fills in the blanks is similarly vulnerable to age and preservation issues. With its consistent clarity, the Dolby 2.0 Surround audio fares slightly better, though Wyclef Jean's score is the only sound element to feature any kind of channel separation or engage the rear speakers. Curious that optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available solely for passages in which Haitian Creole is spoken instead of English, since presumably if you need Spanish subtitles to understand some of the picture, you need them to understand all of the picture. Worse, static, player-generated subtitles replace optical burn-ins that were, in retrospect, a significant part of The Agronomist's aesthetic. Originally published: June 23, 2005.