Today I review E. Elias Merhirge’s Begotten (1990), now a “cult classic.” Perhaps the quickest way I can explain its effect on the viewer is to note that Marilyn Manson used clips from the film for his music video “Cryptorchild” from AntiChrist Superstar.
I think Begotten is superb, but it’s not for everyone. There is little plot, and the screen content is rather punishing. You’ve probably heard films described as “hellish” and “nightmarish” before, but Begotten makes those films look like Sex and the City.
The first thing you’ll notice is the visual style. The film is literally black-and-white (no grays), and each frame looks like a Rorshach test. The effect was achieved by painstakingly re-photographing every frame. The result is a movie whose visual style radically suggests suffering, which reinforces the action content.
I’m rather fond of movies which focus every element of the film to achieve the same purpose. For example, the impressive “bullet-time” special effect in The Matrix (1999) is not just a gimmick: it perfectly emphasizes the digitally constructed world in which the characters live. Likewise, the short scenes and reverse chronology of Memento (2000) are not editing gimmicks: they reinforce the phenomenological world of the main character, who suffers from anterograde amnesia and cannot store new memories. Begotten is a tour-de-force of this strategy; all its elements are radically bent toward its ultimate purpose. (The only thing missing is a terrifying soundtrack, maybe something by Diamanda Galas.)
What about the plot, then? It’s basically a brutal rape of Christian theology.
A man labeled ‘God’ disembowels himself with a straight-edge razor. Out of his guts falls a woman labeled ‘Mother Nature,’ who has sex with the corpse of God and gives birth to a rotting, nude man labeled ‘The son of earth: flesh on bone.’ The man is captured by primitive druid-looking men who drag him across a rocky wasteland. They torture and mutilate the man, who convulses horrifically the whole time and occasionally vomits throbbing organs, which the primitives accept as gifts. Finally, the primitives burn him to death.
But not to worry! Our hapless hero comes back to life and rejoins his mother. Unfortunately, another group of primitives rapes the mother and kills them both. A third group of primitives dismember the corpses and bury the parts.
Though a perversion of the Christian story, I also see the film as one long Argument from Evil. How could a loving God allow this kind of agony to go on and on and on? The answer should be obvious: God is dead.