Proteus

The year is 1723, the Age of Enlightenment is in full swing and Europe's enthusiasm for scientific classification has extended all the way to the Dutch colonies of southernmost Africa. Scottish botanist Virgil Niven (Shaun Tyne) is toiling away on the Cape of Good Hope hoping to identify — and create a European market for — different varieties...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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The year is 1723, the Age of Enlightenment is in full swing and Europe's enthusiasm for scientific classification has extended all the way to the Dutch colonies of southernmost Africa. Scottish botanist Virgil Niven (Shaun Tyne) is toiling away on the Cape of Good Hope hoping to identify — and create a European market for — different varieties of the creamy pink flower named "proteus" by great Swedish botanist Linnaeus and later designated as the national flower of South Africa. Fortunately for Niven, inmate labor is available from the nearby Robben Island penal colony, where Boers and Africans who have themselves been categorized "criminal" are condemned to years of hard labor. Some have transgressed the boundaries of the law, others the legal limits of sexuality. Among the former is Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brow), a young Hottentot herder serving 10 years for "insulting a Dutch citizen." (The estimable Dr. Linnaeus classified Hottentots as a subspecies of the human race.) Among the latter is Rijkhaart Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands), a Dutch sailor convicted of committing "unnatural acts" with another man. Blank mercilessly teases Jacobsz in front of the other prisoners, but in private takes Jacobsz as his lover, using their trips to the prison's water tank for quick sex. Jacobsz and Blank are both recruited to help Niven with his plants, but Niven takes a special liking to Blank, who claims to know all the local lore about the fascinating proteus flower. In reality, Mr. Niven's passion extends beyond the merely anthropological, and is further stirred when he glimpses Blank and Jacobsz together at the water tower. The jealousy of other inmates and growing panic in the Motherland over the "sodomitic pestilence" soon threaten to expose all three men to dangerous consequences. Based on the transcript of a sodomy trial found in Capetown by video artist Jack Lewis, who co-directed with John Greyson (LILIES), this unusually rich film tackles not only the social structuring of criminality and sexuality but race as well, and explores the ways science has been used to justify the ruthless pursuit of market interests and, eventually, apartheid itself. The historical specificity of this real-life episode is constantly challenged by the filmmakers' fanciful use of 1960s anachronisms — pickup trucks race across the South African plains; court reporters in bouffant hairdos peck away at typewriters — but these postmodern touches never detract from what is at heart a deeply moving love story.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: The year is 1723, the Age of Enlightenment is in full swing and Europe's enthusiasm for scientific classification has extended all the way to the Dutch colonies of southernmost Africa. Scottish botanist Virgil Niven (Shaun Tyne) is toiling away on the Cape… (more)

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