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    The King Is Alive

    Unjust deserts

    A busload of ill-prepared travelers in the cruel grip of the Sahara confront likely death by enacting scenes from "King Lear," as unlikely as that may sound, in the outstanding Dogme 95 film "The King Is Alive."


    About as far from a Shakespearean stage but as close to Shakespearean essence as they can be, a group of travelers stranded in the Sahara decided to put on "King Lear." It's not as ridiculous as it sounds. In fact, it's rather brilliant.

    Directed by: Kristian Levring.
    Written by: Anders Thomas Jensen, Kristian Levring.
    Cast: Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Khubeke, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, Lia Williams.
    Cinematography: Jens Schlosser.

    Related links: Official site
    "Do you understand this? This is a serious situation," says one British passenger, alongside their broken-down tourist bus. "Am I right? This is a serious situation."

    "Oh, this is deadly serious," answers Jack, an Australian outdoorsman who seems to be the only one who knows anything about desert survival.

    Before setting off for help at the nearest village four days' hike away, he instructs the group to follow five rules if they want to live. Gather water and food, build a shelter, stay visible, and keep their spirits up.

    While the others throw an ill-advised, energy-expending party the first night, the group's elder, Henry — a former actor who now makes a living reading lousy scripts in Hollywood — has an idea that will focus their energies in the empty days ahead. On the back of the screenplay for "Space Killers," he writes out what he can remember of "King Lear" with the idea of staging it right there, on the parched, sandy ground in the middle of an abandoned mining settlement.

    The King Is Alive  
    Maybe that will keep their spirits up. And more, maybe it will express something of their humanity in the face of their own steady deterioration.

    The genius of "The King Is Alive" is that it doesn't retell "Lear" — it's no daring reinterpretation with modern-day costumes and nontraditional casting, nor a cleverly rewritten adaptation. Rehearsed scenes and muttered lines from Shakespeare — acted as artlessly as any half-dozen ordinary people straight off a tourist bus would surely do — commingle with scenes of their real degeneration, until fragmentary visions of Lear, his daughters, the stranded tourists and their desolate, lifeless landscape have become one.

    It's the themes of "Lear" that resonate through the film. As the characters tread steadily toward a death they can foresee but not prevent, sanity ebbs and mindless fury seeps through the psychic cracks. As they have less and less to lose, the thing that in less testing times they might have called love peels away and their truest, sometimes most vicious selves are bared. In many senses, from the best to the worst, they show what is at their core as human beings.

    "The King Is Alive" is number four in the series of Dogme 95 films, made according to a set of rules that seeks to strip away the artifice of modern moviemaking and break out of rigid genres. In the best cases ("The Celebration," "Dancer in the Dark" and "Breaking the Waves," which inspired this style), what's left is taut drama full of original ideas, emphasizing the script and the actors rather than special effects. "The King Is Alive" is a powerful addition to this legacy and an intensely human film.

    DECEMBER 31, 2001

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