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Aguirre, the Wrath of God
1972 - PG - 100 Mins.
Director: Werner Herzog
Producer: Werner Herzog
Written By: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra
Review by: Charles Vuolo
If any single theme were to summarize the works of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, "unnatural obsession" would be a reasonable choice. Films such as "Fitzcarraldo" and "Grizzly Man" display Herzog's fascination with incredible (and implausible) conquest. By repeatedly studying men of idealistic ambition, Herzog has maintained a constancy of focus reminiscent of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman. With Bergman it is the analysis of man's relationship to God, with Herzog it is the observation of zeal taken to rarely seen planes. Also like Bergman, Herzog maintains virtuosity and diversity amidst repeated examinations.

The 1972 film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is an unbridled and pristine tale of ambition. The film follows a band of Spanish Conquistadors struggling through an untamed South American jungle. With a heaving caravan of horses and canons in tow, it is the glimmer of gold and the fabled El Dorado that drives the Spanish through the tangled labyrinth of mountains and rivers.

Yet the jungle defies their over-armored cavalcade, and their spears tangle in the branches, their canons sink into the mud and their horses tumble from the paths. The European explorers are sullen and quarrelsome, far from the lustrous parade of treasure-hunters that embarked on the journey. In their stead appears a weary procession, overcome by the futility of their mission and the cruelness of the land. Facing exhaustion and dwindling supplies, the ill-conceived expedition appears to be coming to a slow and unsatisfiying end.

In a final and despondent effort to save the excursion, the Spanish leader Pizarro sends a small company of men ahead on rafts to chart the land. He dictates that if they do not return within a week, they will be considered lost, and the entire expedition will turn back. The scouting party, after building rafts, promptly launches South into the unknown. Within a short time however they face violent currents and hostile savages, and the assigned leader declares that their outing is over, and they will return to Pizarro as commanded.

One man, the turbulent Aguirre, refuses to except defeat, and rallies the men to continue on against the wishes of Pizarro. Though all wisdom points to ending the journey, Aguirre balks at the idea and instigates a violent mutiny. Citing Cortez as an example of an explorer who defied orders to attain glory, Aguirre seizes the reigns of the stumbling mission and drives the explorers further South.

Drifting on rafts, the rebel band of scouts delves further and further from civilization, led on with increasing abandon by their wild-eyed leader. Though freshly determined, the Spanish soon crumble before the might of the South American wilderness. The river they travel rises and engulfs the banks, and a continual onslaught of native darts and spears assail the small party. The armor and muskets of the Conquistadors are useless against the unseen ‘Indians', and one explorer after another falls dead to the silent missiles. The Spanish unleash canon fire into the jungle as a gesture of power, yet their means grow ever more useless against fever, starvation, and the jungle's stifling morass. As hardships intensify the men fall into a collective pool of lethargy, and even the deaths of their comrades fail to stir them. Only Aguirre, feverishly animated, paces what has become their funeral barge, staunchly proclaiming the glories to come.

The embodiment of supreme arrogance, Aguirre demands complete obedience from his men, killing any who defy him. When he vainly proclaims that even the birds are subject to his will, the true delirium of the man becomes evident. Indeed, Aguirre's gradual insanity is the true focus of the film, and through his untempered boldness he inspires both pity and admiration.

Though the story is dark, Herzog displays a timely sense of humor even in the grimmest moments. At one point a priest asks two natives whether they've heard the message of Jesus Christ, as if the concept was plausible amidst the sweltering expanse of untouched wild. At another point an explorer is declared "Emperor of El Dorado" by his peers, and proceeds to make decrees and hold court, even as his minuscule citizenry floats helplessly to their deaths. As their numbers shrink steadily, the new "Emperor" happily declares that officially their domain has become six times larger than Spain itself. Yet it is a domain they cannot survive, let alone conquer.

The film's direction is near flawless, and a myriad of subtleties help bestow a stark realism. The Conquistador's armor and weapons rust with age; their rafts creak and bend, appearing on the brink of collapse. The heat and discomfort of the wilderness is vibrantly palpable, and the character's faces are soiled and spent.

Filmed in gracefully restrained color, the cinematography and composition exude confinement. Despite the scope of the uncharted world the viewer can't help but feel as sequestered as the Spanish, trapped in their unwieldy armor and hemmed in by the flooded river. The brilliant performance of Klaus Kinski as Aguirre is the film's essence, and his orchestrated postures and savage gazes effectively declare the man's regal madness.

Overall the film's theme is distinctly Herzog: man, obsession, and impossible goals pursued beyond rationality. The futility and arrogance of a deluded man is sadly displayed, yet the sickness of Aguirre is nevertheless captivating.

"Aguirre: the Wrath of God" is a tarnished portrait of the best and worst of man's ambitions. The story's conclusion, while predictable, is haunting. Aguirre, the self-proclaimed "wrath of God" stands broken and delusional before the wilderness he couldn't tame. His men are all dead, and he will soon follow. Nevertheless as he stands alone and defeated he declares his aspirations to reign over El Dorado, and eventually conquer all of South America.

By displaying a rare strength of will, Aguirre proves he is no less mighty then his own aspirations would suggest. Lacking nothing in the way of courage and ardor, it is the troubling absence of rationality that ushers his downfall. With the possession of a saner mind and the replacement of greed for nobler aspirations, it is men such as Aguirre that conquer the earth.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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