In this new weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, to commemorate the Easter-Passover holiday, we check out the lesser-known Biblical adaptation Moses and Aaron from French directing duo Straub-Huillet.
Moses and Aaron is based on an unfinished opera by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, an experimental work based on his twelve-tone theory of music that takes us from the burning bush to the destruction of the Ten Commandments. Well, more or less. Events like the ten plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, so vividly depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s film, are not of interest here. Deliberately so, too, because they would clash with the work’s philosophy about the ultimate test of faith being a willing, unimpeded, unquestioning trust in what must fundamentally transcend all notions of sense and sensuality. Moses and Aaron are figures representing the dichotomous relation of Form and Idea: Moses is the man who advocates for a faith based on the imperceptible idea of a mighty God, while Aaron believes that faith is centered around what people can see and touch themselves. Moses, unfortunately, is disadvantaged because he is not an orator; the role is characterized by Moses’ seeming inability to sing (it resembles sprechgesang, or recitative). Aaron, however, is a golden-voiced tenor, something which Louis Devos utilizes to full effect as he belts out the libretto with rousing gusto. Alas, said voice mangles Moses’ message and leads (as we all know) to the golden calf and pagan idolatry.
Straub and Huillet strip this tale of its spectacle and try to focus our attention on the fundamentals: the philosophical arguments being made by the Biblical duo, the reaction of the Israelites to the rhetoric being presented to them, and the outer environment in which this all occurs. Their goal is clearly not to make a sumptuous and decadent feast for the senses, which is what many would assume opera should be doing. This is something akin to counter-opera, which takes the fundamental signifiers and repurposes them in revolutionary ways (this tracks with the Straub-Huillet method, as their cinema was fundamentally Marxist in nature). What this begets is both alienating and enlightening. Without the trappings of superfluous distractions, one can “hear” Schoenberg’s work more clearly. As this was my first Straub-Huillet effort, I had expected the opposite—something so immersed in intellectual rigour that my focus would have needed to be ten times more attuned to their method. Instead, I appreciated that they foregrounded Schoenberg’s debates about faith and ineffability in a way that allowed me to immerse myself in a comfortable register (or as comfortable as could be allowed with Schoenberg). Yes, this is still a difficult work scored to music that is distinctly modernist in feeling. Cecil B. DeMille this is not. But I’ve arrived at the point in my cinematic journey where material like this is welcome. It’s as though Straub-Huillet is the threshold I’ve crossed that will now lead me to a greater appreciation of cinematic radicalism.
Moses and Aaron is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Grasshopper Film. It can also be streamed digitally on iTunes or Kanopy.