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The life and times of Angelo Soliman, an African slave boy sold and assimilated into 18th-century Viennese aristocracy, is exhibited with quintessential Austrian precision – and a masterful undercurrent of irony – in this piercing dramatisation of an ignominious chapter in European history.
Groomed for court life from a young age by a wealthy countess (Alba Rohrwacher), Angelo grows into a celebrated court jester and, along with this role, the upward mobility of a nobleman. But for witnesses to this privileged upbringing, the illusion of Angelo’s freedom is painful to behold. Even more telling is Angelo’s own quiet yet acute awareness of his singular reality, laid bare in silent encounters with less fortunate members of his race, the insult of having to perform alongside fellow courtiers in black face, or the hypocrisy of a society that swiftly turns on him after his marriage to a white woman.
Coolly and perceptively directed by Markus Schleinzer (a former collaborator of Michael Haneke), the film’s painterly compositions play their part in framing Angelo’s humiliating fate as a trophy and specimen – as well as shrewdly implicating dominant cultures, then and now, in the Othering of racial minorities. — Tim Wong