Currently on display in all of its titanic glory at the Louvre, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is a peculiar masterwork. Depicting one of the most horrific humanitarian tragedies at the time of its production, Géricault’s masterful strokes and command of movement offer a glimpse into the barbarity and cruelty of the social climate and pursuit of survival within a chaotic raft, lost at sea. Since the inception of the painting, many have tried to replicate the hellish incident in all of this barbaric glory. Yet, even with newly applied contemporary connotations, many artists tend to forget the exploitative drawbacks when depicting a human tragedy in a different medium. What may translate within a beautifully constructed painting, doesn’t always work as a piece of literature, music — or in our current situation, a film.
Conceptually, Agustí Villaronga’s The Belly of the Sea offers a unique narrative angle of the aforementioned tragedy: the framing device of an investigative hearing. Through forced narration and other verbal forms of documentation, Villaronga constructs a nonlinear account of the dehumanizing experience that left 147 survivors trapped onto a paltry raft. Yet what is particularly staggering about The Belly of the Sea is its stylistic indecisiveness. Constantly alternating perspectives and displaying aesthetic inconsistencies, the film creates a sense of artificiality, the sense of a work more interested in establishing a disorienting experience, over analyzing the pre-established emotional journeys of its two core characters. At one point even, Villaronga attempts to draw a comparison between the ongoing refugee crisis and the film’s recounted events, demonstrating little self-awareness or even depth in the process. The end result is a film with very little payoff, its main strength being imagery that sporadically provokes a sense of dread and sea-stricken malady. Occasionally, Villaronga cleverly intercuts footage shot on location with more minimalist sets which that provides a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety. But even with these occasionally staggering scenes, the rest of Villaronga’s tortuous 74-minute historical epic fails to even remotely engage its viewer. There’s nothing particularly insightful about The Belly of the Sea. When it comes to a tragedy that’s already been covered endlessly through a tapestry of different mediums over the past couple centuries, artists should finally take note and leave the restless victims of the shipwreck of the frigate La Méduse alone for the time being.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 3.