Proteus (2003) Poster


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Missed it by that much
gwmindallas21 November 2004
At the heart of Proteus is a great story - actually two great stories - about the oppression of homosexuality during the 18th century. The main "love" story between Claas and the sailor has the makings of a very dramatic story if told well.

Where the movie went wrong, IMO, was mixing costuming, sets and props from different eras. I "get" what the director was trying to do - show us that these problems exist today as much as they did 300 years ago. But the visual jarring of seeing the modern next to the historical kept knocking me out of the plot. Halfway through the movie, I was wondering if this really was a directorial choice or simply a way to reduce costs by using readily available stuff rather than recreating the time period.

The secondary story about Virgil never takes off. We are supposed to juxtapose his life with Claas' and see how Claas becomes more accepting of his homosexuality, or at least "love" for another man, while Virgil becomes more closeted as the oppression begins. I never could figure out if Lorenz was Virgil's lover or just a gay friend.

In many ways, this movie would have been better served as a straightforward historical drama than attempting to take on multiple plots and risktaking direction.
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A cinema of marginality
mpb200931 August 2004
Post-apartheid cinema is characterized by the emergence of new voices and a diversification of themes. For the first time South African audiences are exposed to certain marginalized communities, including gay and lesbian subcultures. An important milestone in South African feature film-making is Jack Lewis's Proteus, the beginning of a visible gay/lesbian cinema in South Africa. Under apartheid gay and lesbian voices in film and television were also silenced. In a seven year study of the depiction of gays and lesbians in African, Asian and Latin American cinema I have noted that homosexual experience is unique in South Africa, precisely because of our history of racial division and subsequent resistance. Based on a true story, PROTEUS is a period film that raises issues still of enormous relevance today. Historian and filmmaker Jack Lewis was fascinated by a court record in the Cape Archives, dated 18 August 1735, giving judgment in the case of two Robben Island prisoners. Dutch sailor Rijkhaart Jacobsz and Khoe convict Class Blank received extreme sentences for what the court called 'the abominable and unnatural crime of Sodomy'. It is an extremely moving experience and forms part of a very small number of South African productions on homosexuality. Despite a new constitution which prohibits discrimination against gays and lesbians, our images of gay men and women are limited and still on the margin of the film industry. One ends up with less than fifteen short films, a few documentaries, less than five features with openly gay and lesbian characters and virtually no television programmes during the past hundred years of South African cinema!
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Introducing the "new" Sam Elliott
dinky-415 November 2004
While a brief description of "Proteus" may not make it sound particularly appealing, it's a surprisingly good work dealing with a time, place, and situation rarely covered in the movies. The anachronistic appearance of modern clothes and devices is only occasional and is probably meant to emphasize that the problems dealt with in "Proteus" are still with us today, in various forms. This insight, however, probably isn't worth the breaks in the movie's fabric these appearances cause. Also, the subplot involving a Dutch botanist, though given a lot of footage, never quite gels into a satisfying story.

Acting honors belong to Rouxnet Brown as the imprisoned "Hottentot" but viewers may be equally impressed by Neil Sandilands as the Dutch sailor-turned-inmate who becomes his lover. Sandilands may be half-a-notch below handsome but he has a good face and a good body and one can well imagine prison guards staring at him whenever he takes a shower. Unfortunately, his flogging scene is joined only after the final lash has been struck.

Neil Sandilands is a virtual newcomer at this point but he has about him the look and manner of a young Sam Elliott and could, with the right exposure, go places.

Those who go to this movie expecting lots of nudity and graphic sex will be disappointed. The sex scenes are frank but non-exploitive and, by current standards, almost modest.
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Love in a hot climate
PaulLondon15 March 2006
When the film began the flat DV photography and poor subtitling made me wonder if this was going to be worth the effort. With its anachronisms and stylised start it would be too easy to write this off as sub-Jarman. But, it is worth sticking with this 'historical' inter-racial love story set in South African as its themes of intolerance are still relevant today.

Although the low budget is very obvious, so is director Greyson's imagination and belief in this project. An interesting film which almost scuppers itself with its bad start but which redeems itself as it progresses.
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A handsome, challenging and classy gem of a movie.
moviegoer_220 June 2004
A handsome, classy gem of a movie, imaginatively shot on a very low budget by Greyson the way he did the uneven, yet interesting, "Lilies". I don't want to say much about the plot, which is based on facts, but be prepare for gorgeous scenery, some pointed nodes (to Todd Haynes' Poison, Tom of Fineland and Jean Genet) and completely believable performances by a first-rate, though unknown, cast.

A mixed bag of a love story (two men on a penitentiary island; one is white, the other is black; one is gay, the other is not; add a "curious", repressed warden and a definite taste for botanic and you'll have an idea) that actually works, thanks to a refreshing lack of camp. And, for those of you wandering, the title has nothing to do whatsoever with science-fiction, "Proteus" being the name of a beautiful flower used here literally and, most of all, metaphorically.

Definitely not your average "gay movie", and certainly not to everyone's taste, "Proteus" is challenging yet generous toward those who are willing for something a little different. Stick with this one.
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Varied Reactions Film
leslieadams6 December 2004
This "art house" film, based on factual documents, depicts real events which are informative and provide a historical context for some of today's social attitudes.

Although the recorded events took place in the mid-18th century, the director has peopled his set with deliberate contemporary anachronisms. This is apparently to tie together time periods, showing significant similarities.

The film itself seems to have a divided audience, from those who love it to those whose reactions are the opposite. While the events covered are pretty grim and unpleasant, the production is well shot and the quality of the actors is uniformly strong.

In my opinion, though, here's a film that will probably have a limited general, together with an appreciative special, audience. It is commendable that the South African government has opened its political policy for more inclusiveness in artistic subject matter. Well produced by a Canadian company.
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A well told story based on true life
Havan_IronOak8 April 2004
This film, based on a true story tells of Rijkhaart Jacobsz and Claas Blank two men who were imprisoned and met on Robben Island 1718 and 1735. These two men met and fell in love on the island that would, many years later become the site of Nelson Mandela's life sentence.

Rijkhaart Jacobsz was a Dutch sailor that had been sentenced there for homosexuality. It is there that he met Claas Blank, a aboriginal (Hottentot) who had run afoul of the law and was acquitted of any crime because there was insufficient evidence of his committing any crime but was sentenced to 10 years hard labor because he had been accused.

The story also tells us of Virgil Niven a Dutch plant biologist who had come to South Africa to classify the plant life there but was afraid to return home after the Dutch in Amsterdam began a pogrom of homosexuals.

While this story is NOT well known in South Africa today one hopes that with this film it will become more widely known. South Africa has one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world with an equal protection clause for sexual preference in their Bill of Rights.

The film uses a creative approach to anachronism to help tell its story, mixing modern day elements with what is essentially a historical costume drama. Many of these elements were reported by the director to have special historical significance to those that know the full history of Robben Island, for the rest of us it just makes for an interesting device that adds a bit of spice to what some may think is a too-drawn out story.
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Erotic, eloquent and beautiful
Kieran_Kenney24 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
(may contain spoilers)

Adapted from an actual surviving transcript of a 1735 sodomy trial, 'Proteus' examines an interracial, homosexual relationship that took place in South Africa, in the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was later sentenced. The two men, African native Claas Blank and Dutch sailor Rijkaart Jacobz, were real people, two men who more or less came together out of desperation for both an emotional connection and an outlet for pent-up sexual desires. At first they seem just like friends, then their relationship seems more purely sexual. Yet, as time progresses, they have come to love each other. Discovery is eminent, but, while they both do meet a tragic end, there is the reassurance that they remain together.

John Greyson and Jack Lewis, the makers of 'Proteus', have crafted an eloquent and beautiful film, punctuated with superb performances by the three leads, Rouxnet Brown as Claas, Neil Sandilands as Rijkaart, and Shaun Smyth as Virgil Niven, a botanist who secretly harbors his own homosexual desires. The direction is without the camp sensibilities that would have canceled it's emotional punch, while at the same time it has none of the stuffiness of either a prison drama or a costume drama. The best scenes are between Claas and Riijkaart, in which the actors deftly portray a intensely emotional and sexual relationship at a time when the words for such a relationship didn't exist. Plus the sex scenes have to be some of the most erotic ever filmed.

Anachronistic props and costumes are prevalent in throughout the movie. The opening scenes feature a jeep. Three stenographers at the trial are right out of the 1960's, right down to their cotton candy beehive perms and paisley dresses. A conflict salvages eggs in a plastic shopping bag. A modern concrete water tower serves as Claas and Rijkaart's trysting place. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but the modern-day objects and clothes end up mixing seamlessly with the wonderful 18th century frills and waistcoats.

'Proteus' is one of the best gay movies out there, surpassing countless others. With so much crap out there, a movie like this, that addresses serious issues, and does so in such a poetic and frank way, is certainly due for closer examination. Hopefully, this wonderful film will get the exposure and recognition it deserves. I recommended it highly.
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Part Art Film, Part Historical Drama, Part Interracial Gay Love Story
mmcloughlin28 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The important thing to know when going into this film is that it's first an art film; second, an historical drama; and finally and interracial gay love story.

As an art film, it meanders and intermingles elements of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries - from 1725 to 1964 - as a cinematic illustration of the maxim plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As an historical drama, it is based on an actual case and uses the names of the two men. The real relationship, however, began about 1715 (not 1725, as presented in the film) when Rijkhaart Jacobsz and Claas Blank were about 16 years old. They had been together 20 years when they were executed in 1735 about age 36. Their relationship was not particularly secret, and apparently not particularly shocking - so the reason for their trial and execution can only be speculated. The most likely explanation is that the sodomy panic that gripped The Netherlands in 1731 made its way down to Cape Town by 1735.

One of the amazing things about the real court case is that the testimonial evidence of the Khoi defendant, as well as the Dutch one, was recorded. Usually, there's just notes as to what the Black defendant said, not his (or her) actual words. So, for some reason, Claas Blank sufficiently impressed the Cape Colony authorities that he was treated essentially the same as a white convict.

Proteus is a poignant film, and a fine example of contemporary South African (and Canadian) cinema.
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Sometimes we need to see a film to connect us to our anger.
djwynyard28 July 2007
This film connected me to my anger. It reminds us how the evil of the establishment of monotheism and its cultural imperialism have been used to murder us and perpetuate racism. This film is a deeply moving experience.

The acting and writing are very good. One feels the tension among the characters and they are all believable. The tacit communications are palpable.

The film also addresses the absence of terms in the language for the love and relationship between the protagonists -- a problem that resonates to the current day.
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Deserved better production quality
movietrail4 November 2005
So as not to repeat what other thoughtful reviewers have already stated, let me agree first that in many ways it is a very powerful film (though I would definitely not call it cinema), thanks almost totally to the remarkable acting skill and pathos of the two leading men, charged with the sin of loving each other and being quite physical about it.

However, especially during the first quarter, one gets the impression that you are watching a reject from educational TV due to overall filming quality (or lack thereof), which of course I'm sure is due to lack of funds, rather than lack of skill in directorship.

The glaring anachronisms look like goofs at first, but then again not even the worst Hong Kong director would send a jeep to look for thieves in 1730 (though he might make prisoners gather eggs with plastic bags and sound sirens in the background every now and then). You start to get the hint.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the modern costumes and props supposedly serve to tell us (wink-wink) that things haven't changed so much (or at least between 1730 and 1965, which is the period of most of the out-of-place costumes) and it still pretty much sucks to be homosexual. In 1965, at least.

While I realize the directors are trying to make a point, the presence of 1990s props and 1965 beehive hairdos with polyester suits just make the movie look cheaper, even satirical, especially in light of the fact that the photography basically resembles a home video on a tripod. To me, the intended anachronisms were just a distraction; and I don't need to be reminded that things are still very much the same, thank you very much. In any case, it just seems to underline lack of budget more than anything else. And lack of imagination.

Anyway, back to the film (not movie). Despite all the critical comments I have reserved for the directing and filming, the story of the happy-go-lucky "Hottentot" and sullen Dutch sailors' relationship was extremely well told and acted out, to the point where the hand-cam and plastic bottles and barb-wire fences didn't matter so much any more. It's a bit of a mystery why Shaun Smyth (the chatterbox botanist) got billing over Neil Sandilands (the sailor), whose few terse-but- loaded lines and facial expression spoke volumes more than one might imagine. In fact the whole film could have been made with just the two leading lovers and the rest as extras (the acting ability of most of the others left something to be desired).

As for the erotic part of the film, it could very well border on porn (again, due to the video look) except that it is much more human and realistic, and yes, touching. Anybody whose tastes run to lean-and-muscular men will definitely get their nickel's worth.

If this film was intended to get certain people thinking about humanity and justice more than they have been, it will probably not attain that goal, as it is so gay as it will probably fly over the heads of even some of the most understanding heterosexuals.

But it's great if you like to see proteas blooming fast-forward.
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Valuable historical film
paulcreeden2 July 2007
Warning: Spoilers
It is no wonder that this film's title is not on the lips of young gay circuit boys. It is a glimpse of our heritage as gay men, however. It reminds us of our own struggle for human rights for centuries in Western culture and in many other cultures of the world. That struggle is not over. In Iran, these atrocities, like the ones depicted in this film, are perpetrated against consenting gay lovers. In Moscow, gay marchers cannot protest without being physically attacked. I find this film profound in that it comes from a country which is struggling with its own economic survival. Yet, this film, of high quality and low cost, was made there. It shames American gay producers, who would never find financing for such an important story. I have tremendous admiration for the makers of this film. Its minor technical failings are negligible, when its overall value to global gay culture is considered. I think it should be required viewing in high school classes on human sexuality. The fact that the film also clearly associates class issues with human rights issues is a refreshing dose of reality.
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Strange and Wonderful
jkdrummond18 February 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I had seen this in the cinema some 7 or 8 months ago and when I saw it on sale on DVD, I snatched it up immediately; this is a film I will definitely watch many times before it's exhausted its fascination.

This is unquestionably one of the strangest films ever made, and one of the most intriguing and even beautiful. Slight spoiler: *It does NOT have a happy ending, but it IS, nevertheless, a tremendously positive ending.* The love story involved is complex and clearly developed with an eye firmly fixed on the morality, ideas, and misinformation endemic to the early 18th century, when the "real life story" took place. Nevertheless, the film is chockablock full of some very strange anachronisms. Nevertheless, both the buddy I saw it with and I were able, very early on in the film, to adapt easily to that. Subsequently, I DID find out that, as I had expected, Greyson, the director, and Lewis, the writer along with Greyson, did those wild anachronisms deliberately in order to underscore, so to speak, the fact that racism, homophobia and class differences are as alive and well in the 21st century as they were in the 18th.

The main focus is on the two lovers, but the Scottish botanist -- Spoiler: *present more as observer and sympathizer as anything else, though he is a major plot element* -- helps to open the story out to a much wider impact than a "mere" prison romance could allow for.

Beautifully acted (particularly Rouxnet Brown, Neil Sandilands (the lovers) and Shaun Smyth (the Scots botanist, though ALL really do a splendid job with difficult material), for a film that was made on the merest wisp of funding fantastic production values, and, IMHO, great heart.

A Canadian/South African Film Treaty movie, it pleased me enormously to learn that some of that micro-funding actually came from the government of SA! My major criticism of the film is the somewhat confused subtitling: There are, apparently, some four languages used in the film, Afrikans, Dutch, English and the click tongue of the Bushmen. *Once or twice the language on screen was subtitled in a non-English language.* A bit frustrating but scarcely off-putting.

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aarcher64-116 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
A lot has been said about the anachronisms but only to the point that "times are still tough for gay people." My impression is that they have more meaning then that, like were those court reporters portraying the actual reporters present when Mandela was sentenced using prison typewriters? Was that the Land Rover he rode in? Was the cousin dressed as Jackie O. saying something about Kennedy's involvement in S. Africa?

There have also been complaints about the limited development of the Scot botanist's role. I believe they didn't spend more time on that because it wasn't necessary and maybe there wasn't more facts from the transcripts available.
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