Epic look at a legend

Digging deep into the life of a legend

`Agronomist' unearths Haiti's Dominique


May 21, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The hero of Jonathan Demme's masterly new documentary The Agronomist gives off a glow that doesn't stop in misfortune, tragedy - or death.

Demme's friend Jean Dominique, a cultured member of Haiti's French-speaking elite, trained in Paris as an agronomist (an expert in the science of soil management). But when he returned to his native land he found himself drawn to political life, to movies and moviemaking, and ultimately to radio journalism. Running his own station was a brilliant choice. Broadcasting allowed him to speak directly to the rural masses - the people Dominique saw as both the most exploited men and women in Haiti and the country's greatest hope.

Demme has compared Dominique's urgently expressive looks to those of the great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. The resemblance is piquant. Barrault is best known here for playing the love-struck mime in Children of Paradise. In The Agronomist, Dominique can't hold his tongue. Evocative, challenging words and sardonic, literate humor tumble out of him. He catches Demme (and us) up in verbal cat's cradles as he voices the need for freedom of thought and utterance and champions the Haitian citizenry against its dictators, coup-makers and corrupted leaders (including, sadly, Dominique's one-time friend, Jean-Bertrand Aristide).

When Dominique's eyes spark and gleam, the comparison to Barrault kicks in the most. He gets so excited by the visions in his head that he beams when he puts them into sentences.

That piercing look connects Dominique not only to an artistic icon like Barrault but also to the prayerful crowds that this movie captures in astonishing clips of religious ecstasy. When you see a naked Haitian man rising from the mud in a voodoo rite, his whole body exuding a renewed force and his eyes flashing with a laserlike potency, you realize that Dominique, despite his cultivation, has the same sort of elemental power. It comes out when he explains why he wanted to broadcast and write films in the native tongue of Creole, a language that gives its speaker an expressive leeway beyond words - in pauses, emphases and intonations.

Dominique's primal ability to sense change grows palpable when he talks of sniffing out political upheaval. (He really sniffs, repeatedly, with his bold, beaklike nose.)

Before the film is halfway through, this man of the boulevard registers fully as a man of the people. You understand why a tidal wave of supporters would crash onto a runway to celebrate his return from his first exile (after the ousting of "Baby Doc" Duvalier). You understand why they would take his return from his second exile (after the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide) as a sign that happier days were at hand.

By the end of the film, Dominique's wife and partner in radio, Michele Montas, who also was brought up in Haiti's elite yet chose to champion its work force, registers as mother of her country. She vows to carry on at their radio station, Radio Haiti Inter, after Dominique is assassinated. After a month of silence, she does her return broadcast with such instinctive wizardry that Dominique becomes less a martyr than an inspirational legend, like El Cid or Zapata.

Dominique, like Walt Whitman, "contained multitudes." What makes The Agronomist extraordinary is Demme's full appreciation of his complicated, compelling subject and the director's ability to give the film a shape that is as wild and confident as Dominique. Complexity within simplicity was Dominique's method, and here it's Demme's, too. The filmmaker understands that when Dominique advanced concepts as sweeping as enfranchisement and freedom, he wasn't reducing the variety of human experience to mere platitudes - he was trying to find a way for that variety to be released.

Demme and editor Gelber, using previously shot footage by other filmmakers as well as Demme's interviews with Dominique, Montas and other family members, layer the film with a density that strikes sparks. At one point Demme shows us, in jump cuts, where government bullets hit the radio station; later he superimposes Dominique's portrait over Radio Haiti Inter as the broadcaster describes soldiers destroying material and equipment. But Demme doesn't push kinetic effects just to keep the movie popping. He and Gelber viscerally convey how Dominique absorbed political conflict and took the shooting at the station as an attack on his own skin.

As a documentary, The Agronomist, in its excitingly fractured, modern manner, does what Lawrence of Arabia and The Leopard do: It traces the upheaval of a civilization in the profile of a magnificent individual. It's a 90-minute nonfiction film with the impact and the greatness of an epic.

The Agronomist

Documentary by Jonathan Demme

Rated PG-13

Released by ThinkFilm

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score ****

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