The DVD case for Proteus promises a beautiful, visually stunning look at the love between two male prisoners in the 1700s. Is it false advertisement?
In 1725 in South Africa, a black man, Claas (Rouxnet Brown), is sentenced to 10 years hard labor on an island prison. There, he is warned by his inmates to stay away from white Dutch sailor Rijkhaart, imprisoned for acts of homosexuality. Claas has caught the eye of closeted gay English botanist Virgil, a married man who oversees the cultivating of the island's garden, and depends on Claas's knowledge of the mysterious Proteus flower to help grow a better garden—and make money. But Rijkhaart and Virgil aren't the only two men who are gay. As in reality, the gays are everywhere, meeting in their own secret societies to get off when necessary. And that's what happens with Claas and Rijkhaart. Over the course of ten years, the two men start having wild, passionate encounters. It seems that they are creating an intimate bond—at least, from Rijkhaart's perspective. Claas is cold and cruel to Rijkhaart when he's in public and not sticking it to his little white bitch. He's also playing Virgil, charming him with botany BS, hoping to line up some prospects when he gets out of prison. But eventually, there's a crackdown on the…well…crack worship taking place between inmates on the island, and Claas and Rijkhaart are the first in line to be executed for it.
What makes this movie intriguing is the fact that it's based very closely on actual court transcripts. It's an awe inspiring concept to think of this relationship having taken place back then, and to see all the awful practices, reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, that the law practiced. It's the establishing of our gay history that makes this movie worth a watch. It's everything else that is the problem. First of all, the film seems to have been shot directly to video, and comes across as a very amateur production. Some of the performances are good, others are stiff and downright bad. Physical brawls are quite corny, and while watching the movie with my partner, we both actually laughed out loud at one point during a fistfight. It literally sounded like someone off screen spanked a defrosted turkey breast. And there's also a whole lot of filler. In an attempt to capture, I don't know, the beauty of the island perhaps, or the strain of hard labor, we're bombarded by long stretches of men working in the field, and scenic landscape shots. I will give the movie props for capturing the period, although, being one of the worst history students ever, I still think there were some anachronisms. Were there Jeeps back in 1725? What about manual typewriters? Hm…. There were also some good looking guys in the film and some real sexy sex, starting at 39 minutes into the movie. In fact, due to its low budget and long sexual attraction setups and performances—much of this movie felt to me like a porn with a story that left out most of the porn (and that which was included seemed almost exploitative…you know, sex sells, and gay men are buying). And the relationship between the two interracial leads (the race issue also being a noteworthy topic of the actual story) wasn't all that convincing to me. I honestly felt like they used each other out of necessity. It didn't feel like a love story to me. It was most often an uncaring S/M relationship with both participants willingly playing their roles. I just wasn't incredibly moved by the finished product of a crucially important addition to the gay timeline. And as one last note, the film switches from English to Afrikaans with subtitles constantly with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and it will drive you absolutely batty.
What can I say? It's shot on video. It's presented in an aspect ratio of 1:66:1. The film suffers from washed out colors and darkness. It's pixelated. And it's also got a mostly pink tint.
The 2.0 mono audio track is loud and clear.
The main menu and what leads to it is all about the hot and heavy interracial gay kiss. Scene index offers 12 chapter breaks. The original theatrical trailer is included, letterboxed, and there are also trailers for 4 other Strand release: Twist, Swoon, Crush, Testosterone.
And finally, there's a radio interview with co-director's John Greyson and Jack Lewis. Recorded for the "Celluloid Dreams" show, this is a 40 minute audio feature with a frozen on screen image (beware burn in!). The creators go into highly interesting detail about the historical aspects of the true story and about race mixing and homosexuality way back then. They also discuss the South African shooting location, trying to come up with a name for the movie, and the current status of gay issues. It's all a reminder of what a compelling concept this movie had. Oh yeah. Director John Greyson also discusses what it was like directing a few episodes of Queer as Folk.
In the end, Proteus is a highly-important telling of a factual gay story that suffers from a low quality production. If you're going to watch it for its worthwhile historical perspective, just be prepared for the budget presentation.