Set in 18th century Vienna, Angelo is the true story of a young boy taken from the continent of Africa to become a “court moor.” This is director/co-writer Markus Schleinzer’s second feature film in seven years and it’s a frustrating one. While Markus could be commended for mining parallels to modern day from Angelo Soliman’s story, the overall feeling the movie gives off is one of hopelessness.
Angelo as a character doesn’t get to say much during the film. As a result, any insight into how Angelo is dealing with his reality must be gleaned from how others treat him or speak to him. Early on in the film it’s made clear that the only way that Angelo is accepted is by performing. Playing instruments or acting in plays moves his European mother to tell him that he’s actually getting closer to becoming a human. By the time Angelo has decided that he wants to be more than a performer, he’s so emotionally stunted that he can only express himself by performing scenes from the plays he’s acted in. He isn’t even able to speak with other people from Africa. One painful scene has him simply sitting across from another black person in complete silence. Which is contrasted with his brighter demeanor while joining in on a card game with Europeans.
Unfortunately, this creates a barrier. As an audience, we’re never given a true sense of Angelo outside of being a performer who’s doomed because of circumstances out of his control. There’s no real high point for Angelo. Any smile on his face is fleeting. Any form of asserting himself is met with punishment. It’s evident that there’s no hope for Angelo long before he realizes it. Making the movie play out like a countdown to the inevitable.
The hopelessness that persists throughout the film could be interpreted as a great parable for black celebrities today. There are plenty of examples of present day Angelos that will come to mind as the movie goes on. That does, however, call into question the necessity of telling this story. Without moments where we can truly feel for Angelo as an actual human or fleshed out character, and not just a performer, the film feels more like a chore than a thoughtful meditation on the existence of people forced to seek acceptance through performance.