Echoes From a Somber Empire | Chicago Reader

Echoes From a Somber Empire

Werner Herzog's 1990 documentary about the bloody 13-year reign of Jean Bedel Bokassa—self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic, subsequently sentenced to life in prison—proceeds mainly through indirection. The soft-spoken Michael Goldsmith, a journalist once arrested and tortured by the dictator for arbitrary reasons, questions one of Bokassa's wives, talks to some of his 50-odd children, and tours his former headquarters; these loping stretches are intercut with archival footage, and various pieces of classical music are effectively employed. Herzog's fascination with mad tyrants is no more analytical here than in Aguirre: The Wrath of God—he seems more concerned with gaping than with understanding. But he joins his “visionary” style, his sense of offbeat details and anecdotes, and his taste for romantic excess with a masterful and seductive sense of film rhythm. 91 min.

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