The road to hell is paved with good intentions, goes the cliché, and this is what happens in a directorial debut by Taub Brothers, Jonathan and Leandro (most notably, Leandro has appeared in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Woodwind). Externo (2021) follows the main character, Joseph (Leandro Taub), who attempts to save the world with $2000 but ends up causing World War III. Although it’s what we consider an “indie” film, both its premise and the intriguing collage of images eludes categorization. It’s experimental, monologic, dialogic, and political. However, underneath the aesthetic and social categories, Externo is essentially a theological film.
The film is divided into chapters through which Joseph narrates and informs the viewer of his actions. His narration consists of monologues that are meant to give an insight into his intentions; conversations in which he wields power with the global political and economic giants; and experimental presentations of how our reality operates. Our current reality of life is usually divided into somewhat clear and neat categories of politics and economics, and the question that follows us around is who’s in charge? Is there one person? Is there some kind of S.P.E.C.T.R.E organization that controls the means of production, thereby never allowing any individual creativity? We have plenty of examples throughout history where this has happened in which the elites are getting richer and richer, and the true creators are suppressed.
Presidents and prime ministers are elected not through the voice of the people, but through the elites’ monetary and capitalistic power; pharmaceutical companies are only interested in population control; unbeknownst to the people, riots and anger are rooted in and caused by the media, which is also directed by yet another power. One powerful nation may give an appearance of being in control of its sovereignty but in reality, it’s either another nation that’s pulling the strings or more likely, companies. Sounds familiar? This appears to be the reality we’re living in now, yet at the beginning of the film, Leandro and Jonathan Taub assure us that this is a work of fiction. This is an ironic statement, given our current situation, but it also points to the notion that sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.
As Joseph is gaining more power and money, he becomes lost in the evil that he’s trying to stop. Punctuating Joseph’s narration are images of love dialogues between him and a woman, simply named She. Set in a non-descript, smoky room out of which there seems to be no exit, Joseph and She argue over the notion of love. She yearns for him but he tells her that he’s incapable of love. She doesn’t want to give up on him and throughout the film, presses further in order to reveal the authentic Joseph hiding underneath the self-created authoritarian power. But Joseph remains unable to be vulnerable.
The backdrops which the filmmakers are working with are usually abandoned and dilapidated buildings reminiscent of the oppressive landscape we find in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). This is especially visible when Joseph makes threats and deals with government officials in order to, supposedly, save the world. But he gets submerged by the power itself because the very intention of salvation is impossible precisely because he’s not grounded in love, or anything higher than himself.
Images of the beautiful forests are dream-like, and serve as a possibility for Joseph to enter into the world that’s based on creation rather than destruction. But his actions taint the forest’s untouchable quality. The forest is pure but Joseph’s dreams of utopia quickly turn into the worst dystopia imaginable. The line between these two realities is blurred since man is a fallible being.
Human fallibility and the tension between creation and destruction are the main themes and subtexts in the film. What’s Joseph guided by? He’s naïve in the sense that he’s using evil in order to fight evil. That strategy is bound to fail because the world doesn’t get repaired by more destruction but by creation. In addition, what underlies the film’s message is the idea of relationality and relationships. The strands of society are connected but is there anything that’s binding them, and if there is, what kind of relation is this? Are we connecting as a community or simply floating around like non-entities lost in the filthy waters of corrupt powers?
Given this, the subtext of the film rests in a seemingly simple set of questions: who is God and where is God? Although the film focuses on Joseph’s actions, which prove to be disastrous, Externo isn’t a nihilistic film. It’s as if the filmmakers are using negative theology in order to show what the good truly is. Joseph gets comfortable in his role as the sovereign who reigns over the elites, and forgets why he started the process to begin with.
Is there anything bigger than himself that guides Joseph? Unlikely, yet there’s hope because that small flame of goodness, however inarticulate, may still find its way out and authenticity of creation could emerge. The filmmakers are aware that the world’s in chaos and they’re provoking a question of what can be done to embrace the Creation rather than Destruction. It’s not an accident that the Taub Brothers’ production company is called tikun olam, a Hebrew concept of repairing the world by acknowledging God. Yet the film isn’t some moralistic message. It’s a film that subverts post-modernist aesthetics by invoking ethics. It asks the viewer to ponder the reality that hides underneath the superficial, the trivial, and the external, to ask who we are as humans, to enter into the interiority, and ponder what our actions or inactions mean in a world bent on chaos. Ultimately, we face the question, are we Creators or Destroyers?