The Ambassador is available on VOD everywhere now, and hits theaters in New York, LA, and San Francisco August 31st.
I left The Ambassador with plenty of unanswered questions, but one thing I can say for certain is that it’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a real-life Heart of Darkness. It might even be scarier. It’s definitely funnier. It’s also a film that’s impossible to review without ruminating obsessively over the heft and texture of director Mads Brügger’s massive, fist-sized testicles, which must clunk together when he walks like veiny boulders. You can call some of his methods unsound, but his methods are his methods, so to speak. I don’t see anyone else traveling to Central Africa to buy fake diplomatic papers from mercenaries and assassins. It’s not the normal vision we see of Africa, of NGOs and singing and AIDS. It’s about the Byzantine inner-workings of those at the top, the post-colonialist exploiters who get so much less airplay, because they like it that way. It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in the present, the very definition of “lurid.”
First of all, do you have any idea how f*cking big Africa is? Even if you think you do, chances are you don’t. It’s so big that the US, China, India, Japan, and most of Europe could fit inside it (subject of a future They Might Be Giants song, perhaps?). (source)
There’s a lot of space there for wild frontier geographically, not even accounting for vast wilderness and lack of development. In The Ambassador, Brügger, a Dane who previously took a comedian with cerebral palsy on a “goodwill tour” in North Korea in the Red Chapel, travels to the most lawless backwater in Africa, the Central African Republic. As Brügger describes it, “if the Congo is the heart of darkness, CAR is its appendix.” Which is to say, an almost unnecessary place, a “failed state only if you believe it was ever a functioning state in the first place,” whose economy is mostly based on one kind of illegal trade or another – diamonds, ivory, poaching. It’s a magnet for anyone with no scruples and shadowy motives, basically for all the base urges of mankind. It’s down this vortex that Brügger takes us. The idea is to pose as an eccentric European businessman (“Mr. Cortzen”), buy a diplomatic title from neighboring Liberia – the diplomatic equivalent of a mail-order degree from Central America – and use his title to smuggle wealth out of the CAR.
Of course, this requires meeting with a dizzying parade of shady characters straight out of central casting. To buy his diplomatic credentials, which Brügger seemingly discovered using Google, he meets in Portugal with Colin Evans, a militaristic Brit with a crooked nose and a crew cut who makes Brügger promise him that the cameras are off (they aren’t, obviously) before telling Brügger that a diplomatic title is a “very valuable piece of kit indeed,” adding that if Brugger doesn’t do it Evans’ way, he could end up “dead in a ditch in Africa.” Evans can’t produce, and eventually Brugger goes with another title broker, Mr. Tijssen, a goofy Belgian with a stupid mustache who supposedly works with a mysterious African power broker named “Dr. Eastman,” whom you imagine in a giant chair somewhere, silently stroking a cat. Once in Africa, there’s a parade of fellow diplomats and a diamond-mine owner named Gilbert, who takes Brügger on a tour of his diamond mine before his child bride tries to climb in the car on their way out, with Gilbert snarling “don’t shame me in front of the white men.”
Maybe the most interesting character is a cigar-chomping, massively obese Frenchman who works in espionage, a former French legionnaire who lost his French passport in 2006 for some unexplained, mercenary illegalities. He seems at first glance to be the most overtly Kurtz-like, or at least the most Marlon Brando-like (because he is very fat, you see). But when he speaks (filmed secretly), he seems to understand by far the most about how things work in the CAR, how the French are exploiting the country – deliberately keeping it weak so they can continue to take the natural resources at the lowest cost – and about the macro politics of it all. This guy gets assassinated halfway through the film.
That’s not really a spoiler, because you could watch this movie six times and the characters and their motives would still be murky. Brügger’s chief skill is being willing to travel to this insane land where causality doesn’t apply in the first place. Amazingly, it also manages to be darkly hilarious. With Brügger playing his Great White Hunter character to the hilt, he tells his African fixer, Paul – who might secretly be working for Mr. Gilbert, but that’s another story – “not to be racistic, but I have a problem with Asian people, they’re always very sneaky.”
Yes, Paul quickly agrees, the problem with the Chinese is that they have no morals.
Brügger’s “cover” in Africa, and it’s unclear why he even needs a cover in a country this openly corrupt, is that he wants to build a match factory. He tells officials he wants the matches to be made by pygmies, because “pygmies have the strongest magic.” A bribed government official then takes Cortzen to a pygmy village, where the residents (including young children) have been fed wine and moonshine since the morning so that they’ll be in a dancing stupor by the time the white man gets there and provide him a show. The chief even provides Brügger a pygmy assistant, and when two mute pygmies show up at Brügger’s office the next day (one with a lazy eye), Brügger is told, almost as an afterthought, “Yes, of course, pygmies always travel in pairs.” Like, DUH, guy, where did you go to pygmy school?
It’s the kind of scene that Brügger’s critics will inevitably have the most problem with, Brügger participating in the exploitation of the natives, supposedly for the sake of greater understanding. It will certainly make you feel dirty, but that’s the character Brügger’s playing. He has to participate. He’d never be able to see what was actually going on if he was tutting and clicking the whole time.
Brügger’s Cortzen is frequently compared to Borat, but the comparison isn’t quite right. With Borat, it’s always very clear who is and isn’t in on the joke. With Cortzen, it’s hard to tell. The cast of characters is necessarily-tangled and confusing (“there is no why here,” as a guard tells Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz), but The Ambassador still could’ve benefited from a little more transparency in outlining Brügger’s motives. Wait, how does having a match factory help you smuggle diamonds? And what does being able to get the diamonds prove, exactly? What was the end game here? You probably won’t enjoy it if you’re looking for a smoking gun, but it’s not that kind of movie. What it is is a strange, confusing, hilarious journey into a terrifying place through the eyes of a guy with way bigger balls than you. My greatest criticism is also my greatest rave, which is that I started buying books about the CAR on Amazon as soon as it was over. That seems safer. I like my learning without fear of assassination or diarrhea.