An anthology film set in colonial Africa in the late 19th century telling the stories of 5 different characters: a troubled king, a middle-aged Pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman on an expedition, a lost porter and a young army deserter.
Directors: Emma De Swaef, Marc James Roels
Writers: Emma De Swaef, Marc James Roels
Stars: Jan Decleir, Bruno Levie, Paul Huvenne
Subtitled in English
Plays with two additional animated shorts: Oh Willy & The Burden
There tends to be an unspoken code among film critics that you do not admit when you don’t know something. Somehow, if we are watching a film or documentary on a historical topic, we must present to our readers as if we have full knowledge of these facts and can spout encyclopedia (or “Wikipedia”)-like knowledge at the drop of a hat, or with the keystroke of a finger on a keyboard.
So…color me ill-informed, or an embarrassment to my colleagues, when I mention that the history depicted in the mesmerizing and groundbreaking animated film, This Magnificent Cake!, was nothing I knew much of anything about.
Directors and animators Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels lifted the title from a quote from King Leopold II of Belgium. “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.”
The longer that quote sits there, the worse it looks and feels. The “slice of African cake” relates to the Congo, and Leopold raided the country for its resources in the late 1800s, becoming wealthy on exports like ivory and rubber. Learning this, after watching This Magnificent Cake!, placed some of the film’s episodic vignettes in better context.
De Swaef and Roels use Belgium’s occupation of the Congo to underscore, or work as a central theme across five short stories which comprise the totality of their 44-minute film.
And what a film this is.
Using stop-motion animation, and characters made from felt, wool, and cloth, This Magnificent Cake! is unlike anything I have ever watched before. Scenes involving water are made with thread, emulating rushing streams. The production and set design is gorgeous and incredibly detailed. The artistry and craftsmanship is unparalleled and there are some shots and visuals created here which are simply remarkable.
The movie becomes very easy to get lost into, so much so that these stories run the risk of gliding right over your head. While Leopold II is included in the film, we soon find characters and stories which stand apart or interconnect loosely.
Along the way: A clarinetist is silenced by the king, a deserter finds a long path home, a Pygmy works in a lavish hotel, a drunken embezzler attempts to make off with his family’s fortunes, and a porter, a bratty child, and others will find their fateful way into this somber anthology.
The stories all exist within various shades of bleak and melancholy, with occasional shocking moments of violence grabbing our attention. And even if you, like myself, struggle to grasp the historical meaning behind these stories and themes, De Swaef and Roels are Belgian and South African, respectively, originating from countries with oppression and racially-motivated occupation an unmistakable part of their country’s history.
I am in no way an expert on the themes raised here, but This Magnificent Cake! left me wanting more information, like most good historical films do. Your reactions may vary, but this unique compendium of stories is one of the most innovative and groundbreaking films of 2019, delivering a style uniquely and profoundly its own.
– Mike Ward, Should I See It