A collaboration between Canadian writer-director John Greyson
(
Lilies) and South African filmmaker Jack Lewis, Proteus is inspired by
actual events. Based on the transcripts of an early 18th-century sodomy
trial, the film focuses on the relationship between two convicts, Dutch sailor
Rikhaart Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands) and African herder Claas Blank (Rouxnet
Brown). The latter was unjustly imprisoned  for ten years after seeking the
return of his own cattle. While imprisoned on Robben Island, Blank catches
the attention of a visiting Scottish botanist Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth) who is
cataloging the local flora which he decides to call "proteus." Niven and
Jacobsz are both physically attracted to Blank, but the latter, despite the
racial and sexual taboo, becomes his lover when they are forced to fetch
water together. At first their couplings are animalistic, but over a decade's
time they become more tender.

 Niven actually catches sight of the pair in the act, but opts not to
report their illegal activities. Instead, he tries to trade on his attraction for
Blank by asking the African native to pose for a drawing to be made and by
naming a species of the proteus flower for him. Their potential assignation is
interrupted and Niven soon departs, but both remain entranced,
fantasizing about one another. In fact, Blank makes Jacobsz recount tales
of seeing Niven heading under the docks in Amsterdam for sexual
encounters. (Whether or not the stories are true are left up to the audience
to decide.)

 After serving out his sentence, Blank is about to be released when Niven
returns to Robben Island where he is seeking refuge from a scandal in The
Netherlands: Seventy men, including one of his lovers, were executed for
committing sodomy. Jacobsz and Blank are caught by another prisoner
whose attentions Jacobsz has spurned. In an act of revenge, the inmate
informs on their affair and the pair are brought to trial. Niven offers to
intervene, but Blank refuses and confesses his love for Jacobsz, sealing their
fates.

 
Proteus features gorgeous cinematography by Giulio Biccari and the
trademark use of anachronistic props and costumes that are a staple of
Greyson's work. Sometimes such touches can be amusing (e.g., three court
stenographers using electric typewriters who debate the proper translation
of certain words) while other times, it can be distracting (i.e., an
18th-century woman in modern dress). The performances are strong and       
memorable, particularly those of Smyth, Sandilands and, especially, Brown.
Like the flower for which it is named, the film blossoms under the care of its     
directors. The film not only examines a gay love story, but it also serves as a
look at how global events can affect individual lives.


         Rating:                         B
         MPAA Rating:          NONE (explicit sexual content, nudity, violence)
         Running time:          113 mins.

         In English, Dutch, Nama, Latin, and Afrikaans with English subtitles

Viewed at the NewFest, Loews Cineplex Entertainment 34th St. Theater
Co-presented by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
Proteus
(2003)