During the 1990s, Berkeley-based filmmaker Antero Alli created a series of challenging features, shorts and documentaries that dissected (with alternating wit and cerebral cruelty) the various hiccups and breakdowns which litter the course of human interaction. Alli’s films offer an astonishing diagnosis of the obstacles which face our daily existence: “The Oracle” (1993) presented a dying patriarch whose estrangement from his family eventually shrinks his world into a series of cryptic dreams, “The Drivetime” (1995) showed how technology designed to facilitate communications only served to isolate people from each other, and the brilliant short “Lily in Limbo” (1998) offered a stunning tale of a bitter artist whose self-enforced solitude corrupts her mindframe.
Alli’s latest film is “Tragos,” an intellectual adrenaline rush of hypnotic strength and emotional depth. In “Tragos,” the filmmaker envisions a future where the desire to escape from government and media thought-control drives people underground. Though perhaps the future is a lot closer than we think, since the parallels between Alli’s futuristic tale and the assault on many basic contemporary liberties seems too close for comfort.
Tragos is the virtual reality program at the heart of a cult of urban technopagans who escaped the anesthetized blur of mass media overload which imprisoned the general population. They do not seek interaction with the outside world, but instead prefer their own community and the option to use technology to explore personal freedoms. The leader of the cult is Bella Luxor (Barbara Jasperson), the widow of the scientist who created the Tragos program (Robert Hamm, seen briefly at the start of the film in a sly video announcing his pending death). The tribe sleeps on cots with virtual reality goggles over their eyes, but one night Bella overworks the Tragos program and awakens blind. Bella’s sister (played by Sylvi Alli, the filmmaker’s real-life and reel-life collaborator) does not wake up at all. Bella surrenders herself for murder, but a rabid Christian fundamentalist prosecutor fails to secure a conviction against Bella and she is released. In her new sightless world, Bella comes to a greater purpose and possibility within the Tragos program, which includes realizing that Vivika is not dead but rather “assimilated” into a previously unknown time-space level. However, the failed prosecutor becomes obsessed with this cult and recruits a mole to infiltrate the cult and bring its destruction.
Those familiar with Alli’s previous work will recognize the hallmarks of his art: an extraordinary screenplay rich in soaring wordplay and searing plotlines, peerless editing which blends images into an all-encompassing audio-video collage, an intelligent production eye which works its low budget to high value, and a rolling music soundtrack from the gifted Sylvi Alli, who also offers a memorable screen presence as the lost Vivika. The “Tragos” cast consists of San Francisco-area actors who work as a perfect ensemble, albeit with special mention for Bobby Weinapple as the venal prosecutor and Neil Howard as a clumsy actor who stumbles into a situation way over his head.
“Tragos” is a film which demands your brainpower and full attention. It is a complex and towering work that aims to the highest denominator and pays off in a triumph of spirit.