|Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones|
WHAT IS most taboo about Play the Devil is not its examination of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rather, the work unsettles by throwing up questions about the power dynamics that exist when two persons of vastly different ages are in a relationship.
Of course in repressed, spiritual Trinidad and Tobago we talk about neither. We also ignore the grim implications of the vast inequalities of wealth nurtured and perpetuated by our rigidly-structured society.
The film follows Gregory (Petrice Jones), a disciplined, subdued and struggling 18-year old student who meets James (Gareth Jenkins), an older, wealthy businessman. James makes a move on Gregory who, in turn, encourages and accepts the older man’s advances. In one important scene, the younger man actively explores his sexuality with James.
The trope of doomed love between two persons of widely differing ages is a classic one in art. Consider Nabokov’s Lolita, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In all of these male cougar stories, the love under examination is heterosexual. Here, the filmmakers flip the switch.
Other sources abound. Comparison with the 2014 musical theatre production Jab Molassie – which also starred Nickolai Salcedo (who appears in this film and is even more incredible on screen than he is on stage)—is inevitable. Like that tale, the story is set high above the capital in the hills, and a central character is seduced by a devil. But whereas the temptation in Jab Molassie was highly symbolic, in Maria Govan’s film the power of the erotic is not sublimated within the story. It is the movie’s central conflict.
Gregory’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality and James dogged campaign to take up residence in Gregory’s life breed disaster. While we must be weary of the trope of violence being used against gay characters in art, the resolution of the plot is, in this instance, not contrived and is in line with the demands of tragedy. The resolution is not gratuitous and also channels the grim reality of our violent society.
In the opening scenes, actor Gareth Jenkins leaves enough room for us to have different interpretations of James’s motives. Does he want just a hot date? Or is he looking for something more? From the perspective of Gregory – and also evidently some audience members at MovieTowne tonight – James might come across as predatory.
But the projection of negative motives on others is a hallmark of a life of isolation and in the closet. What Gregory actually fears is himself.
To some extent, James, for all his audacious provocations, is the true victim because his actions may well be motivated by a genuine yearning for love. Though clothed with greater wealth and power, James is as trapped as Gregory in a world where every aspect of his life has been brought under manners: his career, his family life, his attempt to act out his core being.
Therefore the roles of victim and villain are as interchangeable as the movie’s Carnival costumes. Gregory’s anguish at the film’s haunting climax is not just a reflection of the fact that all doors have closed on him, it is also the Edvard Munch Scream of all minorities relegated to life at the margins.
The subtle way the film handles questions of class, education and social power is among its strengths. Visually, this Abigail Hadeed-produced film is also sophisticated but not ostentatious. There is a memorable shot from cinematographer James Wall of Gregory literally shutting a closet, as well as one where he is split in the face of a mirror.
Govan’s script does a very good job of turning the screw, pitting Gregory against the forces of family, of religion, of gender norms for males in a macho society, of criminal violence, of peer pressure, of a scholarship-obsessed education system and of wealth disparities caused by a society concerned with money above all else.
Here, at last, is a film of great integrity for the age in which we Trinibagonians live.