From the film’s opening shot of two young men covered in thick, blue paint, trekking through the lush Trinidadian rainforest, “Play the Devil” captivates. The film’s central queer relationship juxtaposed with the natural countryside pushes conventional boundaries in a way that feels intoxicating, transgressive, and, ultimately, necessary.
Set in the lovely hilltop village of Paramin, the film tells the story of a gifted 18-year-old, Gregory, who is his working-class family’s only hope for financial success. He’s favored to win a scholarship to medical school, but secretly wants to be a photographer. His world spins out of control when he meets James, a wealthy businessman whose offer of friendship and guidance comes with strings attached. As James’ romantic advances become more menacing, Gregory’s initial compliance changes to rejection as the consequences threaten to ruin his future and his life.
The synopsis reads: “On Carnival Monday, when young men cover themselves in blue paint, dress as devils and become lost in the frenzy of drumming and howling in the Jab, a symbolic dance that allows them to flirt with evil for a day, Gregory and James face each other once again. ‘Play the Devil’ depicts what can happen when the promise of innocence is broken and the spirit of Jab takes hold of us.”
James begins his relationship with Gregory as a mentorship, giving him scholarship information and buying him a camera, so he can start taking pictures more seriously. But from the beginning, it’s clear that something’s amiss in the subtle way he gazes into Greg’s eyes, casting a spell largely from his power, status, and ability to promote the young man’s talent.
A sensitive soul, Greg finds solace at James’s beach house in Balandra where they swim, share photos and, ultimately, make love. He asks the older man why he stays in a loveless marriage, to which he replies, “Michaela’s my everything, I stay for her.” But just as their relationship begins, Greg is overcome with the shame of his sexual transgression and pushes James away, though the older man can’t seem to take no for an answer, inserting himself into Greg’s family life, offering to pay his brother Fayne’s bail for a drug charge.
When the stress of his romantic situation with James leads Greg to fail his math test, and Granny gives his college money to James to help bail Fayne out, it seems as if Gregory’s life is heading nowhere fast.
The lush landscape of Trinidad foregrounds the well-paced, beautifully shot, and brilliantly cast drama. Paramin village sits on one of the highest points in North-West Trinidad, sprawling and steep, with sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea. Cut to Carnival Monday, when Paramin becomes the realm of the blue devils — traditional masqueraders covered in blue grease and powder who take to the streets. The residents paint themselves, put on wings and horns, blow fire, and dance out their demons with pitchforks. The visuals mesmerize and delight, weaving a spell over the viewer that culminates in a heated confrontation between Greg and James that changes both of their lives forever.
In the end, Gregory’s inability to reckon with his sexuality leads him to aggression and ultimately death, as he is unable to carry on living in a family and society that effectively (spoiler alert) drives him to murder James. It’s a poetic, albeit disturbing ending, as he and his best friend, covered in blue paint, come to the edge of a lake after their long trek, wading far out until their heads are submerged by water.
Director Maria Govan notes that one of her inspirations for “Play the Devil” was the story of a Trinidadian teenager who committed suicide after his lover threatened to out him to his family. It is this constant criticism from his family – his drug-addicted father calls him “soft,” his drug-dealing brother Fayne says he can’t let people walk all over him, and his gun-toting best friend Dev tries to get him laid – that spurs him to commit reckless acts to reassert his masculinity, like sleeping with a girl he hardly knows and fighting James, an act that has tragic consequences.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its complex depictions of male relationships – among them: father to son, son to father, brother to brother, lover to young man, and young man to lover – that are rarely explored with as much nuance as can be found here. Much of this is owing to the sensibilities of Govan. She traverses gender norms and sexuality deftly, likely informed by her lived experiences as a queer Caribbean woman.
And though Gregory negotiates his relationships with a kind of resilience and inner wisdom, ultimately his family and friends rob him of options for a better life, damage him, and destroy his chances at a bright future. In the end, the picture is so bleak that he succumbs to desperation.
“Play the Devil” is a must see.
It next screens at the 24th New York African Film Festival on Sunday, May 7, 2017 at 8:45pm at Lincoln Center. Tix: http://www.africanfilmny.org/event/play-the-devil-2/