In 1735, two prisoners on Robben Island were brought before magistrates in Cape Town and accused of sodomy. Miscegenation added to the horror of a crime whose penalty was death; one prisoner was Dutch and the other a Hottentot. Proteus is a fascinating hybrid, a historical romance set in an 18th century with uncanny similarities to 1960s South Africa. Starting from court transcripts, the film explores the roots of prejudice. It is also a love story with three unlikely participants: a Hottentot herder; the Dutch sailor who becomes his lover; and the English botanist who employs the herder as an assistant. Beyond fine performances, the film’s scanty production values, though initially jarring, ultimately work in its favor. South Africa’s raw, post-industrial landscape pokes through the historical artifice, reminding us of the land’s recent conflicts. Best of all, the filmmakers preserve the historical remoteness—and daring—of their subjects.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2004