A Visitor to a Museum

A Visitor to a Museum ★★★★½

Will God forgive us?

The end of humanity on film. Or, as I described it to the people I watched with: like Hieronymus Bosch made a movie. Or, Tarkovsky from Hell.

Hackneyed comparisons aside, rarely has a post-apocalypse felt so all-encompassingly apocalyptic. There is no rebuilding or surviving in the aftermath -- everyone and everything is already over; some people just haven't realized it yet. Between the heaps of garbage, the storms of dust, the world drenched in red, and the oppressive soundscape of machinery and screaming, A Visitor to a Museum is constantly overwhelming. While the nature of the societal and ecological collapse is never entirely clear, the one thing that is certain is that we, collectively as a species, are held responsible, particularly by a religion that has morphed into an outright death cult. Thus, I want to say this film takes a dim view of institutions like religion, but it's more accurate to look broadly: it takes a dim view of being a human and being alive, haha.

This is not a pleasant story. To put it simply, a man attempts to visit a now flooded, nearly inaccessible museum. At all stages of the journey, he is warned that most who undergo it simply die on the way. We're never really sure what's in the museum or why he cares to see it, but on he trudges; it's more of a fatalistic march to the end than a brave individual fighting the elements. The elements have won before he begins, and the journey weighs just as heavily mentally (and/or spiritually?) as it does physically. What we see of the world in this time reveals that the only vestige of society to survive is our divisions. An underclass of "degenerates" distinguished by physical differences are kept, forcefully, in the Reservation, which appears to be a foundry of sorts located squarely in Hell. Sometimes they are sent out to other households to provide what looks like slave labor, and at all times people burn fires under their windows to keep the undesirables out. These poor people, cursed from the moment of their birth, have only religion to hang onto, but it's a spirituality that primarily highlights the failures of humanity and drives its followers to wish for the release of death, to be removed from the terrible conditions they find themselves in. Liberation theology, this is not.

And here is where I tell you I have no idea what this movie is saying. No doubt there is a more specific allegory in the journey to the museum that I can't grasp, but even on the large scale, I'm torn between two entirely conflicting ideologies. To put it simply, this film is either deeply misanthropic, or condemning this exact misanthropy and nihilism. On one hand, taken at face value, perhaps this really is humanity making its bed and lying in it, turning the world into a garbage pile because we destroy everything we touch and, at least when surrounded by garbage everywhere we look, we fit in (I obviously have some issues if that's the idea, but more on that later). On the other hand, what if we're wrong? Perhaps the death of the world occurred and perpetuates because we started believing all of that. After all, no one in the world of the film has higher ambitions than to die. Everyone gave up, turning to blame a safe scapegoat and even their own nature.

I certainly want to read it as the latter. Our protagonist goes on a trip in a dead world because all that is left to do is sightsee the ruins of a time when anyone cared, and the emptiness of a species turned entirely cruel or suicidal is too much to handle. It wasn't inevitable for people to become this way, but as soon as we believed it was, it was all over. I just think a similarly sound argument could be made for the simpler interpretation, that the protagonist instead looks behind the veil at man's worthlessness and can't stand it. Choose your own existential angst.

My tendency to lean towards the positive interpretation, beyond not being so misanthropic and depressed yet (certainly depressed, but not THAT depressed), is no doubt informed by the near future we find ourselves staring down at this very moment. Our ecological collapse has already begun. And while my pessimistic nature doesn't allow me to be too hopeful, we can still impact just how bad it gets. Fully surrendering is what will give us the world of A Visitor to a Museum. Thinking "well, we deserved it" is not only destructive. It's wrong. Responsibility and punishment are not distributed equally. Those few who are truly sabotaging the future will, when the world they created arrives, be insulated from the worst of its consequences.

I'm leaving much of this film not talked about because it's all over my head, but it nonetheless gave me much to chew on. While I can't make any definitive statements about the true intent, the author is dead and I choose to celebrate this film for its possible condemnation of pure nihilism, alongside the remarkable achievement of its images and atmosphere. Despite not being a traditional horror, it's absolutely terrifying, and totally immersive. Quite the underseen masterpiece.

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