– Jenni and Lauri Luhta’s newest feature contemplates the birth of monotheism through art history and a performance of Sigmund Freud’s final book

Review: Moses

Jenni Luhta in Moses

Two outstretched fingers – not between Adam and God, but instead between Freud and Moses, two prodigious figures of Judaic tradition with their own unique mythos, in a pose as if they themselves were reinventing the creation story. With the former as Freud and the latter as Moses, Finnish experimental multimedia and performance artists Jenni and Lauri Luhta recreate Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in their sophomore feature, Moses, which has just had its world premiere in the Tiger Competition of the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

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The work is what IFFR calls a “lecture-performance film”, where Freud (a genderbent Jenni Luhta) makes monologues out of passages of his 1939 book Moses and Monotheism to the viewer, interspersed with non-speaking interventions by an austere Moses (Lauri Luhta). As explored through the film, Freud notably makes the (often polarising) argument that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman whose practices and spiritual knowledge are derived from a sort of extinct Egyptian monotheistic religion. The claim expands into a larger exploration of the development of Christianity and Freud’s fear of persecution from the Catholic Church.

Provided that one embraces what the Luhtas have to offer, Moses emerges as an exploratory treatise on the birth of monotheism while provoking some frustration. Jenni Luhta delivers Freud’s words (translated from the original German by Lauri Luhta) while sitting in various locations, with a smooth transition from a room with a canvas backdrop – and harsh lighting, as if fully on display in a museum cabinet – to his office in England where he later lived in exile. Drawing from Freud’s psychoanalytic technique of patient-therapist dialogue, Freud and Moses are both placed in the spotlight, although there’s no clear determination around who is the patient and who is the therapist.

Drawing on art-historical iconography ranging from statues to religious paintings, the filmmakers also layer in images that accompany different passages, lending a hand to the “lecture” aspect. For example, they juxtapose Michelangelo’s imposing stone figure of Moses from Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli with the bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti. In light of the images being almost completely decontextualised, the effect of this technique ends up less dialogic than the performed monologues themselves, adding mainly a supplemental ambiance.

The performance aspect remains self-aware and is where the artists do their best work, yet the expansion into cinematic form is occasionally clunky. On a topic brimming with discourse on the historicisation and relativisation of socioreligious phenomena, sometimes Moses simply turns to a film effect or superimposition of art to continue the conversation. While the picture tries to connect to art-historical elements, at times the form doesn’t seem to have full control of the content – or take full advantage of the possibilities.

The most thought-provoking aspects are the various ways through which the prose is conveyed, refusing the dichotomies between belief and non-belief, and between myth and reality. With a brilliantly white, plastered-on beard and a contemplative countenance, Jenni Luhta’s Freud sometimes physically looks more like Miyazaki than the infamous psychoanalyst, but soon it becomes very likely that it’s part of the game. To believe that this really is Freud means buying into a passive, non-interrogational reading of his text. Likewise, Lauri Luhta’s Moses often breaks the fourth wall to stare down the audience, as if challenging them to pick a side. The active construction of both towering figures is something that history-building and the Luhtas have done and continue to do. Who are they really, and who gets to write “the truth”?

Moses is a Finnish production, staged by Jenni and Lauri Luhta themselves.

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