I say that with certain caveats. Firstly, I can't claim that no-one who has ever turned on a camera has ever ended up with a circularly framed film, but Van den Bergh's picture is hardly a major film and yet it certainly seems to be the biggest film to have made this particular artistic choice. Secondly, many of the very earliest moving images featured something akin to a circular image due to the shapes of the lenses, and perhaps as a result the iris shot was far more common then as it was now.
Indeed at times Lucifer feels a little like a long tribute to the iris shot and the way it focusses the viewers attention on a particular part of the shot. That said at other points, the composition doesn't really work in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of some of the first widescreen films which struggles to adjust to the possibilities of their new frame. The masked screen works, at times, like a porthole - a portal to another world. At it's best it's a little bit like some of those scenes from inside John Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich.
More significantly, at times the circularity of the shot is about more than masking the corners, but the use of a pioneering new technique which Van den Bergh has called Tondoscope (from the Italian for circular, rotondo) which shoots through an optical circular mirror to capture a 360 degree image (such as that below). This distorts the image but crams in all the detail round the edge of the work, which is strongly reminiscent of some of Bosch's work, indeed the Tondoscope logo is based on one of Bosch's circular paintings - "Seven Deadly Sins".
There's always a question with films which pioneer a new technique as to whether they are able to transcend that technique and still be a good film in their own right. It's not quite so straightforward a question with Lucifer because those Tondoscope images are meant to draw attention to the technique itself and it's historic resonances, but the masked shots do well enough as well. Certainly there are moments when I forgot about the frame and got absorbed with what was happening within it.
The circle also brings with it a sense of perfection and completeness and these are highly suited to the film's subject matter - hardly inconsequential. Lucifer is loosely based on Joost Van Den Vondel's 1654 play about the eponymous anti-hero's fall from heaven. Van Den Vondel's play pre-dates "Paradise Lost" by 13 years and many point out his influence on Milton's work. The story is relocated to an ultra rural, 'modern day', Mexico. This is outside the usual time frames for Lucifer's fall from heaven, but it certainly makes things more interesting. Lucifer at this point is still in free-fall, even the choice of name - Lucifer - suggests that he is part way between the pure archangel of God's court and the devil, the epitome of evil.
Other names also carry similar references. Aside from the main character, the film's leading humans are an elderly couple called Lupita and Emanuel. "Lupita" invites some kind of comparison with the visiting "angel". Emanuel of course means "God with us". Equally prominent is their grand-daughter, Maria, whose name is similarly rich in biblical references.
All this is significant because this idea of Lucifer's morality changing, both with (and perhaps even because of) his interactions with humans is fairly central.Indeed the film is at pains to show Lucifer doing what would ordinarily be considered good acts, even retreading some of Jesus' footsteps. Shortly after his arrival on earth he asks for water from a woman at a well. He rescues a sheep and is shown cradling it in his arms. In one pivotal scene Lucifer takes the feet of the lame Emanuel and begins to wash them.
Not only is this reminiscent of Jesus actions at the Last Supper, but when Lucifer returns to massage the man's feet it soon becomes clear that the man has been healed. But is this about good for goodness's sake, or about the power of the miracle which continues to hold sway in various religious circles? Or is it simply that after centuries of serving God these things come naturally even to the very one who has sworn him as an enemy? I'm reminded of 2 Cor. 11:14 "for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light".
The miracle of course brings the crowds but their initial adoration turns to dissatisfaction when no further miracles are forthcoming. When Lupita and Emanuel throw their celestial guest a party one villager rebukes him. "If you knew what pain meant you would be more merciful". Yet despite some of the villagers' misgivings may be, they're not enough to dissuade one church leader from building a babel-esque tower to reach to heaven to enable "the stranger" to visit more often".
Whether it's because Lucifer is disappointed by the attitudes of the villagers, or because he is unable to resist the temptations such a social event offers him, the party marks the last time we, and the villagers, see this mysterious stranger. The scene culminates in Lucifer plying Maria with an unusual combination of alcohol and heavenly visions, in order to seduce her. As the next day breaks, a clever shot in Tondoscope shows Lucifer sneaking past the still sleeping Maria, creeping out of the door and apparently never to return. He has used his powers for his own selfish and sexual gain and the villagers never see him again. As the film moves into Part II (titled "Sin") Maria's voice cries out desperately over the tannoy "The angel that came has left...Where did you go? Yesterday you were so kind to me...We are waiting for you."
Several of the film's later scenes also picking up this theme of contrasting the supposed purity of the religious impulse with a more realistic view of mis-functioning humanity. Another memorable scene sees a woman on her knees shuffling towards an altar. But rather than this being portrayed as a holy and emotional moment it is rooted in the profane. The shrine the woman edges towards is being vacuumed by a cleaner. As she homes in on the altar she cuts herself by accidentally breaking her bottle of milk which runs over the and and is led away.
Three of Van den Bergh's other images are particularly striking. The first occurs fairly early on in the film. It's night and as Lucifer moves around he walks in front of a fire (see above). For a moment the fire seems almost to stick to him and be following him around, a subtle nod to all those hellfire and damnation tales of Lucifer's ultimate destination. The second shows a tree standing starkly by the side of the lake, evoking the tree of life and/or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the best of the lot focuses on Maria, shortly after her night with Lucifer and right at the film's mid-point. It begins on a close up of the back of her head only for the camera to gently rotate/twist through 180 degrees. At the same time as camera turns Maria slowly leans back until ultimately she is left as if floating at the top of the screen. It's a transcendent shot, made all the more graceful and moving because of the perfectly proportioned circular frame.
[Spoilers]It's at this point that it also starts to become apparent that the use of the name Maria carries greater weight than it first appeared. This Maria is also the human chosen to bear the son of a celestial being. Whilst Emanuel's healing eases the family's suffering in one important sense, Maria's pregnancy places them under further strain ultimately leading to the baliffs turning up to destroy their home at the very moment Maria goes into labour. The first film in Van den Bergh's loose-ish trilogy, 2010's Little Baby Jesus of Flandr, was about three socially outcast Magi encountering the infant Christ. In a sense, then, the trilogy has rather come (if you will pardon the pun) full circle. [End of spoilers].
It's hard to really know what to make of all this, a mixture of the spiritual with the profane. A story about a gullible humanity and a humanised devil. A picture of a spartan way of light that is desperate to connect with the divine and a film that is brave enough to throw all the traditional images up in the air in order to explore their meaning.
Readers might also enjoy Jay Weissberg's insightful review for Variety, which helped me develop my own thoughts about this film.