Review: ‘Prophecy’

Hot Docs 2019

5 mins read

(UK, 82 min.)
Dir. Charlie Paul
Programme: Artscapes (International Premiere

Take a gander at Peter Howson’s exquisite painting “Prophecy,” for this might be the only time you will see it. The grand canvas of the big screen provides a wonderfully unique view of the making of a masterpiece as director Charlie Paul observes the Scottish artist in his element. The doc chronicles the creation of Howson’s “Prophecy” from conception through completion. It offers an immersive glimpse into the painstaking commitment to the artistic process and an intimate insight into the man behind a great work of art.

Paul’s doc notes that most of Howson’s paintings find their ways into private collections and—spoiler alert—“Prophecy” is no exception. Thanks to the power of the camera, though, Howson lets the public witness his artistic process as he creates the painting over the course of several months and guides the doc through every idea and every brush stroke that transforms the work along the way. Prophecy documents the making of a grandly ambitious canvas and it’s much in the vein of the recent arts Hieronymus Bosch doc Bosch: Garden of Dreams as it uses the benefit of a feature-length running time to unpack a dense and richly detailed work of art.

Both Prophecy and Bosch focus on artworks that are layered with exquisite detail. Howson’s painting is a vision of the future. It’s an orgy of ominous despair and violence with a canvas populated with awestruck figures and a television that fizzles with the American flag on its airwaves. Both paintings aspire to something divine. Howson explains to Paul how his connection to God fuels his work, noting that his relationship with God is the most important one in his life. He draws upon his influences, some of which are more obvious than others are as they range from da Vinci to Tin Tin, as he explains the elaborately prophetic scene of action that begins as nothing other than a gingery orange square painted in swathes of colour as fiery as TinTins’ hair.

One moment, Howson contemplates the textured (im)perfections of his painting’s night sky; the next, he draws attention to a busy circle of frenzied humans to highlight his muse, Lucy, before introducing the daughter who inspires the figure that appears in every work he creates. The symbolism of Howson’s painting is so rich that one could hardly glean the same value after hours of taking in the work and studying its every detail. Getting the artist’s commentary gives audiences extra insights to ensure that no nuance of the work goes unnoticed.

Paul captures every detail of “Prophecy’s genesis. From creating the canvas to selecting the right hue of blue, the doc shows audiences the commitment it takes to make great art. One almost goes mad watching Howson redo his efforts over and over, creating something beautiful only to cover it with a layer of blue or a glossy lacquer, but the film provides frequent time lapse portraits of the painting to chronicle its evolution. (It’s also a bit unnerving to watch him chain-smoke around all these presumably flammable paints and glazes.) The painting grows like a child transforming through puberty to adulthood, gaining strength and muscles, going through awkward stages, and changing its voice. Prophecy gives audiences the privilege to view a masterpiece, but, more significantly, it allows one to share Howson’s apocalyptic vision.

Prophecy screens:
-Sat, Apr. 27 at 9:15 p.m. at Hart House
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 1:30 p.m. at Isabel Bader
-Sun, May 5 at 12:30 p.m. at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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