Le formiche di Mida: an eccentric essay in Marxist animism

Edgar Honetschläger’s whimsical essay film combines shaggy-dog allegory and vivid natural imagery in the service of a contemplative, unmistakably green social critique.

4 February 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Le formiche di Mida (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the International Film Festival Rotterdam

The last 12 months have been cinema’s year of the donkey – after EO and The Banshees of Inisherin, we have Le formiche di Mida, narrated in part by a philosophising donkey (named, what else, Baldassare, Italian for Balthazar). That’s by no means the strangest thing about a film in which trees and ants also speak, sing and mock humans’ inability to live with nature. As a contemplation of our planet’s past, present and future, Edgar Honetschläger’s film is unmistakably green – but with a sharp yellow tinge of jaundiced humour.

Honetschläger is an Austrian artist and filmmaker who has worked in Japan, the US and Brazil, and his new Italian-made work is a comic-philosophical essay film that views the contemporary crisis of nature and agriculture through the perspective of classical myth. Its title, meaning ‘Midas’s Ants’, comes from the legend that King Midas was fed by ants as a child. Why, it’s asked, would a man who owes his life to nature care only about gold? And why can’t we realise that, as humans, this is precisely our predicament?

The seriousness of the theme is offset by a style combining free-ranging visual poetry with humour that verges on goofiness. There are assorted characters, although we may not realise who they are, or represent, until the end credits. Foremost among them is an old man who lives in a castle, and who drives round the countryside with loudspeakers broadcasting a debate on Adam and Eve and the advent of Christianity. He, apparently, is Midas – although perhaps we shouldn’t take that equivalence too literally.  

The film’s most eloquent imagery is the simplest – the material that’s simply there to be gleaned from the natural world, such as the dense textures of tree bark, a drip of amber resin, close-ups of stones and earth, as if from an ant’s-eye-view. But Honetschläger also has fun with the creation of an eerie dryad figure, a woman with locks like roots who sometimes haunts a tree, sometimes lives in a wall; or, pushing the artifice further, the giant egg that Midas unearths, painted with insect imagery.

The whimsy occasionally grates, and the handling of race sometimes feels off: a group of African migrants become a chorus insistently serenading Midas in a way that makes for awkward comedy. But all told, the light handling of political or philosophical ideas – such as the hunger for property as an antidote to mortality – makes for a provocative, self-reflexive and hugely inventive creation. Experimental essays in Marxist animism have rarely been this much fun.

Other things to explore