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Sand and Salvation. “Dune: Part Two” Rides the Worm of Spectacle

The humanist sci-fi maestro Denis Villeneuve turns his gaze to jihad, letting Timothée Chalamet ride the worms: a stellar sequel
Timothée Chalamet in DUNE: PART TWO

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The humanist sci-fi maestro Denis Villeneuve turns his gaze to jihad, letting Timothée Chalamet ride the worms: a stellar sequel

by Federico Pontiggia

Denis Villeneuve is back, and with him, Dune: Part Two, elevating the saga of Paul Atreides to new heights, this time bestowing upon him a flurry of alternative names. Once again embodied by Timothée Chalamet, following the blueprint of Frank Herbert‘s bestseller, he delivers a compelling performance, with Zendaya’s blue-eyed Chani and Javier Bardem’s Stilgar earning particular acclaim.

We’ve waited, initially unsure if Warner Bros. would green-light the sequel, then came the Hollywood strike, but it was worth the wait: Part Two amps up the original’s spectacle, expanding its worlds and intricacies. Despite a rapid escalation of events, secrets, and lies fueling the final battle, it takes its time to ensure this sci-fi action isn’t just another run-of-the-mill blockbuster but claims a cultural supremacy, particularly through Villeneuve’s hallmark humanistic science fiction.

In short, we find Paul, newly orphaned, with his pregnant mother Jessica, a Bene Gesserit mystic, amidst the vast sands of the planet Arrakis – originally known as Dune – caught in the eternal battle between Good and Evil. The former championed by the native Fremen, including Chani and Stilgar, and the latter embodied by the Harkonnens, who scour the desert for the valuable and powerful spice.

The ensemble includes Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), Rabban (Dave Bautista), and Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), with new additions like the Baron’s psychopathic nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler, unrecognizable), Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), his daughter Princess Irulan Corrino (Florence Pugh), and the intriguing Margot Fenring (Léa Seydoux): all contributing to a sort of Game of Thrones that – and here lies the most piquant, pardon the pun, aspect of Part Two – distinctly leans towards the Southeast, and not just because of the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi. There’s a whiff of Jihad, thanks to Stilgar and the Fremen, and – in more ways than one – not just in their attire: it’s as if Mad Max met ISIS, with Arrakis resembling a caliphate, at least aesthetically. Why not ideologically? On the Fremen side, Paul is the prophet; on the Atreides and, erm, Harkonnen side, Paul could be, might be, the emperor, but not – for the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of – of hearts.

Between these two narratives, the former prevails, with Chani and Stilgar amplifying Paul, steering his imminent future towards fewer friends and more followers. And love? A thorny issue, to which Villeneuve responds subtly, more so, simmering, asking Zendaya’s expressive eyes to convey pain and even more so, drama: if they are roses, they will bloom, okay, but for now, it’s better they are thorns and may they – hopefully – prick the third chapter.

Part Two nods to Islam but doesn’t let go of messianism, playing a reversed mirror game, and dares, with a fair amount of fervor, to present itself, in sixteenths, as the fourth religion of the book, that of Herbert: it’s tricky, understood, but also fascinating, a war of worlds with Atreides as its prophet.

At the 2022 Oscars, it was the most awarded with six “technical” statuettes, and a repeat performance would be just as deserving: with assertive and evocative direction, Chalamet, Bardem, and Zendaya standing out, and the worms ridden so epically they’d overshadow the chariots of Ben-Hur. Indeed, Part Two is part of the whole.

Cinematografo, February 21, 2024

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