The Alexander Complex


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Alexander Complex
"There’s a lot to keep track of in a narrative which keeps finding new sharks to jump and yet, somehow, keeps us believing."

If you want to attract the attention of a certain sort of man, there’s nothing quite as effective as mentioning the name of Alexander the Great. Except, perhaps, for mentioning it in association with large amounts of gold. By the time of his death in 323BCE, the Macedonian conqueror had built one of the largest empires in history, and had, in practical terms, almost unlimited wealth. His body, originally buried in a coffin made from pure gold, was subsequently moved around several times, with several roman emperors and Cleopatra visiting his tombs, sometimes taking treasure from them and sometimes depositing more. At some point in the 5th Century, however, the precise location of the tomb was lost. Individual scholars, diplomats and adventurers subsequently claimed to have visited it, most asserting that it was located in Alexandria, but numerous other theories arose, mingling with legends as the centuries passed. There was just one thing that everyone agreed on: wherever it was, it contained astounding amounts of treasure.

On 2 October 2013, an Algerian man, Jiji Defallah, announced that he had located the tomb – in Jordan. The story made headlines around the world. It was, he said, an elaborate complex with multiple coffins, an assortment of archaeological wonders, and “between 30 and 35 thousand tons of gold” – a figure which would subsequently be inflated. That might sound fantastically over the top, but he had pictures to prove it, showing golden statues and more in an underground vault. He also had a collection of items which he said he had taken from the tomb, which were quickly authenticated by scholars. The one thing that he wouldn’t reveal was the location. He didn’t want it to be ransacked by looters. He wanted to gather the resources for a proper archaeological exploration, following which the treasure would be exhibited in museums and the tomb itself could become a tourist attraction with the potential to make Jordan one of the most attractive destinations in the world.

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An amateur archaeologist steeped in Alexandrian lore, Defallah is introduced in Neasa Ní Chianáin’s film by his codename The Inventor. We also meet his business partner, Omar Aissaoui, who does the technical work of figuring out what’s under the ground, and is known as The Scanner. Then there’s Defallah’s agent, Luc Detré, whose friends call him ‘Lucky Luc’; and archaeologist, historian and writer Valerio Manfredi, aka The Professor. Together they are the sort of characters one might expect to find in a boys’ own adventure tale, and that’s the tone that Ní Chianáin initially strikes, though it soon shifts into something more like a spy thriller as the situation turns out to be far more complicated than anyone anticipated.

Can each of these men be trusted? Can they trust anybody else? Does the tomb even exist? Indiana Jones once referred to his goal as ‘fortune and glory’, but here there are different people pursuing each of those objectives, and although there don’t appear to be any actual Nazis in the game, that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. With rival teams on the trail and the King of Jordan striving to keep the situation under control, military interventions and even religious interference, there’s a lot to keep track of in a narrative which keeps finding new sharks to jump and yet, somehow, keeps us believing – or at least convinces us that some of these men believe in what they’re doing to the extent that they will risk their lives for it.

Whilst it’s a great story – introduced by a comic book history of Alexander’s exploits which establishes the tone and the way that story is playing out inside the men’s heads – Ní Chianáin struggles a little to provide visual elements which can keep up. Despite flashes of beauty, the area of Jordan in question is not the most picturesque, and the golden artefacts we see can never match the glory of what is clearly present in the men’s imaginations. This means that on the occasions when the narrative loses pace, there’s nothing much to fall back on, and the focus on the technical can make it feel a bit dry.

Though it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, this is an intriguing documentary and a must see for Alexander fans. It succeeds as a study of obsession, and will likely encourage, rather than deterring, other treasure hunters out there. One cannot help but think that the great general himself would have been amused.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2024
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An international group of 'gentlemanly explorers', all with pseudonyms to protect their identities, come together in a quest to solve the mystery of the missing tomb of Alexander the Great.

Director: Neasa Ní Chianáin

Writer: Etienne Essery, Neasa Ní Chianáin

Starring: Jiji Defallah, Omar Aissaoui, Luc Detré, Valerio Manfredi

Year: 2024

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: Ireland, UK


Docs Ireland 2024

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