The third in Werner Herzog's South American "La Selva" trilogy (starting with Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) represents one of the most operatic films in his entire catalogue. The filmmaker's obsession with obsession (and madness) gets a dynamic display in the tale of a 19th-century pirate who becomes the feared and hated leader of an African region. Those who give this offbeat production a chance will find it unforgettable.

Klaus Kinski, the star of the earlier "La Selva" films and other Herzog works, plays the ruthless Brazilian bandit Francisco Manoel da Silva, who is also known as the infamous Cobra Verde (aka Green Snake) after he discovers he has been cheated of his profits at a gold-mining company and he kills his boss in revenge.

Da Silva's fierce reputation helps him get hired by a corrupt sugar baron, Don Octavio Coutinho (Jose Lewgoy), to be his slave overseer. But later, when Don Coutinho finds out da Silva has impregnated several of his wives, he orders his errant employee to re-establish slave-trading in Africa, a job that will mean almost certain death.

After a difficult voyage, da Silva confronts and defies the West African dictator, King Bossa Ahadee of Dahorney (His Royal Highness Nana Agyefi Kwame II of Nsein). Da Silva even escapes near-execution through the help of a rebellious prince whose followers overthrow and kill King Bossa.

Despite da Silva's success re-opening the slave trade, he runs afoul of the prince and must escape yet again. His effort fails as the African tribes celebrate their victory over oppression.

To tell this story, based on Bruce Chatwin's novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, Herzog draws thematically and artistically on a variety of other celebrated books, plays and films, including Conrad's Heart of Darkness, O'Neill's Emperor Jones, Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, von Stroheim's Queen Kelly, Pontecorvo's Burn! and Kurosawa's Ran.

But at the same time, Cobra Verde is one-of-a-kind--standing apart from even Herzog's own earlier, most phantasmagoric successes. Both sublime and ridiculous at times, the film differs from most epics about colonialization by refusing to offer an onscreen moral compass. Indeed, da Silva is a ruthless anti-hero, made only slightly sympathetic by the contrast with the even more megalomaniacal Don Coutinho and King Bossa. Also, the sheer scope of the imagery reflects on the folly of Herzog's enterprise (although this time Les Blank wasn't around to document the madness off-screen, as he did in Burden of Dreams, during the production of Fitzcarraldo).

Those who have seen My Best Fiend (1999), Herzog's own documentary about working with Kinski, will be somewhat familiar with how difficult the production became--including the harsh split that occurred during the filming between star and director. But Cobra Verde may be watched and liked without the eye-opening backstory.

Slow and sluggish at times, strange and intense at other times, Cobra Verde creates a unique atmosphere with memorable scenes: Don Coutinho and da Silva witnessing a slave getting his arm caught and crushed in a press; da Silva getting his face blackened by the African tribe so that Bossa may kill him (otherwise, he cannot kill a white man!); and the haunting, absurd penultimate sequence of da Silva trying to escape Africa by boat but collapsing on the beach instead. The end-title finale is an expression of joy (with a sly wink to the viewer) that counters all the suffocating, dark material that precedes it.

There are frustrating gaps and dislocations in the story (was it cut down in the editing room?), and some images are too exploitative to appreciate on any level (a long take of a dying cow, shots of children with actual disabilities). Yet Cobra Verde is a fascinating mixed bag--only 20 years late (but not irrelevant) on the film scene.