Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.

The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.

Nine Queens: clever film about two con artists with a message about how societies built on greed and mutual distrust crash

Fabian Bielinsky, “Nine Queens / Nuevas Reinas” (2000)

Talented Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky made just two films before his untimely death in 2006 and his first, “Nine Queens”, is now considered a classic in his native country. A naive young wannabe grifter, Juan (Gaston Pauls), attaches himself to the older and more experienced con artist Marcos (Ricardo Dario) for 24 hours to learn the tricks of the trade after a botched scam at a convenience store. Marcos shows him how to improvise and create scenes at newsagents and restaurants in order to get what he wants while paying as little as possible.

Next thing you know, an old associate of Marcos, Sandler, calls Marcos to say he needs help in selling counterfeit copies of a stamp collection known as the Nine Queens. Sandler, Marcos and Juan target a rich Spanish businessman, Gandolfo, who is being deported to Venezuela and needs to smuggle his wealth out of Argentina. They take the fake stamps to Gandolfo at the hotel where he is staying – coincidentally the same hotel where Marcos’ sister Valeria and younger brother Federico work – and after Gandolfo’s hired expert has checked them and declared them authentic, the parties agree to the 450,000 peso exchange. As luck would have it though, the hired expert later demands a cut of the money (he knew the stamps were fakes) and a motorcycle gang steals the briefcase with the fake stamps and throws it into the river.

Marcos and Juan return to the owner of the stamps and persuade her to sell them for 250,000 pesos. The two men find the money to buy the stamps off her and return to Gandolfo, who then insists that he will only buy the stamps at the agreed price on condition that he gets to sleep with Valeria. Valeria for her part agrees to sleep with Gandolfo on condition that Marcos must confess to Federico that he, Marcos, scammed his siblings out of the family’s Italian property inheritance. Amazingly, everyone adheres to the various conditions of the deal and Marcos and Juan get paid – in a bank cheque. Marcos tries to cash the cheque but as luck would have it, the bank suffers a crash, all its customers try to pull their money out and the cheque is worthless.

The film is blessed with well-drawn character roles and fine acting along with a plot that’s just barely plausible. All attention is focused on dialogue and plot, and the actors (especially Dario) play their parts tersely and well. The pace is fast with brisk conversations, a minimal style of presentation and single-minded focus. By the film’s climax, viewers will feel everyone in the film is out to deceive and con someone out of money: Gandolfo’s hired expert is on the take and even Valeria, who despises Marcos for his character and seedy ways, seems prepared to prostitute herself for money. Soon it becomes apparent that the entire society in which Marcos and Juan live is full of con artists, as even banks – incidentally the film is set in Argentina at a time when the country was defaulting on its debts due to past corrupt governance and asset-stripping of the country’s resources under the façade of privatisation – go belly-up and leave their customers in the lurch while their executives are marched off to prison on charges of stealing and operating pyramid schemes.

Viewers who enjoy guessing how the plot unfolds may be surprised (pleasantly!) at the film’s denouement, in which supreme con-man Marcos is revealed to be the victim of an even bigger con carried out by all the people he has met during the course of the film. There is the suggestion that the giant con had been planned and executed to restore the moral fabric of the cosmos, put out of order and harmony by Marcos’ past scams and double-dealing. Marcos ends up thoroughly alone with not even the prospect of jail-time to add some meaning and purpose to his future. There is no outlet for him to do penance and perhaps turn over a new leaf, and that way gain some forgiveness and another chance at being a better person.

There is another lesson that the film conveys and that is a society built on self-interest, mutual mistrust of others and the belief that morality is only for suckers is a shaky one and when hard times come, that society will collapse and its future will be very bleak.

El Aura: a complicated heist noir film of spooky mystery, escape and reinvention

Fabián Bielinsky, “El Aura / The Aura” (2005)

While promoting this film, Fabián Bielinsky died from a heart attack so “El Aura” and “Nueve Reinas / Nine Queens”, a clever heist classic, are all the full-length movies he has left to Argentine cinema. And a very excellent legacy Bielinsky has left behind too: cleverly made with complicated if not entirely serious plots and featuring considerable suspense and tension. “El Aura” is notable for its sweeping Patagonian desert and forest landscapes and the eerie atmosphere they possess, promising spooky mystery and potential for change and renewal. Spooky mystery and change leading to renewal are a-plenty in this suspenseful, almost existential psychological noir piece about the role fantasy and memory play in forging a new identity and changing people’s lives.

The action takes place over a week and the beginning and the ending of the film are almost much the same. Taxidermist Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) has a fantasy about committing the perfect crime and relates his fantasy to a friend who invites him on a hunting trip. Since Espinosa’s wife has just walked out on him, Espinosa agrees to accompany his friend. They drive to a remote bed-n-breakfast place run by Diana Dietrich (Dolores Fonzi) and her teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The two men go hunting and have a disagreement so they separate. Espinosa has one of his epileptic attacks in which his past, present and future all meld together; just after this attack, he sees what he thinks is a deer and ends up shooting … Diana’s husband (Manuel Rodal). This unfortunate incident leads Espinosa to investigate Dietrich’s affairs and uncover the man’s secret: Dietrich is a career criminal specialising in holding up armoured vehicles and stealing all their money. Suddenly Espinosa has the opportunity to take over Dietrich’s work and carry out another heist with Dietrich’s partners and Julio.

The film is leisurely paced, allowing viewers the time to admire and immerse themselves in the wide desert vistas, the quiet green forests, the rundown factory town Cerro Verde and above all the plot. Darin plays the loner Espinosa to perfection: this taxidermist is very much an outsider, ill at ease in the world around him, who lives in the world of his mind which turns out to be quite vivid and which saves his skin on several occasions in the film despite the epilepsy. The plot and Espinosa’s character develop steadily with room for laughs as well as suspense and sudden violence. The cinematography is beautiful and never more so when Espinosa suffers a fit: the turning camera captures vividly the visions that Espinosa has, his feeling of being apart from everything yet of it and the final black-out he experiences – this might be the closest cinema has come to delineating what an epileptic fit might be like to experience vicariously.

While astute viewers can almost predict how the plot turns out – I got the feeling early on that Espinosa will release Diana from the mental and physical prison her father and Dietrich placed around her and that Dietrich’s two partners will come to a grisly end – the gradual and confident unfolding is a pleasure to follow and keeps the viewer spellbound all the way to the end. If you subsist on a diet of Hollywood cinematic and TV thriller fare though, you may find “El Aura” slow and low-key as thrillers go.

Escape and reinvention are constant themes throughout the film: all characters desire or achieve escape of one sort or another though it may not be the kind of escape they desire. Even Espinosa, for all his wishful thinking, finds that escape through fantasy does not quite translate well into real life; priding himself on his ability to remember detail, there is one detail he fails to remember which becomes relevant to the heist that Dietrich and his friends were planning together and which he, Espinosa, stumbles upon and takes over. He eventually retreats from escape and is left with Dietrich’s sinister wolf-like pet dog. Perhaps the only person who achieves a successful escape and who may be able to achieve a new identity is Diana. Chance plays a major part too: it is by chance that Espinosa kills Dietrich and by chance several times during the film that Espinosa manages to escape death himself. This brings an aura (ha!) of dread and apprehension over the film itself. Espinosa’s alienation from the world and his laconic hang-dog expression add to the morose, insular and paranoiac atmosphere.

The conclusion may or may not come as a surprise though on reflection it should not really be a surprise: Espinosa finds he has bitten off more than he can chew, the world does not conform to his perceptions and expectations and even the experiences he has just before and during his epileptic fits and the visions he sees in those brief unsettling moments when he steps outside temporal reality are of limited help to him. The character may or may not have been changed by his experiences – viewers must decide for themselves if he has. Even when everything seems all wrapped up and no loose ends have been left behind, an uneasy mystery remains. “El Aura” is well-named.

 

Everybody has a Plan: slow-burn character study burdened by hokey plot twists and themes of identity, choice and responsibility

Ana Piterbarg, “Todos tenemos un Plan / Everybody has a Plan” (2012)

Ah, don’t we love films about identical twin brothers turning on themes of identity, choice and responsibility and giving actors a one-in-a-lifetime chance of giving two character studies for the price of one! And certainly Viggo Mortensen does a fine job of portraying two such fellows: one, Agustin, a squeaky-clean paediatrician on call in Buenos Aires, a man who scrupulously obeys the law and does as he’s told; and his identical twin Pedro, the polar opposite in every way – ostensibly a beekeeper but also running a kidnapping / ransoming racket with his childhood buddy Adriano (Daniel Fanego). The film also boasts some beautiful nature scenes from northern Argentina, courtesy of fine cinematography work by Lucio Bonelli, and promises an investigation into the nature of identity, the choices people make in life, reinventing oneself and accepting responsibility for those choices. What’s not to like?

Agustin lives a comfortable and secure life as a paediatrician with his wife Claudia (Soledad Villamil) in the Big Smoke but feels something lacking in his existence and yearns to escape his stress-filled life of the demands of administering to middle class parents’ brats and of his own high-maintenance spouse. Initially the couple had thought that children would help to fill the void in their lives and are in the process of adopting a baby but Agustin quickly realises that being childless isn’t the problem and backs out of the adoption process. This creates a rift between him and Claudia, and Agustin falls into a depression. Claudia leaves their apartment and while she’s gone, Pedro visits him. Pedro reveals he is dying of lung cancer and asks Agustin to help kill him. Pedro’s arrival gives Agustin an escape route and in no time at all, Agustin has fled BA and assumed Pedro’s identity and life-style as beekeeper in the Tigre river delta region in north-central Argentina. Life in a relaxed, down-at-heel rural area would seem to be idyllic but unfortunately Pedro’s past actions have unpleasant consequences for Agustin: local people treat him with suspicion and ostracise him, the police harass him and throw him into jail, and Pedro’s partner Adriano turns up to force his co-operation in a kidnap attempt that Pedro had earlier planned.

The film’s premise is ingenious if not executed very smoothly: there are a few loose ends and director Piterbarg would probably prefer that we not ask too many detailed questions about how well Agustin blends into the local Delta culture or that local girl Rosa (Sofia Gala Castaglione) doesn’t seem to notice the personality changes. The film’s rather glacial and cold pace gives audiences plenty of opportunity to ponder the stereotype of the city as a crime-ridden hell-hole of murders, arson and predatory gangs and the country as a paradise of simplicity and honest, decent folk. Everything we had assumed in popular culture about the city / country divide and the kinds of people produced on either side is turned on its head. Agustin is the naive bumpkin and Pedro is up to his neck in murder plots and robbery schemes. As he descends deeper into trouble, Agustin would appear to have opportunities to reconsider his decision to flee his old life but for reasons that have their roots in his and Pedro’s early upbringing, he passes them all up.

Mortensen’s acting is excellent while the support cast ranges from average to good. Fanego’s villain never seems quite convincing and merely comes across as creepy instead of menacing. Villamil is quite good in the few scenes she has and Castaglione is touching as the innocent Rosa caught among three men, all of them old enough to be her father. The countryside plays a significant role as a peaceful, placid setting for the dark activities the men conduct in secret that spread fear throughout the poor community.

The film could have been very good but in its later half falls into hokey plot twists: there’s an unnecessary romance involving Rosa that sat ill with me and that sub-plot comes with a soured aspect of Rosa’s complicated love-life as well; and Agustin finds himself torn between running farther north and resolving the mess that Pedro helped to create and left in a mess. That old Hollywood chestnut of facing your fears and not being a coward rears its ugly head here; there’s also a lesson about being decent, doing good for people and minimising evil actions. Perhaps the film took on too much in its own planning: the plot and even the setting of Buenos Aires / Tigre delta with their urban / rural opposition, the stereotypes and values associated with both sides of that opposition, and how those opposites play out against one another and come to a compromise (or not), might be too much for a 2-hour film to cope with.

The film’s conclusion in which Agustin is taken up-river in a boat is redolent with cultural associations of the river as a metaphor for the passage of time or the legend of King Arthur being taken away to Avalon to be healed of his mortal wounds; not everything has been resolved here and one fears for the future of some characters but at least Agustin has supposedly found some purpose in life and done, uh, some “good” for the community that he has come home to.

The bee-related theme that appears in the film is a metaphor for the notion of humans as essentially fixed in their natures, unable to change easily, and on this metaphor the film’s themes turn.

 

No: historical drama lacks passion and the full context of Pinochet 1988 referendum

Pablo Larraín, “No” (2012)

Set in late Pinochet-era Chile when the old dictator general, under international pressure to allow democracy to return to the South American country, reluctantly put the issue of his rule for another 8 years to public referendum, Larraín’s film “No” is an unusual history lesson on the interaction of politics and public relations. Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) plays an advertising executive hired by a group of social democratic and socialist party representatives to design a TV campaign urging people to vote “No” to Pinochet’s continued dictatorship. Bizarrely Saavedra’s ad boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) agrees to design the TV campaign for the pro-Pinochet side. This surreal premise sets up the two men and the extremes of the political spectrum they work for at loggerheads with potentially serious consequences for Saavedra’s career, personal life and son Simon.

The film is presented in the style of near-documentary / cinema vérité which shows off the cast’s acting and the passion they invest in their work. Bernal dominates the film and does excellent work; other members of the cast do very sterling work in their roles. Many people shown playing Pinochet’s supporters were involved in the actual “No” campaign that took place in 1988. The film-stock used is one popular in the late 1980s for filming and this enables Larraín to intersperse newsreels of the period into the film; this means that the entire movie looks a bit washed out with bleached colours. The equipment and filming methods are also ones typical of the late 1980s.

Although “No” is not an obvious action thriller, it has plenty of potential for drama as Saavedra takes on a job for which his background as the child of an exile having grown up overseas has not prepared him. His political allegiances are considered suspect by the left-wing parties who hire him. One might wonder why they did that and the film gives a fairly flimsy reason: Saavedra’s father was once a left-wing politician. The Mexican Bernal is ideal to play Saavedra: wide-eyed and youthful, he has a somewhat cynical and slightly apathetic attitude the character needs at the beginning of the film; as it progresses, Saavedra finds himself at the centre of historical events arising from the ad campaign and he becomes bewildered and frighened. He must confront the pro-Pinochet forces against him: his home is invaded mysteriously at night, his car is vandalised, strange people follow him and he fears for his son’s safety. To make matters worse, Guzman tells him that should the “No” campaign fail, he will be considered a threat to Pinochet and will be jailed. If that were not all, even the project he undertakes presents obstacles: the referendum is designed in such a way that it favours Pinochet with the TV exposure time allocated to the “No’ campaigners posted during the midnight graveyard TV viewing shift. Both sides for the “No” and “Yes” campaigns view him as ignorant and disrespectful of Chile’s recent history with his flaky and recycled ideas.

Just as there is much drama, there is quite a lot of comedy and satire, notably at the start where Saavedra invokes ideas of happiness, freedom and liberty … for an aid campaign promoting soft drink; he uses the same tired strategies for the “No” campaign; and in the film’s denouement, he’s still flogging those strategies for all they’re worth for a TV soap opera. (This tells us something about the culture that produces people like Saavedra in the manner of a sausage-making factory which the film is unable to explore.) Black humour does arise throughout the film as the opposing sides match ad campaigns with ad campaigns, stealing ideas, making copies of copies of copies, as advertising agencies often did in those days.

The film does not show the whole story behind the “No” campaign – it shows it mostly from Saavedra’s point of view and that is not very deep. There is nothing shown of any grassroots campaign undertaken by leftist parties and groups to encourage urban and rural people alike to vote “No” and the implication is that Saavedra’s silly and superficial campaign won over enough Chileans to vote “No” and boot Pinochet out of office. That’s hard to believe given the severity of his rule at the time, a smidgen of which is portrayed in the movie. There is nothing in the film that indicates what happened to Pinochet and his followers after democracy was restored. The cinema vérité style of the film limits its scope to portray very much of what people behind the “No” campaign were doing to push it along; as a result, in its early half the film gives the impression of muddling through its story. There is not much passion and energy in this part of the movie and at the cinema where I saw it, I was almost falling asleep and several patrons around me were also drowsy and dozing off.

It would have been a bonus if the character of Saavedra had changed for the better as a result of working on the “No” campaign but Larraín chooses to keep him as essentially detached and cynical about the work he does and the ideas he re-uses to death. This perhaps says something significant about the condition of modern Western people and the world they live in, in which ideals can be bought and sold at the highest bidding prices. Can it be that advertising campaigns that appeal to people’s fears and desires are more effective than winning over people’s hearts AND MINDS with ideals, ideology and reason? The hollowness that Saavedra feels when others around him are celebrating the success of the “No” campaign is troubling and suggests that the freedom that Chileans have won might also be an empty one that will not last long once the euphoria and celebrations end. Achieving happiness is more elusive than winning freedom from a hated dictatorship.

The film is recommended as an introduction to Chilean history and politics of the period but beyond that, interested students must find other information. It is disappointing that Larraín spends little time detailing the size of the monster that was Pinochet, that people were so afraid of him, and why he was able to govern the country for as long as he did. The period of Pinochet’s rule is significant for everyone, not just Chileans, as Pinochet provided an unwilling guinea pig country on which economic policies of monetarism, deregulation and privatisation were carried out by economists who had studied at the University of Chicago. The result was that nearly half the Chilean population was thrown into dire poverty while a few people close to Pinochet, the generals and various political and corporate interests in the United States enriched themselves. Chile also suffered economic and financial crises. By the time Pinochet was forced out of power, Chile’s economy had become dependent on agriculture and mining for its income with little manufacturing, mostly for its own needs. An opportunity to industrialise in the way South Korea did in the 1960s under an equally autocratic and harsh President of similar military background who also came power through a coup was missed. Chile became an example for Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan to follow in the 1980s, and in turn other countries copied these two. The world now stands on the brink of economic and environmental ruin thanks in part  to Pinochet, those who backed him in Washington DC and Chicago, and their eager acolytes around the globe. A line Saavedra repeats in the film – “… copies of copies of copies …” – becomes prophetic.

Simon of the Desert: film of a saint dehumanised by his own self-righteous hypocrisy and pride

Luis Buñuel, “Simon of the Desert / Simón del Desierto” (1965)

Buñuel skewers again institutional religion and sanctimonious belief, this time in a satire based on the life of the 4th-century ascetic Simon Stylites who spent 25 years praying and meditating atop a pillar in a desert. Outwardly the saint (Claudio Brook) appears a genuinely humble and devout man but as the film progresses, his pride and self-righteousness prove to be his greatest downfall rather than any temptations offered by Satan (Silvia Pinal) who appears at least three times in different guises. Ostensibly Simon undertook his quest to be closer to God and find peace but subtle hints throughout the film, beginning with his transfer from one pillar to another paid for by a wealthy man, demonstrate a lack of genuine faith and a “holier than thou” self-pride: he neglects to acknowledge his mother and her willingness to suffer in the desert with him, he berates a novice monk for being clean and beardless and he complains about running out of insects and other creatures to bless. Satan comes to him as a sexy schoolgirl, God himself and finally as a guide to a different world which turns out to be our modern Western age. The film drops Simon and Satan, now a modish young woman, in the middle of a discotheque filled with teenagers jiving to a rock’n’roll band: Simon, now smoking and drinking alcohol, and looking like an ivory-tower intellectual who got blackmailed by a beautiful student into a date with her, gets bored and wants to leave but Satan tells him to wait right to the end when she and the others have finished dancing.

As the budget for the film ran out before its completion, Buñuel was forced to finish it quickly and abruptly, hence the completely unexpected climax and denouement in which Simon is transported 1,700 years into the future. I’m not sure though whether, if Buñuel had had more money, the intended ending would have been any better: the aim was to show how Simon’s determination to make himself suffer before God and his pride in undergoing more rigour than anyone else can stand undermine his humanity and resistance to Satan. I imagine the film would simply have piled on more examples of Simon undoing himself by his own actions, losing more of his humanity and purpose in life before he is reduced enough to succumb to Satan’s temptations. At the end of the film as it is, Simon finds he no longer has much in common with humanity and is farther away from God than what he thought himself to be, and that’s as it should be. Whether the final fall from grace should have taken place in a disco jumping with kids doing the latest dance while sax and guitars play around them is another thing: this scene reveals more about Buñuel’s prejudices towards teenage fads of his time than of Hell itself, and I rather feel Buñuel was unfair towards young kids in this respect when other, more genuinely trashy aspects of Western culture, including anything to do with religion and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, could have portrayed Hell in all its sordidness.

Other characters in the film, major and minor, illustrate Buñuel’s opinion of religious ritual, unthinking conformity and the sheer meanness that human nature can descend to. A thief without hands and his wife implore Simon for a miracle, Simon prays to God and the man suddenly finds his hands restored; instead of praising God and thanking Simon for the miracle, the man cuffs his son while the missus starts planning all the work hubby can now do around the house. Two nearby pilgrims refer to the miracle as a “trick” and various monks also treat this miracle and others Simon performs very lightly, even going so far as to suggest that Satan is responsible for putting food in Simon’s bag than Simon himself or somebody else. The only people in the film Buñuel has any pity or feeling for are Simon’s long-suffering mother, waiting patiently for some attention from her son, and a shepherd dwarf who has more good sense than everyone else in the movie combined.

While the plot and the style of the movie are uneven, at least Brook distinguishes himself by underacting and playing his character po-faced straight to the point where Simon becomes a figure of pity or ridicule while Pinal, clearly relishing her devilish role, slightly overdoes the sexiness and eats up the scenery whenever she appears. Buñuel hit on a real comedy duo in Brook and Pinal. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the plot allows him to show off his skill in filming from different angles, emphasising spatial (and maybe psychological) distance between Simon and the people he interacts with. Surreal influences – a coffin sliding over the grass, for example – intrude into the film and the plot twist near the end doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Perhaps the movie didn’t turn out as Buñuel intended but “Simon of the Desert” is not too bad as it is; any longer and the film might have become repetitive and boring in its latter half. As the saying goes, less is more, and as Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit, and “Simon of the Desert” proves both right.

The Exterminating Angel: satire on bourgeois hypocrisy and human inability to overcome oppression

Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel / El ángel exterminador” (1962)

So far everything I have seen of Luis Buñuel has been supremely first class and “The Exterminating Angel” is no exception. The film is a surrealist fantasy that lampoons the behaviour of the upper class and reveals it as a bunch of cowards, idiots and hypocrites. The plot is simple enough: a wealthy man, Nobilé, invites twenty or so of his pals and their wives to dinner after a night at the opera; after an excellent meal, coffee, conversation and some piano entertainment, the host and his guests discover they are unable to leave the dining-room. (In the meantime, all the servants have fled the mansion.) Over several weeks, the dinner-party guests grow hungry, thirsty and tired, and descend into exactly the barbarous behaviour they decry in working-class people.

The filming technique looks conventional but the dialogue is typically Buñuelian: exchanges are loaded with irony and sarcasm and poke fun at Roman Catholicism and what passes for Catholic morality, and at the guests’ own expectations about their place in society and how the world should revolve around them, their needs and wants. As the days pass, and one hapless man falls into a coma and dies, the guests display moral hollowness (no-one shows any compassion towards the dying guest and his companion), fight over water, make bargains with God, try to kill another guest in a bizarre superstitious ritual and fall into childish ways of solving the problem of leaving the dining-room. Intelligence, logic, any semblance of rationality are all left at the front door (literally, as it turns out) as the guests turn on one another. Viewers discover that all they have in common is their wealth and apart from that, the guests actually loathe one another. There is a suggestion that for some of them, the wealth was not obtained legitimately or was inherited at the expense of other, more hard-working people. (In a later complementary film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Buñuel follows seven dinner companions in search of a decent meal together; two of these companions are shown to be a corrupt ambassador and his friend involved in a drug-trafficking scheme.)

The film’s structure is perfect and builds up quickly: disquieting omens about what will happen (the servants feel they must leave the mansion as soon as they can; one of the waiters trips while carrying the first course and spills the food all over the floor; the real evening’s entertainment that revolves around a bear and two sheep must be cancelled) occur quickly and efficiently for comic effect without elaboration; once the guests discover their predicament, the film settles into an easy-going pace in which Buñuel repeatedly shoots satirical barbs at the bourgeoisie through the guests’ foibles and prejudices. In the meantime, citizens and police outside the mansion worry about the fate of the people within but apart from that, life goes on as normal, illustrating the uselessness of the trapped upper class twats.

Significantly the bear proves harmless to the sheep though the hapless ovines end up being slaughtered by the guests. One doesn’t need to wonder too much at the sort of crass entertainment the bear and the sheep were supposed to provide before it was called off.

The film’s climax comes at the very end when, after freeing themselves in a hilarious ritual that they don’t understand, the guests attend church to thank God for saving them, only to discover that they can’t leave the church buildings! The climax is shown as a series of visual collages: the fade-out / fade-in of successive scenes shows the passage of time; other scenes send up political repression as mounted police chase away and shoot at crowds who are either trying to help the trapped congregation or celebrating their freedom; and eventually a flock of sheep is released into the church to be ripped apart and eaten (and their blood drunk) in a mock parody of Mass.

Repetition, reiterations, contradictions and unusual juxtapositions are major themes in the film which may help explain why about the halfway mark the film starts to drag with repeating ideas for some viewers. There is a surreal dream sequence in which voices, representing deeply felt concerns for some guests, speak off-screen while the guests sleep. The repetition suggests that people, even when given the chance, prefer to stick to convention, ritual and habit even when these threaten to destroy them or any chance they might have of achieving happiness. We know what the problem is, who’s oppressing and destroying us, how the oppression is occurring and what to do about our destroyers … so what’s stopping us from taking control of our destiny?

 

 

 

The Motorcycle Diaries: road trip through South America is a hard slog

Walter Salles, “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004)

A film about two guys in their 20s riding on a motorcycle through South America in the 1950s should have been easy to make entertaining, especially when the travellers in question come from comfortable middle-class families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the people in the places they visit are not only poor farmers, miners and labourers, these folks are also indigenous or part-indigenous people who might never have heard of Argentina or know it only as a country full of rich snobs. Add to that scenario the fact that one of the Argentine travellers is one Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or “Fuser” as he was known at the time by his pals: yes, that Ernesto Guevara aka Che Guevara the diplomat, writer, politician and revolutionary. Throw in side-trips to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, sites of the once-mighty Incan civilisation, with the added attraction of magnificent Andean mountain settings for the latter place; journeys across the Argentine pampa and over the snowy Argentine-Chilean Andes down to Valparaiso in Chile; an ill-advised hike by foot and hitch-hiking through the Atacama desert towards Peru; and a 3-week sojourn at a leper colony in Peru’s Amazonian territory near the end. How can you not make of this mixture a colourful and invigorating road trip spiced with questions about how some parts of South America became rich and other parts poor, how the aboriginal peoples were brought down so low by European colonisation, and what can the travellers do in their small ways to make amends for this situation?

Amazingly “The Motorcycle Diaries”, directed by Brazilian director Walther Salles using Guevara’s memoirs of the same name, and featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Fuser with Rodrigo de la Serna (in real life related to Guevara) as travelling companion Alberto Granado, turns out to be a hard and earnest slog starved for energy and vitality through an itinerary of touristy spots without the rip-off souvenir shops. The miners, farmers and other labourers Fuser and Granado meet add some substance and flavour to the places ticked off on their list but viewers get no sense of connection, of brotherly feeling between the Argentines and the people they meet. Part of the problem here is the blank-slate soporific acting style adopted by Garcia Bernal in playing Fuser: viewers have no idea of what Fuser’s early background was like apart from his being a medical student. Even in voice-over narrations when writing to his parents in letters and diary entries, Fuser never refers to past memories of family life which might hint at his relatively privileged childhood and the education he received. He comes over as a geeky and socially awkward young man with bland pretty-boy looks more likely to accept his doctor slot in the capitalist slave wage society, patching up people who get hurt in the course of being ground down by the system and fixing their problems so they can get back to being ground down, than as an independent-minded rebel in the making. The real-life Che Guevara must have been a much more intelligent, inquisitive and engaging man than the enervated and watery being viewers see in the film.

The other part of the problem is the narrative structure and the filming approach used to support it: “The Motorcycle Diaries” plays out in traditional story-telling mode about two travellers who want to go sight-seeing, pick up girls and have a good time; and the film crew use a mix of tracking, close-ups and occasional fixed shots to follow the duo. Very much a conventional way of recording Guevara’s memoirs in visual form but limited and alienating the audience as well: we go from A to B all the way to Z in a way that loses its zip as one picturesque scene after another ends up blending into a string of picturesque scenes all very much the same. There is no sense of a structure to the film other than a loosely knit series of both comedy and serious drama sketches in which Fuser and Granado suffer mishaps with the wheezing motorbike, get into scraps with men in small towns after flirting with their wives and girlfriends, lose their tent and beg for food, money and shelter from strangers; this could be any road-trip story with a couple of bumbling characters playing straight man and comic.

The film might have worked better if it had employed a more journalistic approach with occasional handheld camera shots of Fuser and Granado conversing with the people they meet, learning of their problems with their employers, landlords and the police, and put cameras on the motorbike itself in scenes where the men travel in the countryside and crash into cows or fall into ditches to convey a sense of movement, the thrill and dangers of travelling in unknown places where anything could happen, and the joy of being free and knowing that the people you will meet know nothing about you and have no expectations of you. A mix of different points of view or even using first-person viewpoints (Fuser or Granado) might have helped, particularly in scenes set in the leper colony so viewers get a sense of the ostracism and other indignities suffered by leprosy patients from the nuns, along with voice-over narration from Garcia Bernal as Fuser to put the scenes in both a historical and personal context that gives viewers some idea of what might have gone on in Fuser’s head and how he arrived at the conclusion that being a revolutionary would do more for the downtrodden and exploited than being a doctor.

At least the stunning landscapes, the towns visited and the indigenous people who share their problems with Fuser and Granado, as identified by Fuser/Guevara in 1952 when he took his trip, provide the film’s saving grace and make it worth seeing.

Pan’s Labyrinth: film of dark fantasy, horror and historical drama that inspires hope and courage

Guillermo del Toro, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
This is an excellent film that successfully combines dark fantasy and horror with historical drama set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944 to inspire people with hope and courage. The Spanish Civil War has ended several years before 1944 with the triumph of General Franco and his forces though rebels still hide in the forests, building up an underground network of resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) brings his heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), to his country homestead. Carmen is severely ill and in no fit state to travel but Vidal insists his son must be born “where his father is”. Where his father is means hunting down, capturing, torturing and/or killing the rebels with as much savagery as dear old Dad relishes. Literally hitting the odd rabbit poacher around the face with a bottle and killing him is par for the course. Reading bed-time stories to Junior must be out of the question, which would kill any attempts on big sister Ofelia’s part to be acquainted with the baby as she fills her life with books of fantasy, in particular one about a princess who left her underground kingdom to live in the world above, got lost, aged and died. The underground realm is still open to the return of the princess’s spirit if she were to undertake three tasks to prove her identity and worth.
Hey, hey, Ofelia discovers she may be that princess as a couple of insect-fairies introduce her to a monstrous faun (Doug Jones) living in a circular labyrinth deep in the garden next to Vidal’s homestead. The faun commands her to perform the three tasks within a certain time period. They turn out to be dangerous and difficult as they mirror her knowledge and experience of the world around her and take on aspects of the brutal and severe society she lives in and of the values and beliefs she has been taught. In one task, she just manages to escape being eaten by another monster (also played by Doug Jones) and the faun, on hearing the details surrounding that escape, tells the girl she is not fit for her tasks and refuses to deal with her any more.
In the meantime her stepfather Vidal lives out his own fantasy about creating a new Spain and bringing up his son to know of his father and grandfather’s deeds, grand to Vidal but horrible and undeserving of celebration to viewers; he fails to see that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor (Alex Angulo) are secretly helping the resistance. Eventually the two are caught: Mercedes manages to mutilate Vidal and escape but must leave Ofelia behind; the doctor is executed. Carmen gives birth to a healthy son and dies. Ofelia is left alone with Vidal, the faun comes back to her with the third task, and from this point on, Ofelia and Vidal’s respective fantasy worlds draw closer to the inevitable collision.
The actors play their roles efficiently but they are only playing stock characters as the film’s focus is on celebrating hope and imagination in situations and environments where people, institutions and governments actively or passively repress creativity and intelligence and turn populations into expendable robots. This applies as much to contemporary Western societies where people’s thinking and imagination are shaped and dictated to by distant unseen individuals and corporations with hidden agendas as it does to societies where the brainwashing and repression are more obviously blunt, brutal, clumsy and at times backfiring on the regimes’ objectives. It’s easy to criticise Baquero’s blank and stoic portrayal of Ofelia but viewers must consider such a portrayal as a distancing device among other things (for example, being po-faced would not attract the attention of a hated step-parent); likewise, Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal which can be theatrical and makes him as much a comic and pathetic character as a black-hearted sadistic villain has to be seen in the same light. The scene where Vidal tries DIY surgery is full of black humour: it shows just how insecure about his own masculinity Vidal is, that he refuses to ask for help. Perhaps this says something about the nature of repressive authoritarian regimes: they look secure on the outside but on the inside, who knows how really fragile they are?
The adult female characters Carmen and Mercedes are worth mentioning as complementary opposites. Carmen is a helpless mother, symbolic of the common people whose only function is to do the bidding of the political and social elites, represented by Vidal’s dinner party guests who include the local gentry and padre; her death in childbirth demonstrates her complete exploitation (she’s only useful to Vidal as incubator of his heir) and by implication that of the people she represents. Mercedes is more of a mother to Ofelia, promising to rescue her, but can’t help the girl even when she keeps her promise; I see her as representative of the common people’s resistance to oppression which, however heroic, can be fallible and sometimes wavering.
Ultimately when two fantasy worlds clash, one survives, the other crumbles and apparently disappears. Ofelia is confirmed as the true princess of the underground kingdom in a self-sacrificing act that recalls Christ’s crucifixion. Vidal’s wishes for his son to know his father and grandfather and for the child to continue his ancestors’ deeds come to nothing in a scene where he gives the baby to Mercedes that demonstrates how truly far gone in his fantasy world Vidal is. Yet the reality is that Vidal’s new Spain continues for another 31 years while Ofelia’s world disappears with her with only fragments left behind. After 1975 it seemed that Vidal’s Spain had gone forever but with the country now on the brink of bankruptcy, the Zapatero government preparing to send the army in against striking air traffic controllers at this time of writing (7 December 2010) and various sectors within Spanish society clamouring for a rehabilitation of Franco and asserting that he “saved” the country from its “enemies”, can we really be sure that Vidal’s fantasy world simply isn’t lying underground, waiting to grow again?