Zama, (Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Dominican Republic-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Switzerland-USA-Portugal-Lebanon, 2017)

Wishing he weren’t there

Coincidentally just after Monos I’ve found myself landed with another Latin American-set ‘hallucinatory’ film. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a corregidor (colonial administrator), is desperate to get back to his family; I assumed they were in Spain but reviews suggest they are in Buenos Aires. I think I can’t be blamed for my uncertainty because the film presents its narrative information tangentially; details aren’t clearly explained. Although he appears to be of European stock (he could be mixed race), he was born in the Americas and doesn’t feel he belongs in the outpost he’s duty-bound to look after. He petitions the Governor to write a letter to the King (of Spain) on his behalf but as the latter points out, the King always ignores the first and a second will be required… in two years time. Writer-director Lucretia Martel (based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel), in her first fiction film since The Headless Womandoesn’t spell out detail; like Zama we have to negotiate our way through the world of the film. In one scene, when Zama is pleading with the Governor, a lama appears, unnoticed by him, at his side; it’s a surreal touch suggesting it is a place that neither he nor we can comprehend. As Lola Dueñas’ character tells Cacho, ‘Europe is best remembered by people who have never been there’; place is as much myth as reality.

Surreal reality

Martel used a similar technique in The Headless Woman, where the uncertainty was narratively motivated by the bang on the head the protagonist receives at the start. In Zama the incomprehension is stimulated by the setting: whilst colonists can subjugate peoples and land, they cannot control the place that they don’t really know. The natives are barely characters in the film, they go about their work in the background, tolerating the  invaders. At the start, Zama is caught spying on naked native women covering themselves with mud; one protests and he beats her for her troubles. In a nutshell, the colonial power relationship is portrayed. This marginalisation, which in, say, the colonial set films of classical Hollywood was racist, here is a portrayal of the realpolitik.

The pursuit of the legendary-mythical bandit that fills the final third of the film reminded me of Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha’s similarly hallucinatory film set in Brazil’s sertão. When the bandit, Vicuña Porto, is found there’s no certainty that he is actually who he says he is. As Porto says, ‘it is only a name’. It’s striking that the actor I thought was playing the character who might be Porto is different to the one, Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele, who’s listed in the imdb credits as possibly being him. The gang’s desperation to find the jewel-filled coconuts reminded me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre… maybe there is something about Latin America…

Martel gets great performances from the cast; Cacho and Lola Dueñas, as the flirt he longs for, are particularly good. And Martel is one of the most interesting directors around; there’s nothing wrong with being made to work for your pleasure.

Monos (Colombia-Argentina-Netherlands-Germany-Sweden-Uruguay-USA-Switzerland-Denmark, 2019)

On the edge

Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.

Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.

Hearts of darkness

The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.

It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.

Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

Aquarius (Brazil-France, 2016)

Invisible woman

Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.

Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.

Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.

By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina, 2017)

Casting light?

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift the it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.