Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “South America

Meet Me Halfway

In this edition of the blog, we head over to 20th Century South America, where society is collapsing under the weight of violently-opposed ideologies in the moving Chilean drama-historical,

Machuca (aka My Friend, Machuca)

(2004) Written by Eliseo Altunaga, Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, and Andrés Wood           Directed by Andrés Wood

“You insist upon acting like an animal. It’s all about you, and only you. And what about the others? Don’t they count?”

Two boys from opposite sides of the tracks find peace and understanding in each other in the compelling Chilean historical drama, ‘Machuca’.

Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. The wealthy oppose their Marxist government and all who support the nationalization of local industry, while the poor, driven to near-destitution by a prolonged economic depression, lack of production and employment opportunities, champion the Communist cause as their only hope of survival. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart.

Machuca is a compelling pseudo-historical drama that explores the social upheaval during the time of Chilean president Salvador Allende. The controversial figure rose to power in 1970, more as a compromise candidate than by popular vote. The Nixon administration sought to remove him due to US fears his Marxist policies would make Chile another Cuba, and their fears were supported by local property and business owners. Those struggling to make ends meet at the other end of the spectrum saw socialism as a means to counter perceived greed: they could see that not everyone had to queue up for food rations, live in slums, or worry about job prospects. With the gulf ever-widening, strikes and clashes were inevitable. But if either side felt the hand of victory by the time of Allende’s alleged suicide in 1973, it was to be short-lived, with the country seized by a military junta and the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for the next two decades.

Class and ideological warfare paint the film’s turbulent background. In the early 1970s, Chile was split down the middle and vulnerable to military rule, which would finally arrive in 1973.

All of which merely strikes the surface of this truly complex chapter of Chilean history and the many forces that brought the nation to its knees in the early 1970s. Yet Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core. It is a battle between two sides so entrenched by wealth and poverty that they will never be able to reconcile – each side is seen as causing the destruction of national stability and each, in its own way, is right. And, like the similarly-themed Albanian film Slogans, Machuca shows the tragedy of such entrenched social warfare – that any attempt to look past these differences by focusing on basic human commonalities is ultimately thwarted by the very ideologies supposedly designed to create a more socially harmonious world in the first place. However, where Slogans focused more on the failure of Marxism because of party politics interfering with basic social development (eg – education, relationships, etc), in Machuca, the income divide is the principal barrier.

Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core.”

No film really could do justice to the broad strokes of the conflict, and thus we see only splashes of it through the eyes of sensitive teen Gonzalo Infante, as he discovers the many sides to the story and finds himself unable to make true sense of any of it. Born into wealth, Infante finds himself having to reconcile his privileged world with that of Pedro Machuca, one of the many poor classmates introduced into the school by the Christian priests in charge of their education, as part of their attempt to give equal rights to the impoverished. Through Machuca, Infante experiences life on the other side of the coin, and finds himself enjoying his new friend’s down-to-earth earnestness, the Communist rallies Machuca’s family attends, and even more so, the bewitching  charms of the girl next door.

For wealthy adolescent Gonzalo Infante, the voyage outside of his everyday world is as much a sexual awakening as it is a socio-economic one.

Though viewing the adult world through the lens of childhood innocence is nothing new in film (other examples include The Blue Kite, Empire Of The Sun, and Great Expectations), it is an understandably-useful narrative tool for showing different sides of an issue without picking any. It is probably one of the only ways to maturely deal with subject matter for which there are no easy conclusions. Children are also the only social group within such entrenched ideologically-conflicted circumstances who will reach out to each other regardless of the stance their elders have taken. They have not yet learned to hate for stupid reasons. A similar argument could be made for romance, though we all know how Romeo & Juliet ended.

By making its principal characters adolescents, Machuca shows the point at which such hatred begins to manifest, and is as much a voyage of self-discovery for Infante and his contemporaries as it is the first steps toward understanding what the adults are fighting about. Indeed, for Gonzalo, a fairly sensitive-yet-reserved boy, the discovery of the impoverished class and their beliefs is the point at which he begins to find his voice, even if it is only able to speak with mounting confusion. It’s perhaps telling that he only begins to grow when removed from the stilted world of the private school (where indeed those with the most to say are the classist and insular bullies) and the machinations of his social-climbing mother, whose affair with a richer man and social snobbery is never subtle. In Machuca, we get the sense that this is the first time Infante experiences true friendship, and in the slightly-older shanty town neighbour Silvera, his first sexual awakening. For Infante, travel truly broadens the mind. He is a better person precisely for making an effort to understand difference that his financial contemporaries would be both unable and unwilling to perceive – a common occurrence in any society.

At the other end of the spectrum, the privileged class rail against the ‘threat’ of Marxism – at the time, a very real concern for the US government, worried that Chile would become “another Cuba”.

This universal element of growth and personal discovery is another reason why Machuca can reach out to a broad audience who may know nothing of Chilean history. It should resonate with anyone who has dared to step outside of their ‘normal’ world and see the way others live. I would even argue it’s a test of character that everyone should undergo in order to progress to some kind of maturity, and one all the more important in our increasingly-globalised world. The film even makes frequent comparisons to ‘The Lone Ranger’, a story about a man who befriends an American Native.

It’s an interesting comparison to make, given that Machuca is no Tonto, but a strongly-independent character in his own right, and because in the less ‘idealised’ Chile, class differences are seen to divide even the sturdiest of relationships. This makes the friendship between Machuca and Infante all the more important for the journey the two embark upon (how much can they learn from each other before the inevitable happens?) and all the more tragic because their union represents Chile’s last, best hope for peace.

That said, there were certainly more mature elements of Chilean society working to bridge the divide as well. We learn at the film’s opening that the school the boys attend was based upon the very real St. George’s College, a private English-language school in Santiago. In fact, director Andrés Wood dedicates his film to a Father Gerardo Whelan, who served as the college’s director between 1969 and 1973, which suggests a strong biographical element to Machuca. Father McEnroe, his fictional alter-ego, is a bear of a man with a powerful sense of justice working tirelessly to bridge the social divide – even when it seems as though no-one else will thank him for it.

Part of the story is based on writer/director Andres Wood’s real-life experience of a priest-run private school attempting to bridge the gap between the two sides – an attempt that is not universally-appreciated.

And this is the truth of the whole sorry affair: this wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side, but desired true segregation, the logical end point of the class war. The lines have been drawn long before the two boys discover each other, the final clash only a matter of time. When the Pinochet junta assumes military control of the country, only one side will have the means to avoid the opening salvo of the dictator’s long reign. It is a reign that will care nothing for the previous social conflicts, except inasmuch as they have paved the way for its existence. Here, when blood lines the streets of the capital and its shanty towns have been erased from existence, does Chile follow the main characters and awaken to the reality of their world. The real growing pains are about to begin.

Amazingly, Machuca was shot under very tight conditions due to a miniscule budget that the director and his crew have done very well to mask. This is achieved firstly through the excellent on-location filming which ensures an authentic viewing experience. From the location used to serve as the private school to the standing sets of the shanty town to the frenzy of the busy urban landscape, I can only wonder how someone with more money might have done better. Post-production also plays a major role in the look and feel of the picture, alternating between the vibrant spectrum that today’s software can create – scenes of high drama are even given that colour-bled filter which works so well to match the bleakness of hope dying on-screen.

“This wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side”

Major credit must also go to the choice of actors, particularly when many of them, including the principal stars, had had no professional experience. Wood apparently spent the better part of a year coaching them prior to shooting, and it is a labour that really pays off. Great attention too is paid to the setting – it really does look like 1973. With or without the crew’s many restrictions, Machuca can stand tall for its achievements.

Those better-versed in Chilean history may perhaps take issue with the politics presented, or be disappointed that a major cinematic commentary on that period keeps its distance from a particular stance. It is still fresh in the memory for many who will have their own story to tell. In time, we may come to hear them. However, for novices like myself, Machuca is a very compelling and accessible work that succeeds because of its very universal human drama. We may not have lived through that mad episode of Chile’s development, but through this film, we can recognise in ourselves the people who did.

*****

Next Time

“The film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.”

The light, but touching Chinese rural drama, Postmen In The Mountains, next time on World On Film. See a trailer below.

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You Lie Down With Dogs

This week: friendship, loyalty and desperation as World On Film travels to the slums of Rio de Janeiro for City Of Men. There’s also a brief stopover in British Indian Ocean Territory where a displaced people fight for their home. First up however, put the film City Of God out of your mind for the entirely unconnected:

City Of Men

(2007) Written by Elena Soarez & Paulo Morelli        Directed by Paulo Morelli

The struggle for survival in a world dominated by gang warfare in 'City Of Men', not to be confused with its near-namesake.

The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. The city’s signature image is that glittering crescent-shaped downtown coastline with a mass of white skyscrapers filling the shore to the right with the shining blue sea taking prominence on the left while beyond, the solid stone massif of Sugar Loaf Mountain defines the background. And yet, while it is surely the most striking of Rio de Janeiro’s natural landmarks, it is by no means anomalous to the rest of the capital’s layout. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio’s enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as favelas, often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In City Of Men, the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.

The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle ‘Dead End Hill’, concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as ‘Midnight’ in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film’s two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.

Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha play Acerola and Laranjinha, best friends until a dark secret from the past threatens to tear them apart.

One of City Of Men’s strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or ‘Morro da Sinuca’ in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.

“The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in [a shanty town ruled by gang warfare]: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law.”

Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.

'City Of Men' is actually the cinematic final chapter to the highly-popular Brazilian tv series of the same name. Inevitably, newcomers may not be able to appreciate the film as much as 'City Of Men's longtime fans.

It was not until after viewing the film that I learned City Of Men is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, City Of God, which apparently sets many up for disappointment. City Of Men, it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.

Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, City Of Men offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter  and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, City Of Men will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn’t work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.

The drama is shot on location in some of Rio de Janeiro's many shanty towns, hillside markers to the city's huge poverty divide.

I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on City Of Men until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.

To learn more about the original series, visit here.

To see the official website (in Portuguese), click here.

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*****

British Indian Ocean Territory

The original natives of British Indian Overseas Territory stage protest for the right to return to Diego Garcia, the main island of the archipelago, in 1980.

In late 2010, whistleblower site Wikileaks released documents disclosing efforts by the British government to turn the distant protectorate of islands known as British Indian Ocean Territory into a marine reserve. The archipelago had, once upon a time, been home to the Chagossians, the ethnic group of the region, principally settled on the island of Diego Garcia. In the 19th Century, the islands became part of the British colony of Mauritius (formerly possessed by France), however, when Mauritius was granted independence in 1965 (taking effect in 1968), they were separated and became what is now known as British Indian Ocean Territory. Over the next 8 years, the approximately 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the British government when it was decided that Diego Garcia was of sufficient strategic importance to host a military base. The facility was constructed in 1971, leased to the U.S. by England, and bearing the ironic designation Camp Justice.

Those in search of it meanwhile were relocated to the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles (both of which now lay claim to the territory) and the U.K. from where they would spend the next four decades protesting what they declared an illegal act. A 2006 High Court ruling agreed with them, however a 2008 ruling by the House of Lords supported the contention that the British government had a ‘royal prerogative’ to hold the archipelago. The Wikileaked documents outline the proposal by the British government in 2009 to turn the waters surrounding the islands into a “marine reserve”. This would then “assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld”, as well as make it “difficult, if not impossible, [for the native Chagossians] to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve”.

While unsurprisingly therefore, BIOT is not known for its film industry, its history is certainly worthy of a screenplay, though these days, the Chagossians would probably be depicted as blue-skinned inhabitants of a moon fighting the evil ‘Britcorp’ for their lucrative territory.

*****

Next Time

A nation experiencing the birth pains of social change. An irreconcilable generation gap. A frightened population looking for scapegoats. A man fighting for his sanity. Chaos and hope in the ambitious Bulgarian film Eastern Plays when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer – unsubtitled, but you’ll get the idea.


The Call Of The Wild

If you were asked to pin down the one fundamental instinct that drives all human relationships and indeed the shape of every society, what would you say? Travel with me to Bolivia this week as World On Film explores the ugly, but brutally honest truth of:

Sexual Dependency

(2003) Written & Directed by Rodrigo Bellot

Hunter and prey in 'Sexual Dependency', though gender is only part of the divide.

(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of the previous entry.)

In Sexual Dependency, writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears. Society is reduced to the hunters and their prey, the aggressive dominators and the submissive victims. Sexuality, both the need and fear of it dictate the daily lives of all, wittingly or unwittingly. Viewed through the lens of the animal, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.

So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn’t dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work. However, the change of location also serves another crucial purpose, of which more a little later.

The film's split-screen format is a revolution in cinematic visual experimentation - or deeply irritating, depending upon whom you ask.

Another function of the loose anthology of story segments (minor characters in one become major characters in another) is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl. 15, we are told, is the time when one comes of age in Bolivia (more strictly-speaking, the age of consent is when puberty has been reached), and when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout Sexual Dependency, the young girl’s unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment: the message ultimately being that consent is either way irrelevant, since the weak and submissive will simply be directed by the dominant forces of the group. By the end of the film, the male victims of this natural law are no less numerous.

The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the many acts of dominance they must perform on a regular basis to remain at the centre of their world, and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.

By shifting the film's setting, Bellot shows the way in which someone can be dominant in one social group and a submissive victim in another.

In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of Sexual Dependency goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence. The sex in Sexual Dependency bears no relation to the fantasy of the expectant imagination: this is the physical act borne of instinct, aggression, and indeed, dependency.

[Sexual Dependency is] a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by its sexual urges, desires, and fears.”

Some segments of the drama are not quite what they appear to be, to varying success.

Full credit must go to Bellot to choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. In depicting the real rather than ideal normally featured in cinema, this was central to making Sexual Dependency work, and I can’t think of a single actor present who didn’t deliver. Equally important to this was the subtitles for the Bolivian sections. For my copy at least, they were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn’t distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way it was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen. There is so much happening on so many different levels both in the stories themselves and the post-production later that the overall result is a rich and layered experience.

The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself has been shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of ‘echoing’ effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama’s chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary. It does certainly provide a visual cue to the overall theme of perceptions shifting depending upon not only how one perceives the world, but what role one plays in a social group and how it changes according to circumstance.

The unsubtle dimensions of prejudice and hypocrisy in sexual politics are also explored to good, though brutally honest effect.

Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, Sexual Dependency is a title both of and within the film. It doesn’t dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally ‘exploited’, although perhaps I simply didn’t see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.

The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. This of course is the point, though 2 hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can’t escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn’t always work for me, Sexual Dependency is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.

*****

Next Time

Civil war threatens to tear them apart, but they’ll do whatever it takes to stay together. However, if there’s one thing the Bosnians and the Serbs hate more than each other, it’s homosexuals. The compelling black comedy Go West when World On Film returns.


In The Shadows

James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver star in miniseries 'The Deep'. I watched it so you don't have to.

When the crew of a research submarine searching for new bio fuels in the Arctic Circle mysteriously disappears, another is sent to continue with the work. However, a black box recording compels the crew to discover what happened to the other vessel, especially when that same threat descends upon them – something large and silent that slices through the icy waters like a prehistoric leviathan.

The Deep, starring James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver is a miniseries rather than a film, and one that looked extremely good before I was silly enough to watch it, expecting something along the lines of The Abyss, which episode 1 very tantalisingly suggests. However, it soon strays into Hunt For Red October territory and which point my interest sank through to the mantle. There is also the running theme of scientific triumph overcoming common sense in the name of riches, but explored with the care and consideration of a Sci Fi Channel script, the quality of which, if you’re unfamiliar, is the equivalent of having Russell Brand perform comedy. The Deep should therefore be consigned to the self-same Arctic seabed the program explores and best forgotten.

Happily, this is easily done as this week’s entry in World On Film is the excellent Argentinean romance murder-mystery…

The Secret In Their Eyes

(2009) Directed by Juan Campanella

A trailer can be found at the bottom of last week’s entry.

“A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.”

Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil play star-crossed lovers who find the ties that bind hold forever.

The Secret In Their Eyes builds upon the very essence of life: a sequence of key moments that can completely change our destinies if we recognise them for what they are, held together by the long ordinary days in between where we don’t feel remarkable enough to act. Yet its ultimate message is one of hope, while also challenging us to decide whether or not in certain situations revenge is justified. I am not normally a big fan of crime fiction, let alone romance, yet if The Secret In Their Eyes was indicative of the way in which crime-romance cinema normally entertains, I’d have to jump the tracks and nail my colours to the mast. However, The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, written and directed with confident maturity, populated with engaging characters expertly realized, and one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.

“The Secret In Their Eyes is simply a very good film, one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.”

Ricardo Morales as the husband of the dead victim, playing inner turmoil with amazing conviction.

As the 20th Century draws to a close, retired federal justice agent Benjamin Esposito decides to fictionalise an especially memorable case from his younger days – one that changed his life forever. However, as the memories come flooding back, the unsolved 1974 crime refuses to fade away, and Esposito finds himself compelled to solve it once and for all, in the process rediscovering his undying love for a woman he once let slip through his fingers. Along the way, he learns what truly makes humans tick and that true passion may be the strongest force in existence, although it may manifest itself in ways too hard to accept.

It will therefore hardly be surprising that I consider one of the film’s prime strengths to be its study of the human condition. On one level, the commentary is nothing new: love, longing, missed opportunities, regret, fallibility, weakness, malice; yet this is humanity in a nutshell, with every generation enacting the same drama as before.

The truth in between words.

Secret is not intended to turn this all-encompassing portrait on its side and offer a new interpretation. Its characters are straightforward, easily-identifiable and found all around us – they may even be us. The aim is to show them in all their glory and misery and break them down into the raw emotions that make us all tick. If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché. Likewise, if you don’t care for a study on the mechanics of human behaviour, this isn’t for you. It’s not a new paradigm of the genre, rather a very open and honest one that relies very much on the viewer’s own life experience for it to make impact. Others may be put off by the analysis of revenge, especially as it invites introspection on one’s own character by film’s end. Yet this is surely the point.

“If you’ve never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won’t resonate as anything more than a tired cliché.”

The excellent Guillermo Francella as the underestimated Pablo Sandoval.

Another of Secret’s key strengths is the choice of actors and the characters themselves. Ricardo Darin’s Esposito is at turns very subdued, worn down by the realities of life, yet elsewhere a fiery champion of justice – perhaps not unsurprising given his vocation, but Darin has the feel of the character just right. In opposition, Soledad Villamil’s Irene is a woman in conflict: career-driven, struggling to walk the right path, and torn by her feelings. If anyone embodied the film’s title, it would have to be Pablo Rago’s portrayal of Ricardo Morales, the husband of a rape victim. Rago’s wide eyes says so much, yet hide even more. Perhaps especially memorable however is Esposito’s friend, Pablo Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. It may again be unoriginal that the film’s comic relief turns out to have the greatest insight (and espouse the film’s central message), but the oft-ignored yet wise fool is a long-enduring character simply for what he offers the viewer. There is also something earthy and endearing about Francella’s performance that keeps your eyes trained upon him. The humour also provides a welcome release amidst the darker themes of the film.

This is helped further by the touching, at times hauntingly-beautiful score provided by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, proving an excellent match for the often sombre mood director Juan Campanella aims to create. Although ‘sepia’ would be too strong a word, there is a definite yellowish tint awash over the flashback sequences that give the film its art-house feel and atmosphere. Running at just over two hours, Campanella has managed to set the pace just right – anything slower would lose the audience, yet to speed things up would be to destroy the important character moments, often carried by lingering expressions that say more than dialogue ever would. Yet dialogue is very much the centrepiece of the film – none of the themes are left unexplored and Campanella isn’t interested in letting the visuals do all the talking. Again, I felt the balance between the visual discourse and the verbal was just right.

Endemic corruption undermined the justice system of 1970s Argentina.

As my first entry into Argentinian film, I was very impressed with The Secret In Their Eyes. However, to dwell on its country of its origin would be to do it a disservice, for it is simply good cinema. While its commentary on its universal themes may not work for everyone, I think many will enjoy the very touching and human tale that unfolds. If it ultimately leaves you a little unsettled and undecided as to the choices taken within the narrative, it has achieved its goal.

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*****

Up Next

A freelance photographer, sent to Armenia with his wife to snap the local churches for a forthcoming calendar, encounters the eternal triangle in Atom Egoyan’s 1993 film, Calendar. No trailer I’m afraid, although this youtube video does provide a kind of background teaser: