Friday, January 9, 2009
Los Muertos (2004) A Film by Lisandro Alonso
The New Argentine Cinema has been thriving in recent years, and the most exciting newcomer is undoubtedly Lisandro Alonso. After his debut film La Libertad in 2001, which began a trilogy of poetic realist works, Alonso has made a name for himself on the festival circuit. Los Muertos - the second film in this loose "trilogy" - is certainly no easy endeavor, but through its lush longueurs and aural delights, it creates a tranquil atmosphere of unease that periodically reveals arduous metaphors that Alonso allows you to take or leave. If one engages with the former, the film is a disturbingly affecting "road movie" that takes fundamental genre conventions (a path towards freedom or absolution, pushing aside the past in favor of the future...) and conceals them to startling effect.
Rural folk, the underprivileged, and "simple" people, have been on the forefront of Alonso's mind throughout his career, and they are a direct influence on his stories and characters. Los Muertos specifically concerns Argentino Vargas (who also plays the main character in his third film, Fantasma), a manual laborer who determinedly took the leading role despite his complete lack of acting experience. Vargas - who indeed plays a man named Vargas in the story - is what Lee Kang-Sheng is to Tsai Ming-Liang, and what Anne Wiazemsky was briefly for Robert Bresson: a personal, under-the-radar performer whose existence in these unique works is so plausible that it almost goes entirely unnoticed. In fact, Bresson would likely give Vargas' dull corporeity in Los Muertos' his greatly admired stamp of approval. Vargas embodies an upper middle-aged man imprisoned for (as we are discreetly informed) the murder of his two brothers. The film's hushed, floating opening frames perhaps imply this, and so does a point towards the middle of the film when a man explicitly asks Vargas about the murder, to which he mutters with forgetfulness. His character is mysterious and self-contained, almost stubbornly becalmed even, yet withholds a virility that is on shocking display when his actions become wholly uninhibited (such as in a protracted shot of his routine slaughter of a young goat at riverside, or his immediate and casual sexual encounter with a prostitute).
The first few chapters of the film show Vargas being released from prison (few formalities are shown in this exoneration, what matters to Alonso is the state of his protagonist as reflected by this crucial change in environment) and directed out into the Argentinian jungle with a canoe in a seemingly motiveless trip to see his daughter. Vargas' travel downriver is the poetic monument of the film; the canoe, the chirping jungle, and the river could all be taken as symbols for Vargas' isolated behavior during his transformation, one that includes a hope for salvation and an apparent denial of his past. However, Alonso offers no help, crafting a film that is one dynamic throughout. There are no scenes that necessarily stand out dramatically, nor are there ever moments of overly prolonged tedium; Alonso prefers his long, painterly images to evoke a rhythmic, transcendent, yet oddly realistic quality. Los Muertos comes to an unexpected halt in its final frame, and with its thought-provoking use of two dropped children's toys on the dirt beside two swaying fabric sheets, it may suggest Vargas as a fetishistic killer (shades of Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist, in which a similar composition deals with unseen malice). However, nothing can be taken as fact in this enigmatic film by Lisandro Alonso.