Días de Santiago depicts the travails of Santiago, a Peruvian ex-combatant, as he tries to reintegrate into society after six years as a marine fighting in border skirmishes with Ecuador and in the highland civil war. He's obviously been trained with skills suited to the special forces or some other elite battalion. He's constantly planning his next move, aware of potential dangers, calculating, rationalizing. And he tries to apply these same skills to the task of negotiating everyday life in Lima. At times he's like a Peruvian Jason Bourne, and the cinematography often depicts him as such: a telephoto lens picks him out in long shot as he walks through crowds in the Jirón Unión downtown, his nerves heightened in readiness for any threat or trap, as we hear his interior monologue weighing up the situation. "You should think before taking action. Walk down the street and analyze your position, develop your strategy. You can be attacked any moment. . . . You gotta keep looking around, ready for anything, anticipate everything, ready to neutralize your enemy with your hands, with your eyes."
What's more, Santiago is also intensely moral. He's an urban crusader, watching out for delinquents on the bus and saving young women from predators. But he realizes that this is no longer exactly his role. "You wanna do something, but you can't. You control yourself. 'Cause you're no longer there. Now you're here... You were used to saving, rescuing, coast, mountain, jungle, air, sea, land, day and night. Not here." Santiago wants to do the right thing. His friends and former fellow soldiers are in a similar situation, unable to find work or a purpose in civilian life, and so dream up a plan to put their tactical training to use by robbing a bank. But Santiago refuses to participate, pointing out that criminality is no escape. Naturally enough his downfall eventually comes precisely from his desire to rescue the weak and putatively innocent in the face of the strong and corrupt.
With each attempt to do the right thing, Santiago further alienates the few people that matter to him and that care for him. He cuts himself off from his military buddies, and then screws up his marriage. He meets a bunch of young, flirtatious girls and starts accompanying them to a local afternoon disco, but mis-judges them either by trying to scare off their coke-using boyfriends or by rejecting the affect they try to show him. His brother beats his wife, who seeks refuge with and tries to seduce Santiago. But his response, treating the woman as though she were a hostage in enemy hands, only makes things worse for everyone. Finally, he realizes the terrible secret at the heart of his own family, and in exile from them and from the rest of the world we see him finally contemplating suicide, caressing his body and scratching his head with what we must presume to be a loaded gun.
In an alternative ending included on the DVD, we see Santiago shoot himself in the head, and then his abused sister escapes, hopping on a bus towards who knows where. It's not clear if this is a more or less hopeful end to the story; it's certainly messier, with its shift of focus to a character otherwise hardly developed during the rest of the film. But it's also almost a relief to see things, however briefly, from a perspective other than Santiago's.
Santiago's problem is not so much that he's driven mad, though the abrupt editing, hand-held camerawork, and abrupt and seemingly unmotivated shifts from color to black and white and back again, all contrive to disorient our perspective of the city and social relations. And he is also constantly maddened, for instance by the way he's treated whether as a taxi driver taking on clients or a customer seeking to buy a new fridge. He feels he deserves some recognition for the sacrifices he's undergone, but the military pension is paltry and nobody (or almost nobody; one of his young girl friends perhaps excepted) is willing to give him a chance or a break. He prizes order, and wants to schedule his daily life with meticulous attention to detail, but is also prepared to make compromises when he realizes that such an attempt to impose quasi-military discipline on his personal relationships is hopeless and maybe even heartless.
In the end, Santiago's a machine: a machine man habituated to constant conflict, who sees every situation as a confrontation either potentially or in fact. He's a war machine who's been bent to a notion of order and moral rectitude. He realizes that such a simple act as asking a woman to dance can't in fact be reduced to a series of protocols, but on the other hand he knows almost no other way of acting. The very way he walks, nervously and on guard, his shoulders always in motion, his eyes flickering this way and that, mark him out from the crowd even as he struggles to blend in. His is a line of flight, but a suicidal and solitary one, self-destructive and sure to bring down all that he knows he should really hold dear.
YouTube Link: move clip, with Santiago as taxi driver and at home.