Friday, November 30, 2007


Mujer de mi hermano posterThe title of Ricardo de Montreuil's La mujer de mi hermano translates as "My Brother's Woman," and really that's all you need to know about this souped-up but stylish telenovela. You can imagine the plot for yourself: two brothers, like chalk and cheese, one a successful but boring businessman in suit and tie, the other a dashing young artist in leather jacket and stubble. Businessman brother's wife is tiring of her literally sterile life in a designer-label cocoon in which they have sex only once a week. One day while hubby is off on a business trip, she falls into bed with artist brother. Sparks and moral dilemmas fly. Childhood trauma and repressed identities come to the surface. But, in this case at least, they all live happily ever after.

The film is actually about homosexuality, unsurprising perhaps given that it is based on the novel and scripted by Jaime Bayly, author also of the far superior No se lo digas a nadie. We have the bitchy gay male friend who is wife Zoë's confidante, reveling in the steamy details of his friend's infidelity; the obsessively tidy and metrosexual husband Ignacio turns out to be a closet gay, oh and a youthful paedophile to boot; and of course the love triangle itself, with the two men sharing a single woman, is all about homosocial desire.

All this takes place in an ambience of pristine upper-class sophistication, in a palette of muted earth tones drenched in soft late-season sunlight. Zoë and Ignacio live in a designer house that is a glass and concrete box, whose major feature is a swimming pool that traverses inside and outside. And however much Ignacio obsessively cleans the pool of autumn leaves or stranded insects (he's rich but not rich enough for a pool boy?), each major character feels compelled at some point to throw something into the water: Ignacio chucks his brother's painting; Zoë dumps her mobile phone; and artist brother Gonzalo pisses into it. Now there's a statement. It's the closest this film comes to depth.

Beyond these markers of privilege and style, tainted by the introduction of human bodily fluids, this ethereal film is curiously ungrounded. It's a pan-Latin American effort, made by a Peruvian director, set in Mexico, filmed in Chile, with stars from Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, and Colombia. We get little sense of the world beyond these characters' self-focussed lives: when Ignacio goes on his business trip, the hotel from which he phones home (little knowing his brother is in the house with her as he speaks) is another anonymous construction of glass and concrete that could be almost anywhere. This is a Latin version of Eurotrash: the flotsam and jetsam of a regional bourgeoisie at home everywhere and nowhere.

Mujer de mi hermana still
In the end, the film is as superficial as the world it portrays: all surfaces and bleached, unsaturated veneers; a cold borderless neoliberalism in which brief titillation artfully shot replaces passion or human interest. We're as far from, say, Chicha tu madre as could be imagined. And of the two versions of deterritorialized Latin Americanism, I know which one I'd choose.

YouTube Link: the film's first ten minutes.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


La ciudad y los perros posterFrancisco Lombardi's La ciudad y los perros is an adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's first book. The title translates as "The City and the Dogs" (though for some reason the book was translated into English as The Time of the Hero). But the film shows much less of the city and much more of the dogs than does Vargas Llosa's novel, whose first edition came complete with a map of Lima. Lombardi keeps us mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the military academy in which the "dogs," the army cadets, have forged a rough and tumble community whose hierarchies, values, and abuses both challenge and mirror those of the army, and by extension the nation, itself.

Lombardi also narrows his focus among the group of cadets. The book is notable for employed a narrative style that switches constantly between narrators and perspectives, creating the overall effect of portraying the "dogs" as a kind of multiform, collective subjectivity. Moreover, Vargas Llosa's novel hides a huge twist in its tail, as on what is practically the book's final page we suddenly take stock of a dramatic breach between interior monologue and external appearance. Sadly but perhaps inevitably the film excises these properly literary effects, to concentrate on the figure of one Alberto Fernández, nicknamed "the poet," who functions mostly as an observer through whom we in turn apprehend other characters and the actions they undertake.

The cohort's top dogs are a group of four cadets known as "the circle," led by a striking young touch nicknamed the "Jaguar," who run a thriving black market trade in cigarettes, liquor, pornography, and stolen exam papers for the other inmates of this military boarding school. The film's plot kicks off as the theft of a Chemistry exam is discovered by the academy's authorities, and as a result the four cadets who were on guard at the time of the theft have all their weekend leave cancelled. One of the four is a boy who inhabits the very lowest rung of the savage hierarchy that the cadets have established, as is indicated by the nickname they've given him: Ricard Arana is better known as the "Slave." The Slave has managed to pass three years in the institution without making a single friend, except perhaps the Poet himself, to whom he pours out his troubles. The Slave is particularly agonized by the fact of his confinement, as it means he's unable to meet up with the neighborhood girl, Teresa, to whom he's shyly taken a fancy. Little does he know that in fact his only friend, the Poet, has started up a relationship with Teresa himself.

The Slave then commits the worst sin imaginable among the boys: he betrays the group by turning stool pigeon in order to have his exit privileges reinstated. As a result, the exam thief, Cava, a member of the circle, is humiliatingly thrown out of the academy and his compadres vow revenge.

La ciudad y los perros stillDuring live ammunition exercises in the countryside, the Slave is shot and mortally wounded. The authorities, hushing up the scandal, declare that young Ricardo accidentally killed himself with his own rifle. But the Poet suspects a more likely narrative: that the Jaguar took rough justice into his own hands, gunning down the weakling who had dared to question his group's authority.

And so the Poet himself, agonized by his own betrayal of the dead boy, in turn decides to inform on the circle and incriminate the Jaguar. He convinces one Lieutenant Gamboa of the truth of his account: that the cadets are essentially beyond the control of the institution, and that their leaders feel they can even get away with murder. Gamboa, portrayed as a decent man who's prepared to risk his career in the name of what is right, forces the issue through to his superiors. But little justice is done: the cover-up continues, Gamboa is transferred out to a remote posting in the Andes, and the only (albeit perhaps the most devastating) punishment that the Jaguar receives is to be overthrown by those who were previously his loyal henchmen.

In the end, though the film presents itself as an incisive critique of the corruption and machismo that dominate both the cadet cohort and the army as a whole, it's unclear what if any values it upholds. It's difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Jaguar, who so stubbornly upholds his own code of honour that he refuses to clear at least some part of his disrepute by squealing in turn on the Poet's act of treason. Indeed, in some senses the Jaguar is the only figure who avoids the taint of treason: even Gamboa, given a final chance to prove the truth of what has taken places, rips up the evidence before heading out of the school gates and on to his lonely highland exile. The Jaguar believes in his strict moral doctrine because he has nothing else to believe in. But it is this rigidity that leads to the Slave's demise. It's the demand for absolute solidarity that drives a merciless scapegoating.

YouTube Link: Cava's expulsion.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Further to my earlier Arguediana, here's a lovely little cinematic version of the "Sueño del pongo" ("Pongo's Dream"), a traditional Quechua story collected and elaborated by Arguedas. The film was made in Cuba in 1970, adapted by Roberto Fernández Retamar. It's shot using atmospheric black and white still photographs.

See also the text of the story in Spanish and in English. It begins...

"A little man headed to his master's mansion. As one of the serfs on the lord's estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.

The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion's corridors...."

Monday, November 26, 2007


El canibal es el Otro coverOf the three texts studied in Victor Vich's El caníbal es el Otro, there's no doubt that the first is the most interesting. What more need be said, after all, about Mario Vargas Llosa's Lituma en los Andes? The elite discourse of letrado stupefaction and condescension towards the indigenous is hardly a topic that has gone unexplored. And the other text, a testimonio of state-sponsored brutality, is likewise sadly all too familiar. Even Vich himself wonders if his account adds anything: "I ask myself therefore if there's any sense continuing to comment on this testimonio" (55).

But the text with which Vich begins his analysis of "violence and culture in contemporary Peru" is both fascinating and challenging. It's a Senderista text, and frankly the guerrilleros' discourse remains as stubbornly opaque now as ever, despite the reams of interpretation to which it has been subjected. But perhaps that's precisely the problem. Perhaps the point of Senderismo is the way in which it resists interpretation. Indeed, I suggest that nothing shows this better than the text that Vich chooses to examine.

Rosa Murinache's Tiempos de Guerra ("Time of War" or, more loosely and with other resonances, "Life During Wartime") is, as Vich explains,
a clandestine book of poetry that circulated during the harshest years of Peru's dirty war. It comprises a set of poems whose particular aim is to expound the necessity for armed struggle and for a radically revolutionary change in the structure of the country. The curious thing is that Rosa is the author of the book but not of the poems, which are rather the product of an "editing" operation performed on the political discourse of [Sendero leader] Abimael Guzmán. (13-14)
Indeed, as Vich underlines, Murinache goes to some pains to point out that she has neither added nor subtracted a single word from Guzmán's work. "All" she has done is to rearrange it on the page, introducing line breaks, indentations, and stanza divisions. So we get verses such as the following:
is worth nothing
The mass
is everything.
If we are to be anything
it will be
as part
of the mass. (28-29)
Murinache's intervention, then, is purely formal: she has changed the form of Guzmán's speeches and exhortations from prose to poetry.

Vich is clearly fascinated by what this (presumably) pseudonymous editor has done, and rightly so, and he asks about the subjectivity that the poems reveal, or rather the way in which the subjectivity of the Senderista cadre presents itself as almost completely in sync with the subjectivity of the movement's leader and grand ideologue. But there are times when Vich also appears somewhat frustrated by this coincidence or confluence between the two subjects. For the challenge of Murinache's over-respectful editing is its apparent superfluousness. Finally, Vich concludes, what we have here is "a gesture at best, a simple movement, the useless attempt to arrange the words (of the Other) in some other way" (35; emphasis added).

But this "useless[ness]" deserves further examination. Indeed, it's rather surprising that a literary critic such as Vich should have such little use for form. (Camilo Fernández Cozman makes a similar observation.) For what Murinache has done is to draw out the formal properties of Guzmán's political discourse. She challenges us to read Senderista ideology as form rather than as content; indeed as a mode of aesthetics or (posthegemonic) affect rather than as politics or (hegemonizing) ideology.

In short, by recasting Guzmán as poet, surely Murinache is warning us against precisely the kinds of political interpretation, engrossed with content and signification, that has dominated and also perplexed all readings of Sendero, Vich's included. She suggests that Guzmán's followers were less interested in what their leader meant than in the ways in which Senderista ideology allowed them to find form, to construct their own forms (habits, if you like) from the affective building blocks supplied by a discourse of blood and revolution, reorganization and (literally) reformation.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Having castigated Dick Cheney for confusing Venezuela with Peru, Hugo Chávez with Alan García, it's only fair to point out that he's not alone in his sophomoric errors.

BBC screengrab
For the BBC, judging by this story, appear unable to distinguish between 1) a large South American country and 2) a private university on New York's upper west side.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Dick CheneyI've been surprised that in Peru they haven't made more of Dick Cheney's recent gaffe. The US Vice-President apparently confused Peru with Venezuela, suggesting that Hugo Chávez was President of the former rather than the latter. But Peruvian friends I've talked to weren't even aware of the incident.

Typically enough, Chávez himself has capitalized on the confusion. "Those who govern the United States are a bunch of ignorant fools," he declared. "They don't know where Venezuela is, nor do they know where Peru is." (Via LANR.)

The story can be read as a simple slip of the tongue, or perhaps as typical of the myopia of an administration run by a man who famously had never left the USA before he became President, and who as presidential candidate was unable to name the leader of Pakistan.

More interestingly, however, the mistake may reveal just how little attention the US is currently paying to Latin America. After all, if Cheney had any reason to have the region on his mind, one would have thought that Chávez's belligerent rhetoric should have put Venezuela on the Vice-President's mental map.

Moreover, the particular confusion is also revealing. Rather than confusing Chávez with any of the other Latin American leftists who have won office in recent years--Bolivia's Evo Morales or Brazil's Lula, for instance--Cheney seems to find it difficult to distinguish him even from Alan García, a president who came to office by fending off a challenge from the Left. Indeed, during the Peruvian campaign Chávez actively (and controversially) voiced his support for the candidacy of García's rival, Ollanta Humala.

Cheney's faux pas, then, seems to indicate not only that the much-heralded distinction between "social democratic" and "populist" lefts has hardly made much impact inside the Beltway. It also suggests that when it comes to Latin America, the Bush Administration doesn't even concern itself overly with the distinction between Left and Right. It's all, as they would say down here, la misma mierda.

One is tempted to feel slightly sorry for poor Hugo. For all the man's best efforts, he still seems unable to attract much attention from Cheney et. al. Though on the other hand, the lesson he might draw is that he really can do what he wants: the US simply won't notice.

Crossposted to Left Turns?.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Bajo la piel posterBajo la piel is a strange film, and also a distinctly creepy one. It opens with a scene of a man in a hammock declaring that life is good, that he has discovered that happiness really exists, although he learned the lesson only lately, and closes with the same scene of Edenic bliss. What's shown in the interim, however, is a dark take on a Peruvian society in which primitive violence lurks "under the skin" of even the most respectable façade. And it's the disconnect between the apocalyptic vision and the contented declaration that gives this film its sinister edge. Comparisons with Hitchcock are not altogether out of line.

The happy hammock-swinger turns out to be a provincial police chief by the name of Percy Corso. At the story's outset, he's faced with the fact that a serial killer is on the loose, who has so far killed four young men, decapitating them and removing their eyes. The town is up in arms, and the mayor in particular is putting pressure on Corso to solve the case quickly, so that upcoming festivities can take place without this shadow of fear. But our man Percy, normally a solitary and rational type who once had dreams of being a lawyer and now spends his spare time playing solitaire chess, finds himself distracted with a new arrival: Marina, a fiery young Spaniard, who has taken up the post of local pathologist.

Bajo la piel stillMarina's over-sexed proclivities extend, it seems, to demanding of Percy impulsive sex when the two are exploring the local ruins, in the past site of bloody sacrifice. Whatever turns you on. But Marina has a problem with commitment, and is soon also found screwing the town gigolo, a young man who happens also to be the mayor's reprobate son.

The policeman is soon rather more preoccupied with the sexual adventures of his would-be lover, but in the meantime he does manage to solve the serial killer case. All the evidence leads to the fact that the perpetrator is a bespectacled archaeologist who shows unusual scholastic interest in the savage ways of pre-Columbian civilizations. Only he had access to the golden but gruesome Moche instrument of decapitation that turns out to have been the murder weapon. But banged up in police cells, Professor Pinto shows no great willingness to talk, and in the face of the man's stubborn silence Percy returns to fretting about Marina.

Things quickly get out of hand when Corso decides to take the mayor's son out drinking, torturing himself by listening to the young man's bravado descriptions of his bohemian lifestyle. Percy snaps, killing and decapitating his rival in copycat style, taking advantage of the original murder's suicide to fake a prison break and then burying both bodies out in the desert. And one stage we think (fear?) that the cop will be rumbled for this crime, but eventually as we've seen all turns out happily ever after. In the film's final scene the camera shifts from Corso in his hammock to Marina in the background, apparently barefoot and pregnant, now fully beholden to the alpha male.

So the movie is disturbing not only for its depiction of a millennial savagery that runs from pre-historic times to the present, but also and above all for its reluctance to take any moral stance. We may increasingly find it hard to identify with its policeman protagonist, especially as he passes the line from law-enforcer to law-breaker, but still less sympathy is shown for his victim or indeed almost anyone else around and about. The movie is singularly detached from the violence it portrays. Or perhaps on the contrary: it's as though it were too close to the bone for the director to be able to take some inevitably hypocritical moral stance.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Flor de Retama posterIt's striking how many differences there are within the current upsurge of Peruvian regional cinema. Indeed, in may ways you'd be hard-pressed to find a more disparate group of films in terms of their genre, subject matter, and style. Sangre y tradición, for instance, is a monster movie that plays on and supports regional mythology, and it has the air of a home movie made by a student drama group on their weekends off, albeit with considerable technical accomplishment. El huerfanito is both grittier and grainier, a study of child poverty with strong social realist overtones. While Flor de Retama (2004), by contrast, employs a number of professional actors and a style strongly reminiscent of telenovelas to portray a love story in the midst of the war on terror.

Flor de Retama's production company call the film a "historical drama," and it indeed very much has the feel of a period piece. Its plot could almost be lifted out of a nineteenth-century English novel. It features an absentee landlord, a widower with a young daughter who is just emerging into sexual maturity and whose mother died in childbirth. He returns to his estate after an extended period of absence to discover that it has slowly gone to seed, but that the old faithful retainers have been long awaiting his return. One of the young yeomen takes a shine to the daughter, and she likewise to him, despite the disapproval on both sides of this cross-class liaison. The entire populace gets to work on restoring the lands to their former glory, but disaster threatens, in the course of which the long-suffering servants have to prove their true loyalty to the landowner, the daughter and the beau demonstrate their fitness for each other, and the lord of the manor decisively rejects his temptation to sell up and abandon the ancestral pile at the first sign of trouble. Finally, the daughter completes a task first initiated by her long-dead mother, whom her father can only now truly grieve, and the inheritance seems ensured for the foreseeable future. The aristocracy are once again wedded to the land. The peasants and tenant farmer have recommitted to the old order. And tradition is reinforced.

All that is lacking indeed, is a false suitor (flash and seductive but ultimately detrimental to the furtherance of landed authority) against whom the worthy suitor (plain and undemonstrative at first sight, but loyal to the bone) can eventually win out, obviously after a number of tragicomic mis-steps on the part of our heroine.

The big thing separating Flor de Retama from Austen or Hardy then is that the disaster affecting the hacienda is caused by rifle-toting Maoists. For the landowner's return coincides with a Sendero revival. But this is where the film's temporality is peculiar. For despite the production company's label, in fact the bulk of the action has to be set in the present: if the flashbacks to the point at which the mother dies and the father leaves (by helicopter) to retreat to the city with his newborn child are all set in 1985, then the return to the Andes must take place around 2000. Or even, if Nova Imágenes Producciones are to be trusted, in 2005 if twenty years have passed.

So this is both a curiously displaced Sendero drama, in which the terrorist threat is presented as being as real in 2005 as it had been twenty years later. And yet it's also a fake historical drama, in that it presents action that must be taking place in the present as though it were part of some semi-mythic feudal order. There's a double sleight of hand here: Sendero has to be reactivated in order to set the present back into the past, relegitimating willing campesino subservience to the landowner returning to their property abandoned during the war. The insurgent provide the excuse for a test of loyalty and love: will the landowner's work supervisor, a gun thrust in his hand by the embittered Senderista, go through with the assassination of his boss or (as in fact happens) turn the weapon on the guerrilla. A blood pact is forged in which all concerned can return to the pre-war status quo... as if nothing had really happened. Hence the daughter completes the painting her mother had begun two decades earlier. A hunky local has been brought into the family, but the girl has shown that she's the one with the balls, as she has rescued him from under the noses of the rebels, hitting one of them over the head with a block of wood for good measure.

So finally here's the point of contact between the three regional films: each is incredibly conservative, no matter the genre they choose to convey their remarkably unsubtle messages. Sangre y tradición is a plea to maintain rural traditions and customs. El huerfanito proposes to reinstate the patriarchal family. And Flor de Retama justifies the return of the seigneur to his rightful place in the Andean hierarchy.

Honestly. And people had problems with Madeinusa's politics?!

YouTube Link: the movie's trailer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Police and crime dramas are popular genres in Peruvian cinema (see for instance Alias "La gringa" or Bajo la piel) and also in Latin America more generally (Plata quemada or El chacal de Nahueltoro, say). There are various reasons for this. Among them, first, that crime is consistently an issue in contexts where the state is relatively weak and so either rural banditry or urban delinquency rife. Second, even when the state is present it is often the object of distrust; a sense that official corruption is tolerated and the poor unnecessarily targeted often turns criminals into folk heroes.

Django posterDjango: La otra cara purports to show this "other face" of criminality and to humanize the conflict between cop and robber, but frankly it's all too predictable and far from credible. This despite the fact that allegedly it's based on a true story, of one Oswaldo Gonzales, alias Django, a notorious Peruvian bank robber during the 1970s and 1980s, who may even have started his own blog devoted to detailing his subsequent conversion to Christianity.

In the film, however, what we are shown are Django's final days at large, as his criminal career starts to unravel thanks to a botched hold-up in which a partner and friend is killed, and thanks also to the single-minded pursuit of a police captain by the name of Manuel. It turns out that Django and Manuel were once friends, way back when they were young men in the provincial town of Trujillo. What's more, Django's wife, Tania, was once Manuel's girlfriend. So the policeman's investigation is also a personal matter, which leads to a measure of respect and consideration on the one hand, but also all the more determination in the quest for justice on the other.

Meanwhile, on the run, Django hooks up with his dead buddy's woman, and together they go on a desperate rampage with shades of Bonnie and Clyde while poor Tania is left literally holding the baby. So Django is hardly the gentleman, despite his debonair ways and the fact he repeatedly examines an old black-and-white photo of his family for some kind of inspiration and/or succor. There's also the suggestion of yet another backstory, in which our hero villain may have been the lone survivor of a car crash in which his parents and brothers were killed, but nothing is made of this over the course of the film.

The stress is on the different paths followed by the two old friends. One has sided with the forces of law and order, the other has become intoxicated by the thrills of crime and ill-begotten money. Constant flashbacks continually ram the point home. But these nostalgic scenes of bygone days don't in fact clarify either of the two characters: in fact their destinies already seem to be set from the outset.

Django would probably like to suggest that the problem of law and outlaw, of criminality as both menace and popular myth, and of the state as both moral guardian and broken promise, is a question of a singular entity with multiple faces, some kind of social doppelgänger. But the movie never succeeds in charting such ambivalences. The paths of lawman and villain only touch tangentially; they never actually cross. Django seldom deviates from being headstrong and self-centered, while Manuel is almost always scrupulous and considerate. The final scene hints at some ultimate betrayal, in which some rough code of honour between the two at last comes to an end, but by this time we really no longer care.

YouTube Link: Django's prison break.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Peruvian flagAn index to the Peruvian films analyzed on this blog:

Madeinusa (2006)
Chicha tu madre (2006)
Sangre y tradición (2005)
La mujer de mi hermana (2005)
Mañana te cuento (2005)
Flor de Retama (2004)
El huerfanito (2004)
Doble juego (2004)
Días de Santiago (2004)
Polvo enamorado (2003)
Paloma de papel (2003)
Ojos que no ven (2003)
Django: la otra cara (2002)
Tinta roja (2000)
Ciudad de M (2000)
Bajo la piel (1996)
Asia, el culo del mundo (1996)
Anda, corre, vuela (1995)
Sin compasión (1994)
Caídos del cielo (1990)
Juliana (1988)
La ciudad y los perros (1985)

That's probably more Peruvian cinema than you ever suspected existed, right?

An essay on Peruvian cinema, focussing on Chicha tu madre, Días de Santiago, and Madeinusa:

“Subalternity, Betrayal, and Flight: Three Recent Films from Peru” (.pdf file)

And some links to other resources:

Aldea cultural: Cine latino
Butaca en línea
La cinefilia no es patriota
Gonzalo Portocarrero
Páginas de cine andino
Pantalla interior

Monday, November 19, 2007


El huerfanito posterEl huerfanito ("The Little Orphan") is another instance of a film from Peru's regions. Set and shot in Puno, by the shores of Lake Titicaca, it tells what are essentially three interconnecting stories.

In the first, a young boy from the countryside, Juanito, sees his mother die in childbirth and his father get sick. Sent to the city to sell the family produce and buy provisions and medicine, he is taken in by a card shark and gambles away all his money plus loses his donkey. Then he's given a job selling ices on the street, but is too shy to hawk his wares and so his merchandise gets ruined and melts. A couple of times he runs into a young boy from the city, Luchito, who is the protagonist of the second story. Luchito's father is a drunk who abuses his wife and children and puts little effort into his carpentry business, drinking away the pittance that he earns. As the mother is therefore forced to work on the streets, selling juice from a pair of plastic containers, Luchito is left mostly to his own devices. Then the third and least-developed story concerns an ex-con who returns to his old haunts and re-unites with his gang. They steal a car, get drunk, and carelessly run over a woman who turns out to be Luchito's mother.

El huerfanito stillThe stories come together in the film's finale as, in a bid to ensure that the mother dies rather than survives to inform on them, the gang recruits Juanito to make an exploratory foray into the hospital. There he meets up with Luchito and in tandem with both Luchito's father and the police they ensure that justice is done to the delinquents. But the outcome for each boy could not be more different: while Luchito's mother recovers and his father is shocked into being a good husband and father once again, Juanito returns to his rural community only to find out that his own father has died of a stroke in his absence.

The film's determinedly pedagogical aims could not be clearer. But just in case we miss them, the two young friends are shown conversing about the state of Peruvian society. Juanito declares: "A teacher at school used to tell me that 'You are the future of Peru.' But if they treat us as badly as they do, what future do we have?" Luchito responds: "How I wish that that we were happy, that life were different, that I were with my parents, with my father, my mother, my little sister, all of us happy... that they'd take us out to play, that we could laugh toegher, hug each other," responds Luchito. "How I wish that people would treat children well," continues Juanito. It is surely then rather superfluous for the director, Fernando Quispe, to tell us in interview that he believes that Peruvian society is "orphaned, its authorities absent."

One striking stylistic feature of the movie is the frequent use of point of view shots that place us directly in the position of characters as they either abuse or are abused by each other. The actors are constantly shown in close up speaking straight to the camera, and so straight to the spectator. The film's verbal and visual discourse alike seek therefore to interpellate its audience directly. And in this sense, rather strangely, unlike Sangre y tradición, El huerfanito does aspire to be a national, rather than simply a regional, film. It's no great surprise, then, that its director should complain also that the film industry has been "orphaned" by the state. Quispe wants to speak as a state, with the state, to a public that he imagines has to be educated, improved, and reformed. For "the people are bad," Luchito and Juanito agree. But they are not quite so bad that they cannot be redeemed, by a fully national cinema.

But this account loses sight of a more interesting subplot concerning two star-crossed lovers, one of whom is Juanito's elder sister Margarita. They make a break from authority, first on horseback then rowing away across the lake. Little more is seen of them until the very end of the movie, when the film-makers' logic requires that they be dragged back to serve as surrogate parents for young Juanito now that he is truly a "little orphan." But what if the film had lingered longer on their escape, rather than reterritorializing them, too, within the bounds of a renovated familial power structure?

YouTube Link: the movie's trailer.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Ciudad de M coverCiudad de M portrays a group of friends in Lima who are willing to try almost anything to get by and get ahead. But in the end it's never quite clear how seriously we are to take either their plight or their crimes. This is not exactly the milieu of the urban poor; rather, these are lower-middle class or perhaps even middle class kids who have fallen on hard times, although we are never quite told why or how. They are overgrown children without parents who lack role models or contacts and so struggle to figure out how to become fully adult.

When we're introduced to the group, they are a soccer team knocked out of competition when the eponymous "M" fails to score even faced with an almost open goal. Naturally enough, in the changing room afterwards his team-mates bitterly complain at the fact that the has cost them all the opportunity to progress. As the film continues, however, it's not obvious if we should likewise criticize M for failing to make good on the chances he's given, or sympathize with the fact that these are at best only half-chances, dreams or scams.

For M is looking for a job, and at the outset he takes his task seriously, dressing up in suit and tie, paying an agency who guarantee him at least three leads a day, and queuing up for interviews. Nothing comes of his efforts, though, and meanwhile his landlady takes his stereo and his girlfriend walks out on him. While if M's vision of social ascent (or recuperation) is to come as a loyal employee, his friends try other approaches: one reconditions a beat-up car and starts working as a taxi driver; two others plan to become entrepreneurs and small-time businessmen by growing gardenias on a plot of land; and Pacho, who is both in some ways the leader of the group and always off to one side, is working on a still bigger plan.

Pacho claims to have met a Bolivian who needs mules to take coke to Miami. In return for transporting the drugs, the couriers stand to gain passports, visas, a ticket to the US, and $25,000 in cash.

M spends most of the film teetering on the edge of deciding whether or not he wants in on this risky scheme. While he's making up his mind, he is offered a job in construction, but quits after a day fed up, and another friend fixes him work in sales, commission only, but he packs that in, too, without ever really giving it ago. Again, are we to condemn him for his indolence (for above all M's passion seems to be for sleep) or to criticize a society whose worst failing may be the fact that it never quite fails its young, always giving the impression that they fail themselves.

Ciudad de M stillIn the end, its appropriate that we never learn M's real name. (The scene's most arresting scene involves one of his friends pointing a pistol at him demanding he reveal his name, but even then he keeps quiet.) For M is a cipher, who spends his time reacting rather than acting. Faced with the chance to do something, he is paralyzed as he was with the ball at his feet and the goal before him. Even when he finally agrees to take the drugs to Miami, he inevitably fucks up, allowing himself to be swept away in a self-destructive farewell melée in which the group get drunk and coked up and return to their old high school to trash the place.

But the school is already deserted and abandoned. There's no authority left to blame or betray. M is at best a Peruvian Bartleby, endlessly saying no, but the problem is that there's nobody to say no to.

YouTube Link: the first ten minutes of the movie.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Though Francisco Lombardi is undoubtedly Peru's most important director, Nilo Inga can legitimately claim to be the most important cineaste of Huáchac, indeed probably of the entire Junín region. Not, of course, that he faces all that much competition.

The growth of regional cinema in Peru is noteworthy, and is attracting some interest. Last month there was a colloquium on Cine cholo, and this month sees the first festival of independent cinema in the country. And Nilo Inga's Sange y tradición ("Blood and Tradition") features in both.

Inga's film provides what it promises, although there is more tradition than there is blood. Naturally enough, the special effects budget can hardly have been generous. But this is essentially a monster movie, about the Pishtaco, traditional bogeyman of the highlands. At the film's outset we meet Liz and Ramiro on a clandestine (but very chaste) encounter in the countryside. They are in love with each other, but perhaps even more with the place that they live: "Our town is marvelous," they breathlessly declare. But along with beauty there is also danger in the provinces. Before we know it, the pishtaco, a shadowy figure on horseback, has snatched and dismembered young Liz, and so Ramiro hides out with a friend in fear that the blame will attach to him.

Some time passes and so, remarkably, does the trauma. Ramiro soon finds himself a new girlfriend, who has been away from the town (presumably in Lima) but has returned briefly to catch up on old friends. All is going well enough, apart from the brooding presence of a guy called Julio who tries to hit on Ramiro's girl, leading to a scrap outside. But in general Ramiro seems to have got over Liz and her grisly demise. Which is presumably why her ghost decides to return to him, jog his memory, and demand vengeance.

So Ramiro organizes his friends, who are all part of the same local folk dance troupe, makes up with Julio who it turns out is surly only because he too has a traumatic past to avenge, and they set out to catch the pishtaco. Much running around later, the pishtaco is done in but so unfortunately is Ramiro. Before expiring, however, Ramiro urges his friends not to forget their traditions, for the sake of all the blood that has been shed in the community. The boys, tears running down their cheeks, promise solemnly to do what Ramiro says, and the next we see they're dancing to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, while the ghosts of Liz and Ramiro, hand in hand, look on approvingly.

In short, the film is more a curiosity than an aesthetic or narrative achievement, though the cinematography and editing are surprisingly competent. If you are were resident of Huáchac, or indeed anywhere else in Junín, you'd have reason to be very proud. And Inga himself shows no sign of letting his camera rest: he's just come up with another traditional monster tale, El tunche.

The upsurge in regional cinema is a correlative to the long-standing phenomenon, on another scale, of international co-productions. Big budget "name" directors like Lombardi are forced to rely on funds secured abroad; micro-budget enthusiasts such as Inga count on the new affordability of digital cameras and computer editing. Neither can expect the state to pick up the bill. Any strictly national cinema disappears. But we see from Sangre y tradición that Inga makes a virtue of his situation, and deliberately turns from Lima to Junín.

And in the end, to be killed by a Pishtaco is not the worst thing that can happen to you: the film's resolution is a happy one for Liz, as she is reconciled with Ramiro yet they both can still enjoy the spectacle of rural traditions from their ethereal perches neither completely of this world nor completely absent. No, the worst thing you can do is to abandon your hometown for the capital. Of Ramiro's new girlfriend we never get a second glimpse. She's discarded utterly from the plot, and the true revenge of the local is that her fate no longer interests us at all.

Video Link: the film's trailer.
Bonus Link: interview with the director.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Anda corre vuela posterAnda, corre, vuela ("Go, run, fly") brings together characters from the Grupo Chaski's earlier films, Gregorio and Juliana. Several years have gone by: Gregorio now is an off-and-on student who also works two other jobs, as gas station attendant and roadie for a rock band; Juliana has not made her way quite so far up in the world, as she still runs a gang of street kids, now mostly young girls who sell flowers to couples on the streets and in the restaurants of fashionable Miraflores. On the side, Juliana also has a line in pickpocketing, which is how she first meets Gregorio as she offloads a stolen wallet into his backpack.

From Gregorio, Juliana learns that the takings from the gas station are transported in an old oil can, and seeing an opportunity for some easy money she sells this information on to a couple of professional thieves. For some reason, however, perhaps because she's already taken something of a shine to Gregorio, she turns up to try to warn the gas station owner of the impending robbery. But then she, the robbers, and Gregorio alike are taken by surprise by a gang of Senderistas who shoot the owner, graze Juliana, and set the whole place alight with a car bomb. Gregorio, straight-laced and cooperative, identifies his new rather problematic acquaintance to the police, who are convinced that the young woman must be a terrorist in on the plot. The thieves believe the same thing, so soon Juliana is pursued by all sides.

Anda corre vuela stillThe film's central problematic is the difficulty of convince anyone of your innocence in a context of social chaos, official incompetence and paranoia, and generalized fear and distrust. Gregorio seeks a lawyer who will defend Juliana, but the man he finds, a professor from the university, is a hopeless alcoholic who has lost seventy per cent of the cases he has fought, and who gloomily pronounces that "these days it's very difficult to prove innocence. Now not even children are innocent." And, later, "We're all afraid. We're standing on a volcano." So even the representative of the law tells Gregorio it's best if his friend takes cover or flees. Which is what she spends the best part of the movie doing, though first she needs money.

Here comes a subplot about whales, with which the film opens and closes. We learn at the outset that a whale has beached on the Lima shoreline, and that the people have naturally enough scavenged the carcass for everything they can get. This includes some kind of plaque, presumably a means by which to identify the whale, which has been superstitiously taken to be some kind of divine message and pinned to the virgin in a local shrine. But a gringo biologist, ignorant of the plague's resting place, has pledged Gregorio and the gang of shoe-shine boys who (for some unexplained reason) hang around with him that he will give them $200 if they bring the thing to his office. Gregorio and the boys, steadfastly moral as they are, have baulked at desecrating the shine. But when Juliana's in a fix, they see no problem passing on the information to her, so she can claim the biologist's money and head out of town.

Because in the end, nobody is innocent. Juliana may not be a terrorist, but she is a petty thief plugged in to the criminal underworld. Gregorio too is soon both wanted by the police and helping a crime suspect escape. Indeed, ironically enough, if anything the only people who are not portrayed as part of this corrupt and corrupting everyday street reality of the capital city are the terrorists themselves, who appear from nowhere and leave never to return. They are the shady other who justify the law's draconian measures, but such a justification is hardly necessary: here in fact everyone is guilty; or rather, the very distinction between guilt and innocence unravels in people's everyday attempts to scrape a living on the streets.

So far, so good. But as in Juliana, the film-makers once again seem to feel the need to tack on a happy resolution. For it turns out that that gas station owner was not killed, but only seriously wounded. If he can only recover consciousness, then he can clear Juliana and all will be well. Lo and behold, the Peruvian medical service pulls off a miracle: and the police are present at the old man's sickbed to hear him declare that Gregorio's friend was at the site of the attack only to warn him, not to blow the place up. Phew! So Gregorio and Juliana can finally consummate their long-brewing romance, and in the movie's final scene, every Tom, Dick and Harry of the juvenile rescue squad accompanies the happy couple to a rock show put on at a place called The Whale.

The ending to this film as well as to Juliana really are too cute for words. They turn both films into something like Peruvian street-kid Disney, for all the self-declared serious political purposes of the Grupo Chaski, and no doubt their hostility to imported mass culture. It is interesting to consider why this is. Is it just a coincidence that this Peruvian populism coincides so closely with its imported version? And I mean populism here is a rather loose sense, of course, though as in the strict sense what's encouraged is a solidarity or sympathy that is strictly meaningless, as we're told that everything will always work out for the valiant people in the end. (In more strictly political terms, the state is castigated for not being on the side of the people, but the people are shown also as transcending the state after all.)

Disney itself has long stolen or invented similar stories of plucky youngsters ganging together against a hostile adult world: from say One Hundred and One Dalmations to The Rescuers, this is a classic topos. But I wonder if the influence isn't more subtle. Much is made about the ways in which these Peruvian film-makers consult their non-professional streetkid actors to ensure realism in their portrayal of the urban milieu. And perhaps these same kids have seen enough Disney, or in any case retain a childish utopianism, to demand precisely such happy endings, replete with music and dancing, however grave the previous hour and a half's adventures have been.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Juliana posterJuliana details the life of Lima's streetkids with warmth and affection, and is in some ways a surprisingly optimistic movie. Made by the pioneering Grupo Chaski, it is apparently filmed mostly with non-professional actors, who in a couple of scenes speak directly to the camera as if perhaps in their own voices: first to tell stories of the past, of abuses and lost parents; but later to recount their dreams, of their hopes for a future that combines the magic and the mundane.

Indeed, towards late on in the film one of the characters declares that "In the end, life is made of the same cloth with which dreams are made." And the movie's finale is gloriously utopian, imagining on the one hand a self-reliant community of children living on a derelict ship down by the seashore, and on the other hand a city bus making its way through a darkened city with all its lights on and full of dancing and singing.

The conjunction of boat and bus is rather appropriate, because these kids are something like urban pirates. They board the decrepit but often gaily painted vehicles that serve as Lima's urban transit system, and sing songs for the passengers in return for whatever spare change that they can beg. Though they also indulge in some petty thievery, over the course of the film they begin to take the music itself to heart, encouraged largely by the newest member of the troupe, the exuberant Julián.

Juliana stillJulián is one and the same as the movie's titular Juliana. We first meet this twelve-year old tomboy in her former occupation, cleaning graves at the cemetery. She uses spit to moisten the dirty old rag with which she wipes down the tombs, but assures their inhabitants that she means no disrespect. We also see her home life with (almost inevitably) a drunken and authoritarian stepfather who prevents Juliana from enjoying her few pleasures by stealing her radio or interrupting her soap operas by insisting that she go to the store to bring him more beer. Eventually she can stand it no more, so betrays the old man to an insistent creditor, cuts her hair so she can pass as a boy, turning from Juliana to Julián, and runs off to follow her brother who already works on the buses.

The streetkids' activities are coordinated by a Faginesque figure by the name of Don Pedro, who teaches his motley crew the tricks of the trade and tells them tall stories, demands their money but also feeds and shelters them, falls into rages but also has a tenderer side that at times clearly enjoys the company of his young live-wire charges. The kids themselves are a cross-section of Peru, who come from the jungle and the Andes as well as the coast. They have to band together for survival, but regional and ethnic distrust doesn't necessarily disappear: when Don Pedro tries to recompose the teams of two that go out onto the streets, he receives outraged resistance from kids who don't want to pair up across ethnic lines.

But the greatest marker of difference for the group is gender. And when Julián is revealed as Juliana, the gang comes to its crisis point. The perhaps predictable result, however, is that the majority of kids choose to side with Juliana and abandon Don Pedro and his stool pigeon sidekick. Choosing to rely only on themselves, they set off in search of collective dreams in this urban ocean.

The ending then is too good to be true: a child's fantasy realized on celluloid with echoes of other self-reliant groups from the famous five to Swallows and Amazons. But the bulk of what has preceded has successfully treaded the fine line between romanticism and grit, portraying tensions as well as enthusiasms. There's a particularly memorably scene in which the kids live out their fantasies, if only temporarily, in a trip to a local shopping center. But it's in that same scene that the gang starts to fall apart with a misconceived robbery that ends with the tragi-comic spectacle of a panicked child slowly descending in a glass-walled elevator, knowing the police await him at the bottom of his ride.

There may be no deserted ships down by the Lima shore that can be refurbished as a pirate base. And it may be that pirates are almost always fleeing trauma at home only to be flung headlong towards an unfortunate and early end. But Juliana captures some of the inventiveness and joy that also attends these urban nomads.

YouTube Link: the final confrontation with Don Pedro.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Francisco Lombardi is undoubtedly Peru's most important director, having made a dozen or more feature films over the past twenty-five years. Moreover, the best of them, such as La boca de lobo or No se lo digas a nadie, have won international acclaim and rank at or near the top flight of Latin American cinema. What's remarkable is that Lombardi has achieved this status almost single-handedly, and with an output that has offered a vigorous critique of successive governments and just about every section of Peruvian society.

Caidos del cielo posterCaídos del cielo ("Fallen from Heaven") is an ambitious, accomplished, and very dark black comedy let down only by some less than stellar acting performances. It tells three loosely related stories (script-writer Giovanna Pollarolo has observed that with a little more daring it could have been the Amores perros of its time): a couple of elderly landowners, laid low by economic conditions and reformist politics, are trying to gather enough money to build themselves a marble tomb that would keep their remains in the style to which they still aspire; they give their now blind former housekeeper a pig that proves to be more trouble than it's worth as the effort to fatten it up destroys what little family the woman has; and one of the couple's tenants, who is presenter of a relentlessly optimistic radio self-help show, tries to put his own counsel into effect when he saves a young woman from suicide.

The self-help show's title is "You are your destiny," and it encourages its listeners to believe that fate is always in their hands. But its presenter Humberto comes to realize that, for some at least, this is far from the truth. When he starts to change his tune, telling his listeners that in some cases their wounds will never heal, he's promptly sacked: such negativity is not what people want to hear.

Lombardi has no such desire to placate or patronize his audience. In Caídos del cielo there's more emphasis on the fall than on heaven. Here all roads lead to death, which is the only thing certain in life. (In Peru at least the other great certainty doesn't hold: the publicity for Chicha tu madre claims that of 28 million Peruvians, only 140,000 pay taxes.) At least the down-at-heel aristocrats achieve their dream of ensuring that their cadavers will be laid out in one of the finest mausoleums in the cemetery, but the price they pay is that what remains of their lives becomes more of a living death. Still, their fate is several notches above either that of the suicidal woman, whose name we never learn but whose terrible and irredeemable secret is what brings Humberto down from his lofty gospel of feel-good salvation. And the lowest of the low are represented by the blind grandmother and her two urchin grandchildren, who eke out a living on the garbage dumps of Lima's beaches. And if Humberto seems to learn that niceness is not enough (with perhaps some last-minute and far too late regrets over this lesson), the aristocrats and the urchins alike have long since abandoned even any pretense of politesse.

Caidos del cielo stillThe film is set during the years of rampant hyperinflation that characterized Alan García's first presidency. Its implication is that as all sense of economic value vanishes, as a tomb comes to be more valuable than a mansion and budgets turn into worthless pieces of paper, so also good intentions become little more than ratings-driven lies and a champion pig's life comes to be worth more than a child's. Some dream of escape: the mistreated grandchild, for instance, declares he'll make his way to the States in the steps of his mother. But in the end Lombardi seems to agree with the nameless young woman who believes that the only way out is to jump off one of Lima's seacliffs.

YouTube Link: the film's first ten minutes.

Monday, November 12, 2007


"Chicha" is a Peruvian word that means something like "kitsch" or "tacky." It refers particularly to the appropriation of foreign cultural influences as part of the messy but also sensual and affectionate hybrid that constitutes everyday choledad in Lima's suburbs and slums. But the phrase "chicha tu madre" also conjures up the characteristically Argentine insult "concha tu madre" ("your mother's pussy") and as such is therefore as much an instance as a description of chichería: a typically Peruvian take on some other, more influential, cultural expression.

Chicha tu madre posterAnd so the film Chicha tu madre ends up resembling an Argentine film shot in Peru, with all the translations and distortions that such appropriation necessitates. But in the end it doesn't quite work, and looks too much like a knock-off Argentine movie than a truly hybrid Peruvian reinvention. Perhaps this shouldn't matter, and we should dispense altogether with the national frames that in any case hardly function any more when it comes to Latin American cinema as a whole. But I would have liked to have seen even more of the "desborde popular" or popular excess (recently again subject to critical debate and elite condescension in the Peruvian press) that is, ironically, a prime characteristic of Peru and of Lima's chicha culture above all.

The movie's plot follows the rather aimless wanderings of lower-middle class Julio César. He himself is loath to see his life as aimless, guided as it is by regular reading of the Tarot, that he is learning from a somewhat shady maestro. Other things that give his life purpose include his attempts to come to grips with the fact that his daughter is pregnant, and so that he is imminently about to become a grandfather, his regular trips to brothels and strip clubs, his involvement with a local football team bidding to rise from the second to the first division, and perhaps above all the constant attempt to get hold of money by fair means or foul. So the twists and turns of everyday life, instantiated also in his work as a taxi driver, albeit one who first sells his car to a friend before then stealing it back, all involve constant wheeling and dealing, negotiation and quick thinking.

Chicha tu madre still
Unfortunately, unlike the typical pibe (such as, say, the conmen of Nueve reinas or the lead character in El abrazo partido) who would play such a role in Argentine popular culture, JC (as he calls himself) is not always smart enough, or perhaps more positively is too sentimental and fixed in his ways, to achieve this ducking and diving with complete success. He remains too much in awe of various mentor figures: not least the Tarot maestro, but also his new friend, an Argentine male nurse who's running some kind of racket bussing sickly Peruvians and Bolivians to be treated in the "Eva Perón Hospital" back in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, one scene in which JC drops his hooker girlfriend at her front door and then waves to her with a glove puppet rabbit while hiding under the dash is a good example of his clownish but also endearing immaturity.

Talking of hooker girlfriends, this film was sold in Peru very much on the basis of the buxom delights of actress Tula Rodríguez and model Karen Dejo, who makes a brief appearance as a stripper who goes by the sobriquet of "the electric woman." Peru's chicha culture is rather more interested in sex than is its Argentine equivalent. But a sign that the film didn't quite live up to its promise is the fact that so many viewers felt cheated when they realized that it was much less explicit than its publicity had intimated.

Chicha tu madre still
In fact, the focus is much more on machinations around the football club, whose Argentine trainer indulges in some typically porteño trickery in order to ensure a win in the final game of the season. And it's hardly a surprise that the movie's final scene shows JC, his girlfriend, her infirm grandmother, and a busload of other Peruvians, all headed towards Buenos Aires, where we're told that the second part of this planned filmic trilogy will be set and shot.

In sum, still more chichería is required for Chicha tu madre to show Lima's true chaotic multitudinousness.

YouTube Link: the film's trailer.
Bonus Link: Chicha tu madre official site

Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Peruvian film theme continues (and there's more to come, too)...

Paloma de papel posterPaloma de papel is a well-intentioned take on the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, but it never really takes off. The central character is a young boy called Juan, who lives in an Andean village caught between the two sides: Sendero on the one hand, and less the army per se but the state-supported civil guards or ronda on the other. Juan is dragged into the conflict, and moves from playing war games with his friends to making war alongside people who only call themselves friends, when he discovers that his stepfather is a Senderista, and as a result is sent off to be press-ganged into the guerrilla ranks.

After some time training with sticks for rifles and learning to make grenades out of sawdust and nails, Juan, now renamed "Comrade Cirilo," faces the reality of war first when a young companion of the same age steps on a mine and is put out of his misery by the group's chief, and then when in the aftermath of an assault on a military guardpost he is enjoined to kill a soldier for himself. Juan escapes off to his village, only to find himself pursued by the ronderos and guerrilleros alike. But all he wants is to protect his mother, which he signally fails to do in the subsequent firefight in the village square. Still mourning his mother's death, he is arrested as a subversive, and the film's initial and final scenes (for the main body of the plot is effectively told in flashback) see him returning after years in prison, to be greeted and welcomed back by his childhood friends.

Paloma de papel still
But this focus on an accidental terrorist doesn't really tell us much about the Senderistas themselves. Are we to believe that this is how they, too, found themselves in the movement? As almost always (the Argentine film Kamchatka is another good example), presenting political conflict through the eyes of a child tends to stress the conflict at the price of losing the politics. What's more, the conflict is almost all external: bad people arrive from outside to disrupt what would presumably otherwise be an idyllic rural order.

The fact for instance that Juan's mother seems to have married a Senderista, even though (it is hinted) he may have been responsible for the death of Juan's real mother, might have been an entryway into a more complex view both of the war and of the highlands. But she incarnates only generic motherhood, in and of itself precious and to be valued at all costs. Her character is never fleshed out.

Nor indeed are any of the other characters in the movie developed in any significant way. We have the childhood friends, the wicked and drunken stepfather, the hard-hearted terrorists, and the kindly old man, in this case a blacksmith who gives young Juan a paper dove of the title along with a warm but ultimately banal little parable of hope and redemption.

Again, in some cases there are glimpses at further complexity. The terrorists aren't all bad, one feels: they feel regret at having to kill their own, and weep when their siblings die. So at least a minimal humanity still pertains to them. But too often these are mere gestures, shadings to suggest three-dimensionality without the effort to show real multi-facetedness. And so, too, with highland life as a whole. The village occupies itself with communal tasks amidst beautiful scenery, but little more of Andean life or culture is ever shown. Is this kind of two-dimensional nostalgic vision what the critics of Madeinusa would really prefer?

YouTube Link: the film's opening ten minutes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The Saturday photo, part II: Lima from the balcony of my apartment.

This is a view towards downtown, looking over the Campo de Marte from the district of Jesús María. The view is almost identical from the window over my desk, and I spend a lot of time watching people playing tennis or football down below. It's also always something of a lottery as to how many (if any) hills you can see in the distance through the city's characteristic haze. This photo's taken on a sunny and relatively clear day, but you can't see the slums rising up the hill on the left, and there's a hill on the right, out towards Lurigancho or La Molina, that's completely obscured.

During the 1980s, Shining Path set flames to mark out the hammer and sickle on these hills, to give the sense that they were besieging the capital. With the city in darkness, thanks to blackouts and sabotaged electricity pylons, the effect must have been pretty sinister. (Paloma de papel shows the guerrilla as they stage a similar scene in the highlands.) Somewhere in the trees to the far right of this shot is the "Ojo que llora" ("the weeping eye"), a monument to those killed and disappeared during the war.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Dias de Santiago posterDías 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."

Dias de Santiago still
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.

Dias de Santiago still
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.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Madeinusa posterMadeinusa is one of the most successful and acclaimed Peruvian films ever: it was the country's Oscar submission last year and has won awards in film festivals in Colombia, Argentina, Havana, Hamburg, Rotterdam, as well as nominations or official selections at Sundance, Miami, Helsinki, among other places. It is also one of the most controversial films, especially within Peru itself.

The movie's success abroad and its fierce critique at home are not unrelated. For the source of the discomfort that it provokes is in part the notion that it provides exactly the image that outsiders have always wanted to purvey of life in the Andes. In the words of Peruvian cultural critic Victor Vich, it presents "on the whole, the usual thing: a very questionable and at times banal Orientalist exoticization, a sort of Death in the Andes with a tint of world music." Or in the somewhat less temperate version provided by one Pilar Roca, the film is "a cinematic insult": if cinema provides a country with its "face," then Madeinusa portrays to the world a country populated by "ignorant, uncouth, and savage Indians [who are] so captivated by the outside world that they have named a simple smalltown girl 'Madeinusa.'" Moreover, the film-makers were "as brutal and short-sighted as these highlanders who appear on screen raping their children, getting drunk until they fall down, and betraying the candor of an upper class young man from Lima who had dared to bring his beautiful humanity to this Hell on earth."

In short, as Fernando Vivas is quoted as saying, in an implicit nod to a controversy the previous year over inflight movies, "Madeinusa is not a movie to be shown on a plane en route to Peru."

But in fact, what better to show to incoming international visitors than the very image they seek: colorful rituals that leaven exotic if savage practices in the highlands? The film's success on the festival circuit can hardly have hindered the efforts of PromPerú, whose own website trades largely on traditional costumes and pre-Columbian ceremonies, to attract the tourist dollar. No, the debate around Madeinusa has much more to do with the country's historic internal tensions than with some Machiavellian distinction between a poor, misrepresented Latin American nation faced with an Orientalist West.

UchuraccayOther critics' references to Uchuraccay and the Peruvian peace commission are more telling. Madeinusa is in this sense made more in Peru than in the USA, and the controversy has its roots in the historic divide between the coast (above all Lima) and the highlands, and in the still unhealed scars of the Sendero uprising and subsequent civil war of the 1980s and 1990s.

In this reading, the central character is less the eponymous Madeinusa, and more the metropolitan visitor, Salvador, who wanders into the highland community of Manayaycuna unaware presumably that the (fictional) village's name means "the town no-one can enter" in Quechua.

Salvador finds himself in the middle of an annual festival in which, over the Easter weekend, villagers celebrate a tiempo santo or "holy time" in which God is dead, his figure taken down from the cross and blindfolded, and so the law is suspended and there is no sin. Protagonist Madeinusa's father, the village mayor, had presumed that this year's holy time would provide the opportunity to deflower his young daughter. But it is Salvador who catches the young woman's eye, and she proffers herself to him while still in her elaborate costume of festival virgin. In turn, Salvador gradually comes to sympathize with Madeinusa's fate, terrorized as she is by her drunken, mean-spirited father and shrewish sister, Chale, alike, and eventually he agrees to take her away to Lima, to which her mother had escaped some time previously leaving only a pair of beaded ear-rings as keepsake. But when, as holy time is about to run out, Madeinusa realizes that her father has destroyed the ear-rings, she determines to poison him with soup laced with rat poison. Here, however, comes the most savage twist: discovering the murder, Chale turns on the "gringo," and so in turn does Madeinusa herself. So the putative savior becomes scapegoat, his fate (we assume) to be lynched by the vigorously xenophobic highland community.

So although the story's cinematic precursors include such films as The Wicker Man or (as strictly film school perceptively observes) Lucrecia Martel's La niña santa, in Peru itself the resonance is immediately with the fate of the eight journalists murdered by the inhabitants of the small village of Uchuraccay in 1983, early on during the Sendero civil war. And indeed Vich's comparison between this film and Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes implies this comparison, too. For Vargas Llosa was one of the celebrated authors of the report on the Uchuraccay massacre, concluding that blame had squarely to be placed on the continuing presence of premodern indigenous barbarism.

But the problem that the movie poses can be best understood in terms of subalternity and (the failures of) hegemony. Gonzalo Portocarrero suggests as much when he argues that Madeinusa portrays "Peru's impossibility": "the film depicts a country that is unviable thanks to barbarism and lack of authority amid popular culture." Naturally enough he swiftly adds: "I would like to believe that the film is wrong." But what the movie both displays and enacts is a betrayal of precisely such well-intentioned efforts on the part of the coastal elite to hegemonize the subaltern interior. That elite is shocked at the movie's refusal to endorse a politics of solidarity; but they miss the power precisely of its critique of the savior complex and power relations that underlie even (especially) the most liberal of efforts to construct the Peruvian nation.

Madeinusa still
For Madeinusa turns around the systematic destitution of authority: religious, lay, and liberal, each of which is represented in turn by the three male figures who die as the plot unfolds. Christ, the mayor, and the "gringo" all have to be killed if Madeinusa has any hope of liberation. And each is necessarily undone by treason, rather than by frontal assault or counter-hegemonic persuasion.

It's striking how much of the criticism that this film has provoked has consisted in moralizing scandal over what Ciberayllu terms the "moral transgressions" that it represents, above all the incest between father and daughter. But of course, within the logic of the film, there are no such transgressions: during holy time God is dead and the law is suspended. It is as though the outraged defenders of Peru's image could not bear this destitution of the religious authority that has, since the Spanish conquest, been one of the pillars of colonial and postcolonial subjugation.

The murder of the father and mayor has led to less comment. It's surely strange that the fearless supporters of Andean society and its representation should be least concerned of all over the fate of the only indigenous person who dies. No doubt they are carried away with the notion that to save the highlands, the "bad" indigenous will inevitably have to be purged. But this acceptance of the extrajudicial removal of corrupt indigenous leadership is, for better or for worse, hardly far removed from the practices of Sendero from which Lima's liberal left are otherwise so quick to disassociate themselves.

No, the real crime of Madeinusa is the breach it opens (the "abyss" according to Portocarrero) between the young man from Lima and the young woman from Manayaycuna. For so much of the film, after all, the plot holds out the promise of a prototypical "foundational fiction" in which romance would quasi-naturally secure the idea of nation. It is when subaltern betrayal refuses this affective mechanism of would-be hegemony that the critics sound the alarm. But why should Madeinusa exchange colonial authority or postcolonial abuse for this unfeasible tie with some liberal hegemon? She has no need of any savior in order to make her way to Lima and who knows where thereafter.

Madeinusa still
YouTube Link: the film's trailer.