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.

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