Monday, April 24, 2017

Los Muertos

Director Lisandro Alonso

LOS MUERTOS                    B
aka:  The Dead                       
Argentina  France  Netherlands  Switzerland  (78 mi)  2004  d:  Lisandro Alonso

Born in Buenos Aires, raised in the city but fascinated by the countryside, where he worked on his father’s ranch, Alonso studied at the Universidad del Cine (University of Cinema) in the early 90’s, but didn’t graduate, instead learned by being an assistant director to Nicolás Sarquís, an Argentinean filmmaker and screenwriter who made slow, near wordless films and also programmed the legendary Contracampo (reserved for innovative narrative forms) section of the Mar del Plata Film Festival, the only recognized competitive feature festival in Latin America, where Alonso’s job was to deliver film reels and transfer videotapes.  It was Sarquís who introduced Argentina to the films of directors like Kiarostami, Sokurov, and Tsai Ming-liang in the late 90’s before dying of lung cancer in 2003.  By then, Alonso had already released his first film, La Libertad (Freedom) in 2001, a low-budget film made for $50,000 from his family’s money, yet shot on 35 mm, as are all of Alonso’s films.  After spending a few years on land in the country purchased by his father, he was drawn by the less complicated lives, where people spent less time talking, yet were arguably more aware of the natural world around them.  With the director present at the screening, the first thing Alonso does before making a film is search for an interesting location, finding an excuse to film there, where his first film took him into Argentina’s Pampas region, literally immersing himself, bringing a sleeping bag and tent, living alongside locals in the region until he discovers a feature subject, essentially ignoring a traditional narrative.  The three films, La Libertad (Freedom) (2001), LOS MUERTOS (2004), and Liverpool (2008), comprise an aptly named Lonely Men Trilogy, as each examines the solitary lives of the rural poor by following a near wordless journey of isolated protagonists in remote regions who barely utter a word as they journey through unchartered territory that may as well be the end of the world, as one of the director’s interests is to confront the viewer with primitive ways of life that are as far removed from civilization as possible, where the mysterious world they live in becomes the central focus of the film.  Discovering non-professionals in their own environment, his films use long, contemplative takes to observe otherwise unknown and invisible characters in their own natural habitat, using experimental and abstract methods, establishing Alonso as one of the leading proponents of slow and contemplative cinema.      

Made three years later for only $29,000, LOS MUERTOS was shot in four weeks using the same crew as his first film, where Alonso’s idea to procure financing was to shoot an opening scene, then show it to prospective buyers in order to secure the needed financing to complete the film.  It took nearly nine months before they could begin shooting in the northern province of Corrientes where native people including the Guaraní were still living in the tropical jungle regions.  Traveling by canoe, he met the film’s subject, Argentino Vargas, while scouting locations, putting up his tent and staying with him for two or three days before asking if he’d want to be in a film.  By understanding that he’d get paid for work, the same as any other job, he agreed.  Opening with a mesmerizing slow burn through a dense jungle, where the camera acts as the eyes of the audience exploring the vicinity, which turns out to be a crime scene, as first one, then two bloodied bodies are seen sprawled on the ground.  Only a brief glimpse of the legs of the perpetrator along with a machete are seen in a portion of the frame before the entire screen fades to the color green.  The opening and closing shots are both spectacular, as is the accompanying sound design, but especially that virtuoso opening sequence, where cinema cohabitates with the outer reaches of the natural world, literally immersing viewers into the uniquely special terrain of the film, planosecuencia02 - Los muertos YouTube (3:39).  More happens in the first half of the film than the second, though little actually happens, almost all of it is wordless, as we watch a man sit, smoke, or drink maté out of a thermos.  Argentino Vargas is serving out his prison term in a work release camp without any mention to the previous images, though at some point we realize his lengthy prison sentence was for killing his younger brothers, and when he gets out, some twenty years after the crime, the film picks him up at the prison’s exit and follows him on his journey downriver to find his daughter, traveling down the Paranà River towards home, delivering a message en route to the family of a prison mate before borrowing their rowboat, where he keeps traveling further and further into the jungle, feeling a strange connection, or is it disconnection (?) to the lurking everpresent physical environment of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  What we discover is there was more regimen and purpose while he was in prison, that in freedom he finds himself disconnected to his former self and his life altogether, where one tends to fade in and out of various stages of consciousness while watching due to the hypnotic and somnambulistic quality of the film. 

Mostly dialogue free, silent and mysterious, it seems the director has a distinct interest in expanding the edges of human consciousness, using a very non-judgmental, explorative process, where film becomes an avenue for human interaction in regions where little is known, so he simply immerses himself in unknown terrain and waits to see what happens, capturing what he can on film, using only the barest traces of a story, where he’s more interested in finding people that he’d like to shoot, where certainly part of his unique approach to cinema is using an ambiguous style that is meant to be as unreadable as the characters themselves.  As poetically beautiful as it is disconcerting, the film brims with the richly somber mood and unmatched visual attentiveness that defines the director’s oeuvre, where a mysterious aura emanates from Vargas, just as it does from the inscrutable depths of the jungle, so that they meld together in a way that blurs the lines of the man’s identity.  There is a hugely disturbing scene, where Vargas first kills and then skins a goat that he finds onshore, that plays out in real time, but this stark reality amplifies the special skills it takes to survive in this environment, becoming something of a deeply contemplative analysis of the intersection of unflinching natural events with the actions produced by man’s haunting interior psyche.  Interestingly, the film sets up the narrative expectation of a quest in which Vargas will reunite with his daughter, only to thwart those expectations, much as a similar protagonist does in Liverpool (2008), as what his life amounts to are fragments searching to be a part of a whole, returning to the scene of the crime, trying to find out what’s left of his family, but none of these ends ever connect.  In the reverberations of his past actions that spread themselves out before him like invisible waves, a reference to a 2006 film by the same name from Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, he remains lost and displaced.  Screening at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, some have speculated that Vargas is a compulsive murderer who would end up killing his daughter after the film ends, where the end is hugely ambiguous, as after returning back to the region where it all began, nothing has changed after twenty years, where the final shot leaves viewers wondering what happens, as it’s all offscreen, leaving it to the audience to decide. But then an excellent music track plays out over the end credits, expressing more energetic vitality than anything we’ve seen in the film, which turns out to be Argentine punk band Flor Maleva (Malevolent Flower), offering an eerie vibe, and only then does the title pop up, Los Muertos in bold red lettering, giving it an incendiary and menacing effect, where if you weren’t thinking about it before, that and the ominous prevalence of machetes, the possibility that he might have returned to finish the job he started “before” he went to jail is a distinct possibility, yet to this wavering eye he seems perfectly innocent, but we'll never know what happened.  Richly abstract, the film plays out with a puzzling elusiveness, where the dream logic of the dazzling opening sequence continues to shroud the film in mystery.

Friday, April 21, 2017

La Libertad (Freedom)


LA LIBERTAD                    B-                   
aka:  Freedom
Argentina  (73 mi)  2001  d:  Lisandro Alonso

To me he’s a sage.  Someone who isn’t interested in society, who creates his own world.  People talk about Whitman, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and other names I’ve never heard of. 
—Lisandro Alonso, speaking of Misael, the protagonist of his film La Libertad

Narration is all but absent in Alonso’s first feature, where in his words, “I don’t want to tell a story.  I’m interested only in observing.”  The son of a cattle rancher, at the age of 25, Alonso decided to spend time in the country on land purchased by his father, taking him into Argentina’s Pampas region where he met the film’s protagonist, a tree cutter (hachero) named Misael Saavedra, spending 8 months with him before pitching the film to his former film school, Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, immediately encountering resistance, as neither his family, his friends, nor his school liked the idea, so he financed it independently with $50,000 from family money, making his father the producer.  Using a 12-person crew, they shot for ten days, basically presenting a day in the life of Misael.  Told with lyrical power and a scarcity of information, the film is far from a documentary portrait, as you could imagine how this would be so differently presented in the hands of Werner Herzog.  Instead it resolutely refuses to provide any background information, where it’s 30-minutes into the film before a single word is spoken, providing an unflinching look at a man living a solitary life in the countryside, where the bold declaration of the title provides the viewer all they need to know, as it’s a question asked throughout the film, which is itself a conglomerate of fiction, documentary, and improvisation, where the camera, mostly in long takes, follows this young man around as he cuts wood with an ax and chainsaw, rounding up tree stumps, cutting off branches, marking tree trunks, then placing them all in a woodpile, as we see him walking through the high grass, even defecating in the woods, with the sounds of cows heard in background.  After a while he takes a break to eat, washing his hands, changing his T-shirt, warming up prepared stew in a pot, turning on a radio playing Latin Salsa music, while also gulping water and smoking a cigarette.  A rhythm of motion is established through simple means, and like the director’s other works, this exceedingly spare and minimalist film takes the form of a silent, solitary journey.

Misael greets a man and his son as they pull up in an empty pickup truck by his woodpile, loading the bare logs in his truck, while Misael rides in the back with a giant white dog panting all the way.  They get off at home, allowing Misael to continue by himself, reaching a rural lumberyard where he hops out and rolls a cigarette, where one hears the sounds of dogs in the distance as he waits for the owner to inspect his lumber.  Offering 15 stumps at two pesos each, he ends up selling them for one peso and 80 cents each, or 27 pesos (approximately $9 dollars).  After unloading his truck, he immediately spends 10 pesos on cigarettes and a cold soda, as well as a gallon of gasoline for his chainsaw that he pours into a plastic jug.  Returning the truck to its rightful owner, he heads off into the open fields, past cows and wheatstacks, disappearing into the treeline where he catches an armadillo, lugging it along with him as he ambles through the forest back to his tent.  Making a fire, placing a metal grill over it, he whacks the animal a few times before slitting it open and roasting it on the fire, skin down.  Later in the evening, he lights a pile of brush on fire in the woods before sitting down to eat his meal, illuminated by campfire, where the film opens and closes with mirror images of Misael eating the cooked armadillo with his knife, where lightning and thunder can be heard in the background, though at the end, he boldly eyes the camera with furtive glances before the film fades to black, showing the title sequence as the rains fall.  Interestingly, the credits actually play at the beginning, along with a bass-heavy, pulsating vibe of contemporary music by Juan Montecchia, where the opening credits to the glacially paced LA LIBERTAD and Liverpool (2008) both feature strangely uptempo music, where this is the first in a Lonely Men Trilogy that also includes LOS MUERTOS (2004) and Liverpool (2008), one of the more intriguing trilogies in contemporary cinema, as one wonders whether these solitary men operating in isolated rural regions, outside the constraints of society’s reach, are really more liberated, or does their extremely limited economic opportunity keep them in a neverending cycle of powerlessness and poverty?  While they answer to no one but themselves and have skills that allow them to survive in the wilds of nature, yet their silence is reflected in their absence of political power, remaining marginalized, and perhaps even exiled from the broader community that all but ignores them.  In a broader view, they may as well be invisible, which is why Alonso chooses to shine a light on them.      

The film screened at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2001, quickly becoming a festival favorite, largely due to its daring originality and almost complete absence of language, yet it is inexplicably listed as the #3 film of the decade by Cinema Scope magazine, Cinema Scope Top Ten Films of the Decade - Cinema Scope, which is a head scratcher, but an example of how well Alonso is received in critical circles.  Described as “a poetic meditation on labor and landscape,” the film is reduced to its barest necessities, which perhaps increases the observational focus of the viewers, with Alonso describing the experience, “It’s a mirror, but empty,” allowing each individual viewer to fill in the empty spaces with their own thoughts and reflections, projecting their own idea of liberty.  While the woodcutter is nearly self-sufficient, deriving his income and basic needs from nature itself, his isolation, however, allows him to be economically exploited, so that the wood that he cut so carefully ends up being sold cheaply, where he’s at the mercy of market prices set by the lumberyard.  Who’s to say they don’t continually take advantage of him, as he’s a small time operator, where the sale may even be off the books, as Misael is part of a continuing journey from nature to the market and back again, somehow balancing work and nature.  The film never romanticizes the labor, but this is the lengthiest section of the film, shown with cinematic realism, where the slow pace of the film seems to extend our time with a man alone in the woods, literally expanding our boundaries, taking viewers on a journey at the margins of civilization.  But like Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), this is a staged reality, a kind of fictionalized documentary, starting and ending in the same place, creating a mythical structure of a routine day in the life, as if every day is pretty much like this one.  Because of the relationship between Misael and his environment, there is a fine line between loneliness and freedom, where there may be days when he speaks to no one, but remains at a distance, preferring solitude to socialization, becoming a prisoner of uncertainty, subject to a different kind of inner life, something the camera never sees, that each viewer themselves must discover.  As an art film, outside the guidelines of commercialization, the director has already escaped the norms of traditional film language, driven by a desire to establish his own artistic freedom, refusing to follow the paths paved by others, using a radical stylization that is both provocative and informative, which may be uncomfortable to many, where each new generation will have to decide for themselves the worth of this kind of artistic approach, but as a first feature, it’s rare.