Monday, December 9, 2019

The Cranes Are Flying

Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov (Russia,1957)
December 15, 2019, 3:00 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Cranes Are Flying takes place in Soviet Moscow during World War II, when the Russians declare war on Germany. Shot in black-and-white, in possibly the best cinematography in that medium, the film cries, bleeds, with feeling, most of it portrayed through the central character’s facial expressions. She is young, vivacious, Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), whose heart skips and soars with love for twenty-five-year-old Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a factory engineer and son of a prominent doctor. Handsome, concert-pianist Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) also lives with Boris’s family and is in love with Veronica, but she adamantly rejects him in favor of Boris, whom she plans to marry.

The movie opens with the lovers traipsing along the embankment of the Moscow River. They’re as carefree and exuberant as children, for such is the feeling of being in love. Suddenly, Veronica stops and watches a formation of cranes flying overhead. Her face shows total awe and the camera focuses on her feeling. From then on, throughout the movie, life’s deepest feelings are shown through the characters’ faces, especially Veronica’s, for it’s her story. The camera work connects us, the audience, to those same innermost feelings that words can never convey.

Intentionally or not, the cranes in formation have a flip side and portend the coming war and fighter jets on their way to bomb cities and humanity; the miracle of nature juxtaposes the villainy of humanity. The cranes in flight bookend the movie—appearing just before and just after the war. Another bookend also frames the story: Veronica fighting her way through throngs of cheering Muscovites as they send their soldiers off to war, and then, when they greet them home again. In these crowd-scene bookends, Veronica is first trying to find Boris to say farewell, and then, trying to find him among the returning soldiers. When the cranes fly overhead in this last scene, they convey through Veronica’s facial expression the inexplicable coexistence of “wondrous life” and “imperfect humanity,” for she has learned Boris is dead. She has no choice but to carry on after war’s death, destruction, and grief—such is life.

The story is like a fairy tale, a parable, or a morality play. The characters are stock: young lovers, family patriarch, dishonest cousin, judgmental sister, wise grandmother. We don’t need unique personalities or witty dialogues for this story to deliver its breathtaking magic. Nor does its dated morality impinge on its art. What the film delivers in camera work by Sergey Urusevsky attains a peak of visual art, and of course depends somewhat on Samoilova’s talent for expressing her character’s inner states through only physical and facial movements. The camera’s “subjective style” takes us into her unconscious mind’s image-experience of traumatic events, such as her rape by Mark, her panic in the mob, her discovery of her parents’ bombing death, and her final reawakening to hope, humanity, and love. As one Russian critic wrote when the film came out, “You don’t know whether the image of Veronica owes her charm to Samoilova’s talent and sincerity or to Urusevsky’s art, able to catch in the turn of a head, a momentary pose, the blink of eyelashes, the helplessness and obstinacy, the tenderness and pride of this particular woman’s character.”

Urusevsky achieves this same powerful hold on us when Boris, fighting on the swampy front, is hit by a bullet. We die with him, we experience his last, unconscious mind’s images, not his thoughts, before he keels over backward into the sloshing mud. The camera twirls and swirls and collides with images we feel, we relate to, that are beyond verbal communication. On a side note, one marvels at the terrifying risk Samoilova (or her double) takes during the first mob scene when she runs blindly through rolling army tanks looking for Boris as the Soviet forces leave Moscow for the front.

Our values, our way of living, our morality, and our artistic renderings have changed since The Cranes Are Flying was made. We no longer portray new love in an idealized, ultra-sentimental way, even if we actually feel that way when newly in love. Our Western society has become open and conscious of gender and minority equalities. The shame and ostracism placed on Veronica because she marries Mark after he violently rapes and mentally crushes her wouldn’t happen today. The movie’s attitude toward war has also changed. When the German invasion occurs, Boris and his friends automatically rush to sign up: fighting for the homeland is their responsibility. One thing has not changed about the movie: what it achieved in 1957 with its cinematic portrayal of our innermost feelings remains. For film art lovers, Cranes is a must see.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Announcement (Turkey/Bulgaria, 2018)

Art house film lovers can sit back and thoroughly savor every nuance of this meticulously executed movie that doesnt fit into a single genre but draws from several. It opens with film noirs suspense and mystery but soon fleshes out to theater of the absurdexistentialism, satire, and at times, the sense of dystopiaThis mixed offering works seamlessly and ingeniously from start to finish, coming from the hand of an obvious master, Mahmut Fazil Coşkun.
There is much nighttime driving in this movie, much standing and sitting around waiting, much silence and guarded watching, while the clock ticks and the central characters—military officers—cogitate on the time running out for their attempted coup in a fictionalized Turkey in 1963. The period props are marvelous—cars, phones, offices, radio equipment, and a hospital. It’s 1963, but we’re in some retro world that’s so long gone, so technologically archaic, that we can’t remember having lived in such a world ourselves.
The middle-aged characters carrying out the coup—Reha (Ali Seçkiner Alici) Şinasi (Tarhan Karagöz, Kemal (Murat Kiliç), and Rifat (Şencan Güleryüz)—are stuck in an unending nightmare. They go from one dead end to the next, in their effort to announce from Istanbul Radio that their coup has been a success and the country is now in better, safer hands. This single night of one detour after another in the officers’ mission never alters their deadpan faces, while outlandish or absurd incidents keep occurring, such as two cold-blooded killings and finding an unexpected use for the latest Frigidaire model that one of the officers is hoping to market on the side. The audience is kept in suspense despite the deliberately humdrum pace of the story. Other details and scenes have acute humor, such as the blasé attitude of the local citizens toward the coup. When called upon to help the perpetrators in their thwarted mission, the locals comply willingly, indifferent to who or what they’re helping. Coups are just an everyday event in their lives with no personally threatening impact. The citizens just want to be helpful.
As things escalate in their low-key, non-happening way, Radio Ankara begins to make broadcasts, while the coup plotters drive around in a bakery van trying to resolve their technical problems with Radio Istanbul. The officers maintain their same deadpan faces as they listen to their mission beginning to fail from the Ankara position. Nothing can faze these guys. Are the people in this movie inured to the political superstructure overarching their lives but never really affecting them? This viewpoint is another of the movie’s ironies, and possibly a statement on contemporary Turkey. 
The Announcement comes full circle by the end of the film, with an image of the uniformed protagonists, back to ordinary life, as if their grand plan was nothing in particular—just a bit of hopeful excitement for a change, a perk for their deadened egos—but now regular, mundane existence resumes.

Watch for screenings of The Announcement at 2019–2020 film festivals and in art house theaters.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Boston Jewish Film Festival '19

Fig Tree (2018)
Dir. Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian

Director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian drops you right into daily life in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa during the long Ethiopian Civil War. The year is 1989, and American audiences plunge into a completely new culture with the backdrop of a chaotic war, where teenage boys are “kidnapped” to supply the government’s army.
The protagonist Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), 16, is Jewish and lives with her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) and her brother Rata (19), who has lost his arm in the war. A Christian woman and her son, Eli (Yohanes Muse), also live with the family. Mina grew up with Eli, and now, in adolescence, they are in love. The family goes to great lengths to hide Eli from the constant army raids to round up boys. When her chores are done, Mina steals away to meet Eli at their trysting spot, a giant fig tree.
A wheeling-dealing government official arranges papers and transportation for Jewish citizens to immigrate to Israel, and Mina’s grandmother has been working with the woman to arrange the family’s escape. Mina’s mother is already in Israel. But Mina’s distraught—how can they leave Eli and his mother behind?
The film captures “first love”—its childlike innocence awakening to sexual desire. These beautiful scenes between Mina and Eli, more than anything else in the movie, bring us into the family circle and the terrible ordeals the members endure. We experience what it really feels like to witness a son or your love being snatched by the enemy—being captive and abused to face what horrible fate?
Because we dive straight into the lives of Mina's family without any back story or exposition, we have to work fast to learn the characters’ names, their customs, the war situation, and the plot. This full-immersion method of storytelling is the most effective way for an audience to experience a foreign world and crisis situation as if in it themselves.
In Fig Tree, women play a strong role. They absorb all the tragedies occurring around them; they keep life going for everyone else. They’re the bulwark and the source of wisdom for children and men to depend on.
The movie’s cinematography also tells the story (and won Israel's equivalent of an Oscar). Even though we’re in a tense, scary, unpredictable war zone, the film is quiet, told more through the actors’ faces and the scenery than through their dialogue. We become familiar with this setting and its culture; we become part of the community. Mina’s family could be ours; we know the members that well, We easily identify with one character’s anguished words, “I can’t deal with all their evil anymore!”
Fig Tree is a beautiful, honest look at our world and the violence and cruelty that pervades it.

My Polish Honeymoon (Lune de Miel, 2019)
Dir. Élise Otzenberger

Élise Otzenberger’s film My Polish Honeymoon offers audiences an enjoyable time-out for its quirky characters, honest realism, humor, and poignant moments. The structure is a road trip. The film opens with thirty-year-old Anna (Judith Chemla) in a high-anxiety state just before her departure for Poland with her husband Adam (Arthur Igual). They are Parisians, but Poland’s the homeland of both their grandparents who were Jews during the Holocaust. Anna’s grandmother survived and settled in Paris, but Adam’s grandfather was among those in Zgierz, north of Łódź, where not one Jew remained after the war. The trip centers on a commemorative ceremony for the murdered families of Zgierz.
Anna’s parents arrive to babysit six-month-old Simon, while Anna and Adam take a postponed “honeymoon” to Poland. Both the film’s title and the honeymoon idea have several connotations to ponder.
In the opening scenes, as the couple tries to get out of their apartment for the airport, Anna’s high-voltage personality that controls everyone and everything sets the stage for striking realism in the story. Her behavior is somewhat off-putting at first—she barks orders and rudenesses to her loved ones—but actually, this style of family communication is what goes on inside most people’s homes. Ultimately, Anna’s histrionic behavior, her swings from exuberance to total collapse, warm us to her, for she also comes across as authentic, likeable, sincere, deep, and human. In this way, the film imparts truth about how individuals love and care for each other despite daily annoyances, grievances, and friction. The most intense scene between Anna and Adam—a shattering, pain-inflicting argument—is a universal with couples and an achievement of the film for capturing it.
Another achievement is the movie’s funny moments. They, too, are so real. While the film is dealing with an overall heavy subject—close relatives who have or have not survived genocide and what that means for their descendants—it simultaneously lets us enjoy present-day, hilarious moments. My favorite scene is when Anna arrives in Krakow, overflowing with excitement for discovering her family’s homeland and culture. It’s cold outside. She goes into a shop to buy socks from a pretty Polish woman her own age. Immediately they hit it off, babbling away in their own languages—French and Polish—with lots of hand motions and laughter. The Polish woman “understands perfectly” what Anna wants (socks) and brings out a samovar. They go on talking and agreeing on everything with the aid of their exuberant sign language—“Yes, of course, exactly, I know just what you mean!” They hug goodbye with effusive appreciation for their encounter. This is a marvelous “real moment” in the movie, capturing how people can communicate their warmth and innate humanity without understanding each other’s language. Adam witnesses the scene with a baffled face: “Is this for real?” Yes, Adam, it happens.
The movie’s central theme is remembrance. A survivor of the concentration camps gives a talk to adolescents in a plundered Jewish cemetery. She shows them a photograph of herself as a child imprisoned in Bergen-Bergen. She says, “I bear witness. Look at me in this photograph and don’t believe anyone who tells you the Holocaust didn’t happen.” Remember.
Adam sees a jolly-looking tour bus for Auschwitz, along with souvenir kiosks. He says it’s like Disney—offensive commercialization of the Holocaust. He has a point. And yet, to get multitudes to the site and its horrors, so that they remember, and honor remembrance, buses might be needed, and perhaps the souvenirs touch the heart and memory long after the visit. It would help if the buses’ sides weren’t blazoned with “Auschwitz” and “Schindler,” turning the Holocaust a money-making industry.
The movie doesn’t exonerate present-day Poland. It judges it, or allows its characters to judge the place, the people, the past. Anna’s grandmother’s house in Kazimierz is gone. Its place in a line of other houses is an empty, overgrown lot, as if her house alone was swiped from the landscape—her past, her aberrant Jewishness eradicated. Why is the lot still empty? Almost a century has passed. It’s like a symbol of the erasure, in a bad way, not a memorializing way. We’re told that once she settled in Paris, she was “over being Polish, over being Jewish. She was now a good French woman, a Parisian.”
Although Anna had brought her son’s foreskin to Poland, thinking she might bury it in the homeland, she instead takes it back to Paris, where Adam buries it in one of their potted plants on the apartment’s window ledge. They are Parisians. They are Jewish-Parisians. Paris, not Poland, is home.
The movie’s soundtrack by David Sztanke (pianist, singer, arranger, composer, and performer) is notable. Lots of Chopin (Szopen was a Pole), and all of the music expertly matched to the mood of each scene. When soft and tender, when touching loss and grief, the music never slips into sentimentality; it always hits the accurate feeling.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Hamlet, outdoor summer theater

 A tour de force from Boston's Praxis Stage

A rare and wonderful Hamlet for our times is playing in two Cambridge parks, Thursdays thru Sundays, and note that the Sunday performance is at 4:00, and all others at 7:00 pm. Seating is on the grass, take beach chairs or a blanket. For more information visit Praxis Stage on Facebook or
    Talent infuses Praxis Stage’s production of Shake-speare’s famous tragedy. Each character lives and breathes right in front of us; it never occurs that we’re watching a performance. We’re immersed in pummeling reality—Hamlet’s. That is, until we turn on our minds for just a second and think: How can Eric McGowan be manic right before our eyes when he’s actually acting? In retrospect, he’s like Kevin Kline, Johnny Depp, or any of those greats who are born to become, wholly, another person for our benefit as viewers.
     Why does this particular Hamlet reach us so poignantly in the depths of our souls? It feels like a story from our own times—we’re watching the people we know from our own lives. And yet, the lines are the Bard’s from 1600. And, miraculously, or because of the players’ passion and talent, the lines in this production are clearly, purely heard and understood.
     Praxis’s artistic director, Daniel Boudreau, says that the company formed the day after Trump’s election, and that it “seeks to link theater with activism” by producing works that reflect current political issues and cultural conversations. “We are artists who burn to tell stories that address injustice and that imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society. We pay particular attention to forging productions with a richness in diversity and, particularly, with Boston-born and raised talent gracing our stages.”
Eric McGowan has us in his grip as Hamlet, a Hamlet  for today.  
Praxis Stage performs throughout the year, offering one Shakespeare play every summer. “We want to keep that immortal genius in our mouths, in your ears, and on as many minds as possible, as one route to the betterment of this world,” says Boudreau.
     Why the name Praxis? “It’s a philosophical concept we embrace,” says Boudreau. “Praxis embodies cultural, intellectual, and artistic reflection and action directed at the oppressive structures that must be transformed, if we are to live in a liberated society. Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition and transform the world.”
     That is why this Hamlet—the play and the man—are utterly real to us seated on the lawn. We watch in horror and disbelief as Hamlet's life descends into the hell of our own real lives—chaos, tyranny, crime, greed, corruption, evil, and grief. Hamlet's not insane, he's beside himself with the irremediable condition of our world and humanity.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Fortunate Man, directed by Bille August

Award-winning Danish director Bille August’s A Fortunate Man, based on Henrik Pontoppidan’s Nobel Prize–winning novel, Lucky Per (1898–1904), is a feast for the eyes and mind. Whatever the camera focuses on in this richly conceived drama about young, ambitious, and fiery-tempered Peter Andreas Sidenius (Esben Smed), captivates our eyes, from the opening scene of a windswept heath overlooking Jutland’s blue sea to the next scene of Copenhagen’s cobblestone streets in the late 19th-century. One of the loveliest settings is the wealthy Salomons’ home with its soft refinement. Every detail has been considered and captured by the camera—costumes, period furnishings, lifestyles, mores, and the actors’ faces. The film is a visual, atmospheric emporium, and Peter’s life story a saga of epic, psychological proportions, this latter aspect most compelling.
Beginning with the film’s opening scenes in a backward region of Denmark, we witness Peter’s dire need to escape his authoritarian father who’s the local vicar. Peter’s nineteen and receives an acceptance letter to the university in Copenhagen—his ticket to freedom. Penniless, hungry, but full of ambition for his hydroelectric power inventions that have the potential to transform Denmark’s standing in the world, Peter grasps any opportunity for an entrée into the city’s echelons of power. This means he uses people to advance his progress. But don’t we all in our career choices? Still, judgment creeps into our audience view of Peter, particularly when his manipulations involve women, first a soft-hearted waitress who feeds him, then Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), because she’s a rich heiress, albeit with an enlightened mind that he also admires. But it’s her financial position in the family that first catches his attention.
Peter’s extremely good-looking, with an ingenuous side that contrasts favorably to Copenhagen’s sophistication and class divisions. His freshness and enthusiasm for his groundbreaking ideas amplify his appeal. His dark side also surfaces—his deep-seated anger for his father and his severe religious upbringing. His inner rage plays a role in his fate. As his story moves along, gaining successful steps toward the realization of his dreams, his intolerance for others’ unfair, unjust, or superior behavior thwart his achievement. His character flaw is his stubborn adherence to truth. But is that a character flaw? Should jealous, condescending people from the elite class who control jobs and infrastructure, also control his path to success? Peter is ripped apart by his success or defeat being controlled by vindictive types. These concerns of his have far more importance to him than his closest relationships.
The movie, which is long because it’s a saga, keeps up tension from the beginning, when Ivan Salomon—Peter’s Jewish peer and entrée into the monied world he needs for his inventions—says to Peter, “You’re a fortunate man!” We are instantly braced for the demise of that fortunate man. All goes brilliantly for a while. Ivan takes Peter home to meet the Salomon family, which includes his two beautiful sisters, Jakobe and Nanny. The Salomons’ luxurious lifestyle intoxicates Peter, so does the free-flowing wine. The dignified elders who control the family’s investments welcome hearing Peter’s ideas and treat him graciously, despite his obvious difference in social etiquette. At one point, Uncle Delft says to Peter, “Fortune favors fools.” And toward the end of the movie, when Peter’s arc has played out from a manic climb to success to a descent into loss and despair, Uncle Delft again states a proverb to him: “Pride goes before a fall.” These three sayings match the arc points in Peter’s story: a fortunate man, fortune favors fools, pride before a fall.
Peter’s mental torment that began in childhood under a ruthless father grows with age and disappointment. His story reminds us of how so many young people with creative plans for their lives, soon find doors closed to them because of the guarded power of the rich and connected. Peter experiences a universal: Lost dreams cause the slow sadness, bitterness, and depression we see on late-middle-aged faces; life often delves out more sadness than joy. Peter also grapples with more than the average seeker. He’s a genius-inventor barred from the only social stratum that can bring his contributions to fruition.
Despite his defeat, Peter’s mind won’t, or can’t, stop its pursuits. He returns to Jutland, marries, and has children, but these most important relationships mean less to him than his mind’s unstoppable quest. He’s unable to assume financial responsibilities for the family because of his innate drive to invent.
           One day, at the family dinner table, he awakens to his reality—his authentic self—and abruptly leaves the table. The film then cuts to a decade later, with Peter living like a hermit in a rustic cottage on the heath near the sea. He’s bearded, physically neglected, but working with his same total absorption on his inventions. Whether from his childhood trauma or his genius genes, or a combination of both, he’s constructed to live a solitary life with his creativity, and he accepts it. Witnessing his humble surrender to his true self evokes our audience compassion in the deepest way. His last, emotional conversation with ever-faithful Jakobe transcends melodrama. It’s one of the most beautiful endings to a tormented life story because of its heartbreaking honesty.

Leona, directed by Isaac Cherem

Leona, a feature film debut by Mexican director Isaac Cherem, opens in dreamy, sensual slow motion. Seen through a billowing, diaphanous curtain, a young woman removes her robe and lowers herself into an elegantly tiled pool surrounded by potted flowers and decorative trees. As the camera glides through the curtain into this opulent pool setting, a throng of beautifully dressed women—daughters and mothers—stand by the pool with joyful faces. A voice recites ritual words to their friend in the water: “Rebeca, now that heavenly water bathes your body . . . your soul is clean to unite with the soul of the man you chose as your partner.”
Out of this cluster of women, steps Ariela (Naian González Norvind), the film’s 25-year-old protagonist, who looks different from the other women with her light, rippled hair, watchful face, and simpler gown. She dips a silver pitcher into the water and pours it over Rebeca. When the celebration ends, Rebeca says to her: “May you find someone soon, Ariela.”
Finding that life-partner within the tightly knit framework of Ariela’s Jewish “community,” as her elders call it, in Mexico City, becomes the film’s driving theme. It entails Ariela’s coming of age and figuring out who she truly is within the narrow scope of her upper-class family and religious-cultural heritage. A subtle soundtrack complements every emotional nuance in this story.
As soon as Ariela leaves the bridal party and gets into her car, she pulls off her wealthy woman’s gown and pulls on jeans and a T-shirt. She drives to her current job as a mural painter and sets up her equipment. Later, while still on this job, she meets Ivan (Christian Vásquez), a young Mexican man who stops to watch her work. One thing leads to another, and they fall in love, even though Ariela knows dating a non-Jew is forbidden in her community.
Time passes and Ariela meets Ivan’s artistic, educated, and well-off family, but she’s not able to reciprocate by introducing him to her side—in fact, the family has discovered her secret and told her he’s not welcome, nor is she if she continues to date him. The rabbi kindly explains that she’s breaking community rules.
Ariela goes her own way, moving out of her mother’s apartment and into her own place, though she continues to share Friday night Shabbat and other traditional events with the extended family, all of whom love and support her dearly but refuse to accept her love life. The clan is fiercely loyal, a trait that keeps them separate and insulated from the greater society they inhabit.
Months pass in this way, and Ivan’s love erodes because of his rejection by Ariela’s family. He can’t accept her living two lives, one with him and one that excludes him in a major way. They break up.
In the montage that follows, Ariela dates men recommended by the family or the matchmaker, but none of them are possibilities for her way of living and thinking. On each date, she’s forced to wonder who she is and what future can she make for herself? Her best friends, her family, and the men she dates all speak and act differently from her. Her daily mural work is the one thing that keeps her from feeling lost. And the artwork is fantastic, creative, therapeutic. She now signs the intricate images as Leona, because Ariela mean lioness in Hebrew.
At this juncture, Ariela connects again with Ivan. They meet and talk. He tells her he has a new girlfriend. They make love, and he invites her to his BBQ later that week. She goes, meets his new girlfriend, and finds the situation so awkward that she leaves, as if stumbling blinding inside her mind. She faces the truth that her choice about her “significant life relationship” can’t be happily solved. How can she possibly say goodbye to her family of cherished loved ones, even if they’re so different from herself? And how can she face life within that clan as an outsider, even with the satisfaction of her creative work? Can she really exist alone for life? The movie ends without a clear answer, but Ariela’s courage throughout the movie to be true to herself and identify with her Hebrew name Leona, gives hope that her future within her difficult circumstances, will find stability.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Zama, directed by Lucretia Martel

5 Women Filmmakers
March 3–March 20, 2019
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Boston Women’s Film Festival co-present five new films by contemporary women. Visit for information.
In a blend of fable, parable, legend, and magical realism, Lucretia Martel’s Zama tantalizes the literary, art-loving filmgoer with unending sensory and intellectual stimulation. Do you love Kafka, Beckett, South American literature, surreal moments of the mind, and stunningly creative use of music, sound, location, and cinematography? Zama may have no competitor in recent film art.
The story jumps right in with both structure and moral truth, but takes a few minutes to grasp its richly nuanced sequence. Humor periodically strikes through the “voice” and leitmotif of Latin guitar music in a soundtrack that mainly employs the language of natural sound: silence, cicadas, birds, eerie whistles and rattles, barking, neighing, a lazily sweeping fan, children’s laughter or squawks, and women’s intimate chatter. Then, there are the blasts of surreal electronic dissonance that represent the human mind when it hears bad news. The music mirrors the emotion, and sound carries the story along more than the characters’ dialogue.
South American-born Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in his late-thirties and dressed in a red-velvet jacket and three-cornered hat, holds the prestigious position of magistrate under Spain’s colonial governor, in a backwater Paraguayan community in the 1700s. Don Diego does his job as “the crown’s functionary,” but he longs for—and persistently requests—a transfer to Lerma, a city near his wife and children. But years keep passing, along with new governors and foiled efforts for a transfer. Don Diego exists in a slow-growing, living nightmare, which can’t even end in death. It’s a simple storyline but an endlessly rich brew, perhaps because it’s based on a highly regarded novel by Antonio di Benedetto (1922–1986) and reimagined by a brilliant director.
The stage is set in one of the movie’s first scenes for an immersion in absurdity and magical realism. An indigenous prisoner is set free by Don Diego, but instead of leaving the rough-hewn office, the prisoner bends his head like a torpedo and races straight into a wall in inexplicable self-destruction. Such scenes occur throughout the film, eliciting astonishment on the faces of the witnesses, but that’s all. They say and do nothing about such occurrences. In the case of the prisoner, the witnesses are Don Diego, his Spanish deputy Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), and their young scribe Fernández (Nahuel Cano). We then hear a voice telling us a proverb that foreshadows Don Diego’s fate:
 "There’s a fish that spends its life swimming to and fro, fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land. Because the water rejects it. The water doesn’t want it. These long-suffering fish . . . devote all their energies to remaining in place. You’ll never find them in the central part of the river but always near the banks."
The camera then shifts from a scene of swarming fish in water to Don Diego standing alone on his outpost’s desolate river embankment—“the long-suffering fish.”

Ambiance and mood define this movie—the tropical heat, languor, and ennui of an isolated, primitive settlement. Time barely moves, torpor settles over everything, which nature’s sounds magnify—the cicadas’ buzz, a horse’s shudder, a gull’s caw, the river’s eternal lapping, and the sun’s relentless pulse. It’s barely tolerable for a non-native and shares the oppressive quality of Herzog’s Aguirre on the Amazon. No wonder Diego and others look for amusement in the “Oriental’s” cargo of brandy that arrives, or in sensuous afternoons in bedrooms. (In a nice touch, the rough-and-ready brandy shipment lands on “Getaway Beach.”)
The film moves through dreamlike, often hallucinatory settings and scenes. In one, Diego wanders through disparate rooms that feed through stalls to the object of his desire, Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), the elaborately wigged wife of the absent Minister of the Treasury. In this real but unreal realm, animals and humans coexist—goats, dogs, horses, lamas—and move around each other, touching impersonally but familiarly. Diego’s mission in seeking out Doña Luciana is twofold: to inform her of the Oriental’s brandy shipment and to advance his flirtation with her. Doña Luciana is a notorious paramour, but in mounting scenes she consistently rejects Diego—“Let’s not be reckless,” she murmurs like a lover, leading him on.
In another hallucinatory scene, Diego searches for Dr. Palos because the Oriental and his young son have succumbed to a tropical fever. Diego moves through a hazy room where a cigar-smoking hag performs a spiritual rite with a ragtag following. A naked baby crawls around the floor. Diego finally finds the doctor sitting under a table in a dead stupor.
In another episode, the governor gallops on horseback into the municipal courtyard, loses his temper when his horse doesn’t obey a command, and takes instant revenge on the animal by shooting it. Bystanders, including Diego, stare at the scene, but as usual say and do nothing, for it’s just another everyday occurrence in their distorted cosmos.
Much later in the film, a tribe of blind people wander through the mysterious night woods where Diego and his fellow bounty hunters (of the legendary Vicuña) sleep. We hear strange, haunting music. The campers lie still, watching these ghostly, humming figures as they untie and steal the campers’ horses in their seamless glide through the trees. Soon after, a warrior tribe with red-stained bodies upend the posse in a series of surreal, violent scenes—mirroring the increased surrealness of Diego’s mind. At this point, he simply accepts what comes, too beleaguered and demoralized to care, or to try to rationalize human life. Everything we see through his eyes is skewed, bizarre, corrupt, or inhumane, such as, early on, the Oriental’s son being carried in a crude chair on the back of a slave. The distance from shore to settlement isn’t far, but “class” has to be distinguished in this cruel way. At Doña Luciana’s house, a slave sits utterly still like a bronze statue, pulling the rope of a sweeping fan for the duration of his life. Its languid, perpetual rhythm with a monotonous squeak emphasizes the human torture.
The film has a subplot of Vicuña Porto, a violent outlaw no one has ever seen. He’s either alive or dead, real or mythical, and he’s a force to be reckoned with in the colony’s life and adds a neat twist to Diego’s denouement. As the movie winds up with the bounty hunters now starved and tattered after years of fruitless search, one of them, “Gaspar Toledo,” who might actually be Vicuña, spits at Diego, “It’s just a name, that’s all!” He means Vicuña’s a name that embodies all the evil perpetrated by man.
Like Odysseus’s impediments to reaching Ithaca, Diego meets obstacle after obstacle in his effort to transfer home to his wife and children. The first governor, who has put him off for years, punishes Diego for getting into a brawl with his deputy Ventura, a real Spaniard working for the crown, not an American Spaniard like Diego, or as the governor hurls at him: “an American passing for Spaniard.” A lama brushes against Diego as he gets this news, absurdly, but also grouping Diego in the animal’s lower status. The next governor spends his time gambling and playing games. When forced, he pays sadistic lip service to helping Diego. Meanwhile Diego’s psychic and physical states continue to decline. He’s demoted to filthy, decrepit housing near the indigenous people, including Emilia, mother of his illegitimate toddler. In his new room, one of his wooden crates of belongings suddenly moves across the floor. He’s told by his scribe Fernández that there’s a boy inside. Oh, that explains it—a boy inside. Nothing unusual. At this juncture, Diego’s official jacket has become ragged, his hat tattered, and his face worn. By the time the next governor arrives, which is years later, Diego is gray-bearded with dead eyes. He has lost faith but still retains a drop of hope that he might yet escape by joining the richly clad governor’s “posse” heading out to capture the mythical villain Vicuña.
The last scene is apocalyptic. A dazzling sight beholds us—a river covered in ultra-verdant aquatic moss and studded with fantastical trees. It’s unnatural. It could be paradise or purgatory. Diego, an ashen corpse but not quite dead, floats in the river’s viscous green in a rudimentary basin. An indigenous boy hovers above him, staring in awe at Diego’s horrid, maimed condition. Finally the boy asks harshly, “Do you want to live?” It’s the movie’s essential question to us all. We have just journeyed through a true rendition of life, of the human condition and its inherent, incorrigible vileness—“Do we want to live?”
The floating boat reminds us of both Ophelia drifting down the river and of Charon crossing the River Styx with his latest passenger bound for Hades. Diego may be caught between two worlds—the sticky unreality of the green “non-paradise” that symbolizes “reaching home,” and the black depth of human souls desiccated and decayed from their class hubris, their greed, power, and inhumanity. As a last touch, the folksy, ironic Latin guitar music pipes in, laughing at all of us.

Ophelia (1851–1852), Sir John Everett Millais, Tate

Charon on River Styx, Soumyajit Dey, India