Argentina (Arg/Spn/Neth) 2004 : Lisandro ALONSO : 78 mins
Having seen Alonso’s debut La Libertad, I knew what to expect from Los Muertos: enigmatic slowness arising from natural rural rhythms, which means minimal plot, sparse dialogue, extended takes. And I wasn’t disappointed. But if I hadn’t already seen evidence of Alonso’s talent, it’s likely I would have joined my press colleagues who opted for an early exit: around a third of the audience walked out long before the end. I toughed it out – and was duly rewarded when the film suddenly picked up around the hour mark with a remarkable scene in which the movie’s protagonist, in a single unbroken matter-of-fact take, kills and skins a goat.
This procedure isn’t easy to watch, but it isn’t offensive: there’s no cruelty involved and it’s clear that the goat, like the armadillo consumed on-screen at the end of La Libertad, is soon destined for human consumption. There’s then a final, mysterious sequence culminating with a protracted shot which is so beautifully fascinating that, perversely, I desperately wanted to see the whole movie again. That said, I don’t think Los Muertos is quite as good as La Libertad, which chronicled a day in the life of a taciturn rural forester in a slightly more focussed and accessible way than this second picture chronicles a day or two in the life of a taciturn ex-prisoner in his late fifties or early sixties.
He’s Argentino Vargas, “playing” a “character” named Argentino Vargas. After a lengthy prologue in which the camera swoops around a forest before finally stumbling across the bodies of two murdered children (presumably “the dead” of the title) we observe Vargas’s last hours in confinement. This takes place in a prison so open it takes some time before we realise that he’s in jail at all. Vargas then carries out an errand for one of his ex-jailmates which involves visiting a far-off village. He then makes his way to visit his own grand-children in another remote rural spot. Along the way Vargas sips an inordinate amount of the local drink mate - and we eventually discover the nature of Vargas’s crime: he apparently killed his own brothers. So are these the bodies glimpsed at the start of the movie? Or was this a premonitory flash of murders to come? Or are the corpses not connected with Vargas at all?
There are of course no answers in Los Muertos, a film which will inevitably be attacked on the grounds of pretentiousness, slowness, artsiness for its own sake. And it’s hard to see Alonso’s work obtaining any significant degree of distribution beyond the Film-Festival circuit – though in such rarefied zones his reputation is steadily increasing (Los Muertos went down quite well in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes), and may soon reach the stage where an intrepid distributor takes the plunge. He emphatically deserves wider exposure – while something of an acquired taste, he’s clearly a much more interesting and accomplished film-maker than the arthouse-clogging phoneys like Carlos Reygadas, whose ludicrously overpraised Japon is an example of how not to make poetic, meditative, glacial-paced cinema.
10th September, 2004
(seen 19th August : FilmHouse Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)
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by Neil Young