THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY : Lisandro Alonso’s ‘Fantasma’ [9/10]

Writer-director-producer-editor Alonso quickly established himself as one of the most original, poetic, challenging and uncompromising of current bumper crop of Argentinian filmmakers with his first two features, La Libertad (2001) and Los Muertos (2004) - both of them audaciously slow, meditative, near-wordless affairs, half-fictional and half-documentary, focussing on the quotidian activities of a solitary male. La Libertad chronicled a day in the life of logger Misael Saavedra; Los Muertos followed ex-convict Argentino Vargas as he journeyed downriver to visit family-members.

Though set in the city rather than the country, Fantasma is in some ways more of the same: for roughly an hour, we observe the (non-pro) "stars" of Alonso's previous films, Saavedra and Vargas, wandering (separately) around a near-deserted, multi-level, labyrinthine Buenos Aires theatre-complex where Los Muertos is being shown. Again, it's an audaciously slow, meditative, near-wordless affair, half-fictional and half-documentary, focussing on quotidian activities. One is reminded of Wim Wenders' instructions to Dennis Hopper during the making of The American Friend, when the actor was told to come up with things that one might do "only alone."

As such a description perhaps indicates, Fantasma may not win Lisandro many new converts – which would be a shame, as the film (though supposedly only an interim production while Alonso readies his long-gestating, Patagonia-set project, provisionally and enigmatically entitled Liverpool) represents a quantum-leap for the film-maker – right into the very first rank of current international cinema.

Alonso's achievement is to take seemingly dull material – almost nothing 'happens' over the course of these 63 minutes – and turn it into something absorbing, transcendent and hypnotically powerful. His smooth-gliding camera, whether at rest or in motion, is constantly coming up with striking compositions loaded with significance and mystery: the way he choreographs the movement of his 'performers' (five in total, including three individuals who seem to be employed by the theatre-complex in various capacities), placing them in a variety of interior settings, is consistently intriguing, forcing the viewer to fully engage with this seemingly unremarkable location's various public, semi-public and 'private' spaces; their decor and lighting; their relationships with each other; the glimpses they offer of the world beyond. 

But the element which elevates Fantasma to the level of minor masterpiece is Alonso's astonishing use of sound: if there's a "story" to be somehow divined here, it's to be found in the subtle symphony of human, mechanical and even animal (whose is that dog?) noises – which are so diverting that never for a moment notice the fact that there's hardly any dialogue in the movie at all. Alonso meanwhile bookends the "action" with two blasts of loud electric-guitar music which provide suitably mood-enhancing punctuation. The cumulative effect is stunning and spellbinding: a spooky, darkly witty journey around a "cinema" that's also a bold journey around, into – and perhaps even beyond - cinema itself.

Neil Young
16th January, 2007

FANTASMA : [9/10] : Argentina (Arg/Neth/Fr) 2006 : Lisandro ALONSO : 63 mins (approx)
seen on DVD : (1) in London (UK), 10th January 2007
(2) on London/Durham train, 12th January 2007
– with thanks to Lisandro Alonso

……………………………………[notes after first cinema viewing]……………