The first match of the season is between two small yet warm countries that bring forward the coldest moments in their cinema. Chile and Uruguay come forward and battle it out today in soccer and in Film. Being a Chilean I can’t deny the favoritism I have towards my country and its cinema, but there’s also the fact that the chosen film for Uruguay has been heralded among the best films of the 21st century by many critics and experts, and even was chosen as the best Latin American film of the past 20 years by the Festival of Valdivia in 2013. On the other hand, we have what has been considered the best Chilean film of all time in terms of common knowledge, as it stands tall in an unofficial canon, and has been studied and watched by generations of Chileans and filmmaking students.
I must say that the idea behind this was to see films from Latin America that I hadn’t seen before, so when you see me pit these two films together are because they are seemingly the best examples of their cinema, and thus come forward, mainly because they are unwatched by me. So, Miguel Littin’s first fiction feature film pits against the second feature of the duo Juan Pablo Rebella (sadly deceased after the release of this movie) and Pablo Stoll. Who will win? Well, let’s see.
‘El chacal de Nahueltoro’ is an interesting and important film for the context of Chilean cinema at the time, as it was a product of what was called the Experimental Age of Chilean Cinema, where students from both the Catholic University and the University of Chile were making short films that went beyond what was common at the time, inspired by the Nouvelle Vague and other Latin American movements of cinema, this era was coined The New Chilean Cinema, and its starting feature length picture was this, directed by Miguel Littin, alongside the works of directors like Aldo Francia, Helvio Soto and Raúl Ruiz. But, how good is this movie that it was canonized so long ago and it still manages to appear nowadays in specific books and recounts of the important films of Latin America? Well, obviously it’s a great movie, it features many interesting aspects that make it extremely modern in the landscape of Chilean cinema at the time, like the use of (some) synchronized sound, as well as an almost documentary approach to the subject: a mass murderer who doesn’t know what he was doing because he was extremely drunk and uneducated. The Jackal, as he is nicknamed by the press and police, kills a woman and her five children after a drunken fit, and when he is later asked in what seems a popular court, he is only able to explain himself saying that he killed them because “I didn’t want them to suffer, poor little ones”. Based on real events and its script worked around the real interviews done to police officers, the judge in charge of the investigation, and the killer himself, we are given a portrait not of savage violence but of the incomprehensible depths of the human soul, as we slowly realize that what is finally sentenced to death penalty is a human like us that just didn’t know better because he didn’t have enough chances to grow or be educated. We are given a glimpse at his childhood and what came before, and the fact that it doesn’t fully explain his behavior is the most refreshing aspect of these flashbacks and recalls of his past life, they are just another element that explains the context in which he grew up, the same context of many “huachos”, that weren’t necessarily without a family, but surely were left to their own devices and were tortured by the lack of interest of the government or officers at the time on the life of their people. A damning approach and one that exerts both a crude view of the violence that the Jackal exerts, but at the same time the way that his mind shifts to repent, and we end up believing it until he is facing the rifles, towards the end of the film.
‘Whisky’ isn’t a movie about drinking nor about the beverage, nor the alcoholic pristine liquid has any appearance in the film, as it references the word that people who speak spanish say when they take a picture (the equivalent of saying “cheese” in english speaking countries), and thus the movie immediately takes distance from anything that actually happens in it, by doing a distanced portrayal of a man who owns a factory that makes socks, and his closest worker, a woman with a mute personality that, as the movie progresses, turns more and more interesting in terms of how independent and filled with a desire to live she is, specially when compared to her boss. The situation that is portrayed in the film is the arrival of the brother of the boss, who comes to celebrate the yahrzeit of their mother, a year since her passing, and they are going to put the stone on it, and for reasons that we could understand but are never truly explained, the boss and his closest worker will pose as a couple for the days that the brother will stay in Uruguay, as he comes from Brazil. What follows is a movie that has been compared to the films of Kaurismaki, more to their setting and the dry humor that manages to appear here and there, but this is closest to masters of slow cinema in terms of pace and shots, with filmmakers like Tarr and Hou being conjured here and there, we see the silence of the awkwardness, the silence that comes only when there’s truly nothing to talk about, the way that the faces of the people you must pretend to care about shift and change when they realize that there’s nothing else for them there, that the whole thing is empty, that they must move on, but they won’t because they are stuck there because of the moral institution that surrounds us. This film has an even deeper effect on you if you take into consideration the suicide of one of its directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, shortly after the premiere of this film, as this one conjures a feeling of despair, that everything will suddenly end from one moment to the next, like in the films of Béla Tarr, and that’s the ambient that the directors manage to conjure here, a nihilistic despair that turns into comedy here and there, but that is so desperate that turns into masterful with brief strokes of genius, with small moments, like karaoke, like the swimming pool, like the soccer match, every one of those moments grow into a masterful array of situations that convey the sense that there’s no use in the way we live now, and maybe that’s the way that Rebella felt, and he portrays that immensely well.
Sadly, and surprisingly, I ended up liking ‘Whisky’ (2004) more than the classic Chilean film, and thus Uruguay is the country that goes forward in the tournament, and we shall know which country it will face against after tomorrow. Sad to see Chile go, as I’m always excited about finding new films from my country to love, but this time, as surprising and important that ‘El chacal del Nahueltoro’ (1969) was, it couldn’t win me over the small charms of the Uruguayan slow film.