American Cup #2 of 4 Initial Matches: ‘Vuelve Sebastiana’ (1953) vs. ‘Bajo la piel’ (1996)

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‘Vuelve Sebastiana’ (1953, Augusto Roca, Jorge Ruiz) Come Back, Sebastiana

vs.

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Bajo la piel (1996, Francisco J. Lombardi) Under the Skin

The second match of this cup is between two of my neighboring countries, Bolivia and Peru, countries that aren’t truly known, except for some specific elements, beyond South America. There’s also a sense that there’s not much cinema coming from those places, but then there’s the fact that some of the most loved directors of Latin America come from Peru, to put an example, people like Francisco Lombardi and Claudia Llosa, the later even making a splash into the North American market recently with her most recent movie. Nevertheless, I’ve had some experience with Peruvian cinema, thanks mainly to the BAFICI who had a retrospective that made me see many movies from many ages, mostly experimental but still interesting work. With Bolivia I’ve had zero experience, and I’ve based my choice on the critics from Bolivia, who have named the short film that will battle today among the most important works of their country’s filmography. On the other side we have one of the most important directors, the before mentioned Francisco Lombardi, with a film that strikes out as interesting but at the same time as one of the most unknown of his filmography, so, the choice came through by the help of a great friend and stupendous critic Monica Delgado, who can’t really name the greatest Peruvian films ever made, but she can mention those that have the best impression on her, and this was at the top of her list. So, without much further ado, let’s go right into the match that will duke out who has the best cinematography, or at least, which of these two films is better, on my eyes.

‘Vuelve Sebastiana’, as was mentioned before, is a short film, a semi-documentary short film that tries to take a closer look at one of the forgotten indigenous populations of Bolivia, the Chipayas, whose descendants, at the time of the filming barely surpassed the 1,000 in population, and were suffering from an acute sense of abandonment from the government that at the time was highly unstable and didn’t worry much about the original towns in which the country stood on. The film does have a double message, and its confusing in the way that it puts it together, as it starts by describing how these towns live, how they’ve adapted their lifestyle to the modern life, and how syncretism has left its mark on everything that they do, while still pointing out at social problems like the drought and the hunger that they suffer most of the year because of how far they are from the nearest point of supplies, and their own efforts in terms of feeding themselves can’t do enough due to their life in a desert landscape. Now, all of this is important and clearly the directors want to inform an ignorant viewer of the needs that this town has, specially on the wake of the 1950’s where no one was actually talking about these issues, and in that sense this documentary is almost revolutionary in the way that it looks towards those in need, in a sense doing what the Italian Neo-Realism movement did in giving those that weren’t high in the social scale the protagonist roles and their point of view is what we see, and in a time that it didn’t really catch on until much later in Latin America (when in the 60’s the aesthetics of poverty in Brazil and other countries would be the revolution that made their cinemas great). But, at the same time the short creates a narrative, obviously fictionalized, to give way to another part of the information that is needed for the directors. The girl mentioned in the title of the film, Sebastiana, is barely 10 years old and knows a small boy from the nearest town, and in that she starts to know about the lives of the other people and how easy their life is compared to hers in the town of the Chipayas, and so she runs away with this boy to have a better life, and we see her happily eating and having fun, maybe for the first time in her life. Along comes his grandfather, one of the wisest and most important people in the town, who is looking for her, and once he finds her he starts talking about how good it’s the place that she is in, but at the same time how important is the place that she left and how worried her family is, and this is what makes up the bulk of the short: the narration of the grandfather telling about their culture, their customs, almost as if she didn’t know about them or just forgotten them, and thus giving us, the viewers, more information about the cultural life and the way that they’ve mixed their ancient Gods with the Christian God and even the cult of the Virgin Mary. This is where the documentary lost me a bit, as it both seems to value the culture of the Chipayas but damns their existence due to the lack of help from government officials. It’s two points of view in one 28 minute film that I think only needed one of the two, and maybe that’s why both perspectives feel forced in the concept of how they were presented to us through this fictionalized documentary. In a way, this needed to be longer, as it feels rushed and none of the two viewpoints are fully realized to us. Still, worth seeing, it’s a really avant garde document in terms of its position in time, and how it kinda reminds you of the work of Buñuel in the early 30’s.

7/10

‘Bajo la piel’ is a weird film. Not that I have a problem with that, but it certainly not a film you expect to be weird, very connected to Hitchcock and its style, but it still is completely alien in terms of how the facts are presented and the logic that the movie has for the events that shows. Our protagonist is the captain of the local police of a small town of Peru, one that stands nearby a desert, and that’s been suffering the strike of a serial killer, one that only attacks young males between 16 and 21 years old, and the only thing that appears of them is their head, cleanly severed, and their eyes gouged out in a surgical manner. The investigation leads the police into two possible leads, one that requires the help of a doctor who just came back to her home country after spending most of her life in Spain, and the other with their suspicions regarding the archeologist of the local museum, who seems very informed and at times obsessed with the rituals of the ancient Mayans, specially those that were ritual sacrifices that required the beheading of the slaves or inferior people. The movie moves forward in little stretches, finding clues, which get muddled by other evidence, while the relationship between the captain of the police and the doctor becomes more and more strange, after an initial attraction they have sex in the ruins of the Mayans where the sacrifices were made, all of this while she never seems too into the captain while he starts to slowly obsess over details and moments of their times together, which at the same time start to deteriorate the story that is being told, as it distorts the point of view, and sometimes we can’t truly trust what is being put in the screen anymore. The film is incredible in the way that it portrays a kind of sexist and toxic portrayal of the relationship between politics and police in Peru, as well as the viewpoint of the predominant male culture on the way that it gazes over the female bodies, which makes the decision of killing young men even more interesting for the plot. The film makes a turn towards the middle as the suspect of the killings is arrested and the doctor starts to hook up with the son of the mayor of the town, and our protagonist is left to his own devices as a terrible event happens that might change the whole situation as well as us as viewers can shift our perspective. I can easily recommend this movie, even though it doesn’t entirely convinces me in terms of how the mystery or the plot points work, but it can become a favorite in time that requires multiple viewings so it can fully be understood, but for its qualities, I can see the work of a master that is working with the best that he has.

8/10

So, sadly again, Bolivia loses (just like in the match today, well, I had a workshop and got late to write this final paragraph), the country I was the most curious about its mostly unknown filmography. Peru does advance and it does give me enough energy to continue exploring the greatness that this country has had so far for me. So, the first Semi-Final match will be a movie from Uruguay and a movie from Peru, they are already chosen, but you’ll have to wait until next Monday to know which they are and which one will win.

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