A Brilliant, Dark Tale of Endurance

in 25th Toulouse Latin American Film Festival

by Alejandro Díaz

In its 25th edition, the festival continues to provide a window on current Latin American film, paying attention to its most committed and risky cinematic proposals. Chilean filmmaking had the biggest presence in the Official Competition, which featured works such as Fernando Guzzoni’s Dog Flesh (Carne de perro), Alicia Scherson’s The Future (Il futuro), Marialy Rivas’ Young and Wild (Joven y alocada), or Ché Sandoval’s Much Better than You (Soy mucho mejor que vos). Another Chilean feature in competition was The Devil’s Liquor (La chupilca del diablo), a stunning first feature and graduation film by young helmer and co-screenwriter Ignacio Rodríguez. It is a work of surprising maturity and self-confidence; originating from a tiny local story, it succeeds in becoming a tale with universal reach.

Rodriguez’s film revolves around the protagonist Eladio, a veteran businessman who owns a small company which distils and distributes an alcoholic drink called “La chupilca del diablo” (“chupilca” is a Chilean word to describe a kind of beverage which is produced in the traditional way). The name of this drink comes from a popular legend, according to which it is a mix of black gunpowder and aguardiente (a high-grade liquor) used by Chilean soldiers during the War on the Pacific to give them fighting spirit. Eladio’s factory is inside an old building in which both objects and people have visibly faded over the years. Even if Eladio, brilliantly played by veteran actor Jaime Vadell, still has a fairly impressive physical presence, it is clear to the spectator that he is in the process of losing energy and authority. People say that he is “not the same any more.”

In this precarious and decadent scenario, Eladio counts on the support of only one employee, embodied by the splendidly austere actor Eugenio Morales. But during a family Christmas reunion (a sequence which brims with authenticity), Eladio strikes up a conversation with his grandson, who is unemployed and interested in working for his grandfather’s company. What the two have in common is their status as social outsiders: Eladio likes working in the “old school” way, and has stayed away from his family in order to focus on his business; his grandson, who is in his twenties, is also separated from the system, as he doesn’t like striving for social position. However, although the grandson’s involvement brings some fresh air into the business, the working relationship is never fully satisfactory, since neither man really believes in the other, or in himself, in a profound way. Eladio and his grandson cannot overcome the barriers of their own individualism, so it is finally impossible for them to overcome the substantial generation gap.

With great performances and a remarkable display of formal resources, together with the absence of non-diegetic music, the film lays out its key subjects, allowing viewers to form their own associations and conclusions. Apart from the generational issues, it covers topics such as the difficulty of finding a proper balance between work and personal life, and also the problems of traditional small companies facing the ruthless rules of contemporary global capitalism. When Eladio is visited by an estate agent who intends to buy his premises, he immediately disregards the offer and rudely kicks him off his property. But it is really hard for Eladio to sell his product, since he doesn’t know about sophisticated marketing strategies. Moreover, his liquor has no health inspection certificates, and it is a fact that people have started to opt for imported drinks. Attempts to distribute the beverage culminate in one of the film’s most impressive, tense moments, in which the grandson desperately tries to convince some horsemen to buy his stuff: the scene is shot with documentary-style camerawork which recalls the films of the Dardennes.

The Devil’s Liquor has a sharp and undoubtedly dark sense of humor throughout its running time. Some of its situations lead to absurdity, such as the hilarious conversation in which the old employee and his substitute discuss the correct orientation of an aerial on a roof, or the appearance of a peculiar playback singer, a scene which brings a touch of surrealism to the film and functions in a similar manner to Dean Stockwell’s unforgettable performance of a Roy Orbison song in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Moreover, Rodriguez’s narrative strategy makes use of concrete objects which naturally turn into symbols of the film’s central conflicts. Thus the old-fashioned motorbike which Eladio used to ride during his youth continues to represent strength to him, while the ditch he intends to dig becomes an iconic reminder of the proximity of death.

Edited by Lesley Chow