From Hope to Despair in the Days of Santiago Roman

in 18th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Nelson Hoineff

What kind of war are we fighting? For a young Peruvian soldier, Santiago Roman (Pietro Sibille), the enemies are disposed in something close to a vertical chain. They are abroad, as he has just come back from the war against Ecuador; they are next door, as he faces the intensification of terrorism and narcotraffic in his hometown; they are in the scope of what he believed to be fighting for, as the social inheritance left by the successive governments of his country leaves him with nothing but corruption and the deterioration of the basic standards of life and social values, material and moral misery; they are in the deterioration of his own family; they are ultimately in his mind.

In his first feature film, Josue Mendez, a 25 year-old Peruvian director who had been making shorts since 1997, deals with the complexity of a human mind tormented by an endless succession of challenges, by a war which has no beginning, no end, no purpose. Santiago Ramon has been trained for combat but not to deal with life outside the battlefield. (Incidentally, the film barely mentions the odd circumstances of the conflict for land in this part of South America, which goes back to 1941 and was intensified in 1995.) Yet, as Santiago will soon learn, wars are more dangerous when you do not know who the enemy is.

The long-lasting economic crisis of Peru forms both the background of a social drama and the framework for a human tragedy. Santiago’s world is voracious and as organized as the soldier learned to be in the army. At the age of 23, Santiago behaves with meticulous precision and has an eye on the future. In a remarkable sequence, he rehearses how to show his girlfriend the steps to take to optimize their earnings and improve their standard of living. Next, he drives a cab to pay for computer studies which, as he believes, could give him to a brighter future.

One has only to look around, though, to understand that there is no future in the life of this young man apparently as any other of his age, constantly surrounded by pretty girls willing to share some fun with him. Despite the appearances, though, Santiago’s life is no fun. As we follow his footsteps, we are faced not as much with his life, but with the raw reality of life in Lima, which is no different from many other places in the continent, but we get involved by Santiago’s drama.

Maybe this involvement, a fine alternative to Mendez’s narrative, would not be possible without the intensity of Sibille’s acting, sincere, strong and unstereotypical. Though it is not clear why the director chose to alternate color and black & white takes, his film accomplishes not only a high technical standard but also the fluency which is now a reference in the work of more experienced Peruvian filmmakers like Francisco Lombardi.

“Dias de Santiago” portrays the Peruvian social drama fairly as a microcosmic view of Latin American reality and how people are being affected by it. It reveals also the almost surprising maturity of a director that in his debut film was able to make an involving film which goes deeply into the mind of a Peruvian soldier who just came from the war but is a hostage in many others and whose hopes are one by one being replaced by despair.