"Lamb of God": Songs of Innocence By Alberto Ramos

in 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Alberto Ramos Ruiz

The history of Argentina between 1976 and 1983 – when the country was ruled by a bloody military junta that resulted in the torture, murder or “disappearance” of thousands of civilians — has certainly provided more fictional (and documentary) inspiration to that nation’s cinema than any other period since.

Lucía Cedrón’s debut feature Lamb of God (Cordero de Dios) revists that era with more than one personal overtone, as its director is the daughter of documentary activist Jorge Cedrón of Operacion Massacre (Operación masacre) fame, who died in 1980, under obscure circumstances, in exile in Paris.

While her film confronts the imagery built around persecution, kidnapping and torture which informs a long and certainly significant filmic corpus dealing with repression and terror during the military regime, Cedrón’s approach also becomes a departure from the generic premises established by former films, focusing on exploring the underlying connections between two moments leading to both human and social catastrophe: Argentina’s nightmarish 1970s and the country’s recent economic collapse between 1999 and 2002 — 2002 being the year her film takes place.

The plot uses the “disappeared” as a dramatic motif: Lamb of God opens with the kidnapping of Arturo, the 70 year-old grandfather of young Guillermina, necessitating the arrival (from Paris) of the girl’s mother, Teresa, who abandoned her homeland after the assassination of her husband Paco, back in the seventies. Now, mother and daughter must honor an impossible ransom while neo-liberal Argentina undergoes the convulsions of its financial breakdown.

Then memories emerge, inevitably, haunting Guillermina’s imagination. Recurring in-frame transitions impart a distinctive poetic élan to these passages set in the past, masterly captured with a vivid, warm palette by cinematographer Guillermo Nieto, while the present remains confined to an austere range of whites and blues conveying the mood of urgent, desperate helplessness.

And so, as the fate of Paco in the past seems to mirror Arturo’s present condition, a cinematic “rebuilding” of the familiar setting occurs, now displaying a peculiar, distinctive nod to the times as the female characters of mother and daughter must assume the agenda traditionally given to their male counterparts, now absent. It is as if such a displacement from a suppressed masculine subject would serve a metaphor for recurrent historic castration, where loss of leadership, authority and initiative embody the victimization of a society driven by irrational forces.

Well beyond its thriller framework, action is therefore centered by the conflicting relationship between Teresa and Guillermina, as expressed by their diverging stances on the past and present events. From Teresa’s perspective, demands set the norm: She is a kind of ghostly figure, emerging from the past to claim justice and rehabilitation. In a highly revealing moment, she states that her decision to return to Argentina was made before Guillermina called her with the news of Arturo’s disappearance; by then, she had already made up her mind to testify at the recently opened trials of army officials involved in the junta’s crimes. What is most disturbing, and lies at the very foundation of the mother-daughter confrontation, is her presumption that Arturo, whose friends were closely linked to the repressive machinery unleashed by the junta, was somehow accountable for Paco’s tragic fate. Arturo’s captivity could be assumed, consequently, as a dramatic device that allows for setting up a “trial” in the familiar context, thus creating another parallel. Refusing any negotiation of her past, Teresa stays symbolically confined within enclosed spaces, such as a car whose door is opened; in the closing scene, she can only watch from the inside as her daughter gets out and walks towards Arturo, now back and free.

Guillermina, on the contrary, belongs to the past and the present of those who chose to stay in the country at any cost. As a child, she had to replace the paternal figure with that of her grandfather, and now, more pragmatic and emotionally centered than her mother, she refuses to resign herself to new loss and fights to save Arturo — much as the Argentinean society fought for itself during the economic crisis, when unpopular policies of President Fernando de la Rua led to social chaos. The young girl has also mixed feelings regarding the leftist ideals her parents fought for, whose call for radicalization ended up in familiar fracture, as hinted by a flashback of lonely Guillermina in the aftermath of a frustrated birthday party that her mother could not attend.

In the end, what remains is the endearing love of the girl for both Paco and Arturo, a crucial point as it sets the intimate tone that pervades the whole narrative, irrespective of its strong political undercurrents. It is that love which is most eloquently expressed in the cuddly white lamb that Arturo leaves her as a token, which reads not only as a sacrificial victim but also the justification of innocence … and again in the surreal child’s song that Paco recorded on a cassette for an intrigued, inquisitive and amused Guillermina, its lyrics being the most subversive statement made by the film on a revolutionary utopia, if only as seen through the eyes of a loving, hopeful father.