Picking up the Pieces

in 57th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

What sense does it make to unearth a corpse buried thirty years ago, in order to bury it again? The question is sincerely asked in Isaki Lacuesta’s ”The Damned”, which revolves around an unofficial excavation (disguised as a university fieldwork) to find the body of a revolutionary killed in the jungle. Though the cast indicates this is Argentina, in general terms the film could take place in any neighboring country – or simply any country – that has suffered a military repression in the recent past. 

One of the screenplay’s main achievements is the construction of a concrete story, with complex characters, which remains essentially universal. Lacuesta and co-writer Isa Campo come from Spain, but the point of view never feels foreign. ”The Damned” takes on a huge subject, which has been dealt with in different countries over and over again (though way too often the art does not measure up to the content), and without simplifying it, it turns it into a vehicle to explore basic aspects of human nature. Most importantly, it does it by means of cinema.

The plot brings Martín back to his native country after many years in exile, to meet Raúl at the site in the jungle where they once escaped a massacre. Some time ago an official excavation found the bodies of most of their fellow revolutionaries, but Ezequiel is still missing. A group of young archeology students, along with Ezequiel’s mother and widow (but not his daughter, who is unwilling to get involved), as well as another widow of a victim of the regime, gather in a house in the wild. Raúl and Martín share a secret concerning the day of the killing, which one may guess from the beginning. The tension is nevertheless there, permanently, and has less to do with information than with emotions. Guilt, blame, resentment, regret, rage, denial, hope… For the victims, their families and also for those still to come, it is not only a matter of memory, but of the present – how to live now and look into the future. Through the different positions of the younger participants, the frustration of not being part of a past, or being unavoidably haunted by a past they did not choose, and the difficult bonds between them and the older generation, the film also addresses the issue of the generational gap, a very delicate but usually overlooked side effect.

All this burden is clearly felt in the atmosphere of ”The Damned”. It does not need to be explained. The suspense does not derive from the anticipation to find an expected revelation, but from all the contained emotions that seem bound to explode and from the fragility of the people and of the bonds that constantly seem on the verge of falling apart. The scene in which young Pablo shoots a cow may be cathartic, but it is also terribly desperate.

Just like the characters in the story, the film seeks a certain harmony not by staying on safe ground, but by trying to find a balance: between the huis-clos and the immensity of the jungle; between the focus on individual characters and on the community; the past and the present; emphasis and subtlety; reserve and expression; between an accessible film structure and inventive solutions. The camera skillfully chooses what to show and what to suggest, making a very interesting but unostentatious use of the off-space and of the points of view. The actors (especially Daniel Fanego and Arturo Goetz, both brilliant) bring all the nuance and density to their characters, who might even seem too ambiguous to those expecting a schematic or hagiological depiction of the former militants. The film’s intelligence and sobriety resides on its not pretending to resolve or even comment on the (a)historical past, but to talk about how, despite the passing of time and of political and judicial processes, the consequences of this kind of violent repression of ideological struggles by the State (which punctuate modern history in every continent) still linger after decades, more or less silently, in shattered individuals, generations and societies.

Edited by Yael Shuv