Religion as a Sanctuary

in 25th Toulouse Latin American Film Festival

by Bojidar Manov

The film landscape of Latin America is rich, sophisticated and diverse. All across Mexico in the north, to Chile and Argentina down south, hundreds of talented directors create vibrant films in which we can find social drama and political plots, psychological twists and classic melodrama, mysterious spells and multi-faceted mythology, entertaining comedies, and even musicals.

The competition program of Cinelatino offered a strong selection of 14 films underpinning the festival’s main theme of Cinema and Politics, without having that theme necessarily dominate each film as a declarative standpoint. Two of the films highlighted an intriguing, nuanced subject which I would call “religion as sanctuary” in predominantly Catholic Latin America.

Dog Flesh (Carne de perro) is the feature debut of Chilean director Fernando Guzzoni (1983). Although he was not even born during Pinochet’s dictatorship, the director identifies an extremely strong psychological trait which reflects the imprint of the past. The lead character (splendidly played by Alejandro Goic) is an ex-soldier who apparently committed some disturbing deeds in his military past and was involved in the repressive acts of the dictatorship. In his present-day solitude, his dog is his only companion. In a burst of pointless anger, he pours boiling water on the animal and then goes on nursing and caring for it until his death. His encounters with former colleagues — ex-army officers meeting in a reservist club — do not bring him the much-desired psychological compensation. In an almost Freudian way, his ego defines his existence through his repressed guilt until he discovers religion, albeit in a sectarian fashion.

Another feature debut from Argentina is even more surprising. Habi, the Foreigner (Habi, la extranjera) by writer-director María Florencia Álvarez offers an impressive story: a young girl from a small town comes to Buenos Aires looking for a family friend. A chance mix-up leads her to a small mosque where she finds herself taking part in an Islamic funeral. The kind sympathy of the Muslim women impresses her greatly, and she spontaneously decides to remain in their community. She finds a job at a local Lebanese grocery store. Then she meets a young man from the same community and gets emotionally involved. By and by, the Argentinean Analia becomes Habiba Rafat. The issue of her new external identity gives way to the challenge of overall self-reinvention. The subjects of globalization and migration (two themes from the Cinema and Politics panel) are amazingly focused in this delicately crafted film, which reflects widely on modern sociocultural and civilization processes.

While we are on this topic, let us mention the documentary section and the Argentinean film Civilizacion (Civilization) by the experienced filmmaker Ruben Guzman. This film is a portrait of the great Argentinean artist Leon Ferrari, whose life has involved 93 years of prolific and continuous activity. He has been known as a Catholic, but is always radically critical of the external vanity of religion, and in this sense he could be said to be an ironic blasphemer. His latest provocative exhibition in Buenos Aires made Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio denounce the show as blasphemous in an open letter (even if its tone was relatively subdued). In the meantime, Bergoglio has become Pope Francis I. That’s just one curious detail. The essential topic of this film is actually “art as sanctuary”.

Let’s remember this parable: whether a sanctuary consists of art or religion is a matter of personal choice. What is really obvious is that today’s man needs a sanctuary!

Edited by Lesley Chow