Slaughter in the Neighborhood

in 41st Toronto International Film Festival

by Diego Faraone

From its very beginning, Jesus is powerful and visually striking. Four young Chilean boys dance under the illumination of flashes and strobe lights, and the screaming of the girls can be heard. But soon we realize that they are not actually stars; they are just replicating the movements of a k-pop band. They are in a talent competition, and all the groups are well received. The prize is finally handed to another group of guys, so the team will have to go back to the streets and to their normal life.

This is our introduction to a peculiar story about teenagers involved in a highly specific underworld. Amidst the wandering of stray dogs, we see the boys experimenting with sex, getting high with the most toxic substances available and, definitely, being as dumb as a teenagers can so often be. While there are politically minded youth in contemporary Chilean society, committed to social causes and particularly advocating for a better education, Jesus is not about them. This is a completely different youth scene, focused on distant cultures and with no apparent concerns but excess and extreme hedonism.

Adolescence is also a stage in which the personality is built by starting to test limits, discovering the boundaries of the body and the law, and of course questioning all parental authority. Jesus (Nicolás Durán) is a youngster who lost his mother many years ago and  lives alone with his father (Alejandro Goic). But Jesus’s father travels constantly, his absence becoming a defining trait. Without guidance, the boy seems to driftinto a  particularly dangerous inertia.

During the same night as the dance show, Jesus gets shitfaced drunk and ferociously beaten by some security guards. He and his gang find another boy, totally wasted, lying on the ground in a park. Perhaps seeing themselves reflected in this random kid, they first try to help him, but as soon as they notice his absolute lack of reaction, they start to abuse him, spit on him, kick him, break bottles on his head, with escalating intensity.

This astonishing situation happens in the middle of the story, splitting the movie in two. These sequences are disturbing and raw. As in Irreversible (Irréversible), the shock provided by the scene is so deeply disturbing that the audience can’t continue watching the movie in the same way. If the first half of Jesus could be described as a depiction of youth reminiscent of Larry Clark or Harmony Korine, in the second half it becomes something particularly unique, displaying how a group of people grows increasingly desperate. They succumb to immense pressure as they gradually become aware of what they have actually done.

Director Fernando Guzzoni drew inspiration for Jesus from the real case of Daniel Zamudio, a gay teenager who was attacked and tortured in a park in Santiago. At the same time, for a South American viewer, the movie constantly reminds us of the military dictatorships of the Seventies. An odd feeling of moral decay and sick individualism can be perceived, along with the horrific sensation of watching how neighbors, or the members of shared community, can be capable of destroying one another for no reason. Perhaps the most disturbing thing is to realize how Jesus and the boy in the park could be the same person: victims and victimizers are identical, interchangeable.

Guzzoni has become one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge in recent years from of Chile, and the whole of Latin America. Based on the the evidence of Jesus, it will be necessary to follow his career closely from now on.

Edited by Michael Sicinski