The Metaphors of an Orphan Continent

in 35th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Ivonete Pinto

Uruguay is a country of only three million inhabitants, but even though they have produced only about two movies a year, these tend to have an aesthetic, narrative and thematic quality far above average, compared to the films of its neighbors Brazil and Argentina.

The good news is that while they have now reached an annual production of eight titles, quality remains Uruguay’s flagship brand. At the 35th edition of the Havana Film Festival, this proved to be a characteristic that stood out for the country, in a list of 21 films in competition in the category of fiction feature film. ”The Militant” (El lugar del hijo) by Manuel Nieto Zas had part of its production funded by Argentina, but could hardly pass as an Argentinean film because it constitutes a deep reflection on Uruguay, a nation with strong cultural characteristics of its own. As a matter of fact, they are inalienable.

”The Militant”, the original title of which is much more effective (it literally translates as ”The son’s place”), unlike most of the competing films at festivals that value film language presents its plot early on. In Montevideo, during a meeting of students who take the university on as a political act, a boy called Ariel receives the news of the death of his father. He travels to Salta to attend the funeral and there faces a sequence of events that will change his life radically. His father left debts and a mortgaged farm, and the house where he lived is now occupied by his widow, or casual lover (no one knows exactly what the woman was to the father). The family of the woman also occupies Ariel’s room, leaving him no option but to share the basement garage of the house with an old dog.

As well as the thematic dimension of the college students, there are also political and ideological layers, without which we would not understand the film’s metaphors. In the university space, the students’ behavior shows us that this generation is much too depoliticized and invests its time more in discussing how to organize a party to raise funds than to reflect on the reasons of the strike and occupation of the place. Inside, in Salta, the struggle of workers is related to the students who have more aggressive tactics, such as a hunger strike, but neither advances the dialectic of the relationship between the state and the workers. The third dimension that the character faces is the deepest, almost feudal Uruguay, where the peasants who worked on the farm for his father have not received their salaries for six months and display behavior bordering on savagery, at least if we employ an urban perspective.

If in the student environment the young boy – actually, he is not that young any longer, but is 25 years old – is a misplaced figure, and if in his father’s house we have no traces of his mother and if strangers have invaded his space, in the countryside this misplacement is more radical. He simply does not understand the survival codes of the peasants and cannot assume the role of ”boss”. In the context of the field, with night scenes that suggest the atmosphere of a thriller, we see small allegories of a class struggle that seems anachronistic nowadays, but which nevertheless is there, alive and violent.

With fast and subtle references, the filmmaker Manuel Nieto Zas composes a portrait of a South American continent that is completely disoriented. It is certain that there is meaning in the mention that his father was a former Marxist and did not know how to deal with the logic of the field of economics. In extra-filmic information, it is worth remembering that Uruguay was considered the “Switzerland of South America” with an enviable standard of living and exhibiting a high level of intellectualism, that cultivated books as the most precious consumer good. However, this same country had – and still has – an economy based on farming, an indefensible paradox between sophisticated thinking and brutality in the killing of animals.

We do not see the father of the protagonist in the flesh, but we understand that their generation has not achieved a balance between ideas and actions. His legacy to humanity is a disabled son, someone who suffers from a disease that leaves him with slurred speech and tortured gestures. Ariel, who at the end also loses his latest girlfriend, his only sentimental bond with the world, is played by a non-professional actor, Felipe Dieste. His performance goes beyond verisimilitude, since he also suffers from the same handicap and we cannot believe that he had been randomly chosen for the role. The metaphor thus gains a new dimension.

The work of Manuel Nieto with this original screenplay and direction is praiseworthy. He studied Communication at Montevideo University and also worked in television. At the age of 40, he has participated in the successful project ”25 Watts” and has made one feature film previously, ”La Perrera” (2006). The force that he demonstrates in ”The Militant” makes him a very reliable promise.

Edited by Carmen Gray