The Most Important Art By Bence Nanay

in 22nd Mar Del Plata International Film Festival

by Bence Nánay

It’s been common knowledge since Lenin’s famous declaration that film is “the most important art”: Film and politics are very intricately connected. This was neatly demonstrated when a very political – but quite mediocre film – won the Golden Palm in 2004 at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, more and more film festivals have taken an explicitly political turn, including, surprisingly and sadly, even the Locarno Film Festival, traditionally associated with young, off-mainstream and world cinema.

And now, Mar del Plata seems about to join the club. The best film in the Latin American section now receives the “Che Guevara Prize” and more than half of the films in this competition are explicitly political. This, of course, would not in itself be a problem. Given the very tense political situation in South America, and as the festival this year coincided with George W. Bush’s visit to the continent, this political turn is very understandable and even justified, in any case, it should hardly come as a surprise. The problem starts when political considerations obscure artistic ones, and propaganda becomes more important than cinema itself.

This did not quite happen at Mar del Plata this year, mainly because of those films in the Latin American competition that were explicitly non-political or even anti-political. Maybe the most innovative of these was a Brazilian film, Bog of Beasts (Baixio das bestas) by Claudio Assis.

Bog of Beasts is an extremely dark film, in the tradition of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Everything is rotten in a small town surrounded by a sugarcane plantation: men either get blind drunk or beat and rape the local prostitutes, but preferably both. Women constantly pick fights with each other and intentionally try to get on their relatives’ nerves. The only person who appears to be different is Auxilidora (Mariah Teixeira), the 16 year old granddaughter of old Heitor (Fernando Teixeira), who uses her as a kitchen maid during the day and exhibits her naked for the enjoyment of horny truck drivers at night.

There is a very sharp contrast between Auxilidora and the rest of the community: while the others are always active, always busy getting drunk or laid, she is extremely passive. She is much more an object than a person, mainly the object of other person’s voyeurism and desire. This contrast makes us hope that she might perhaps escape from this cycle of violence and live a different life, but this hope is futile: her grandfather ends up prostituting her, and after being raped by a stranger, she becomes like any other woman in the community.

Most of the young men who go about raping prostitutes are rich kids who just sleep on the sofa all day and drink whiskey all night. It would have been easy to turn this dark movie into a film about class differences. But the director resisted this simplification. The rich do evil things because they are bored and have nothing else to do, but the poor (as the story of Heitor and Auxilidora demonstrates) do evil things because they want to get rich. The real problems run much deeper than political or class differences.