Los Muertos


Argentina / 2004 / Spanish & Guarani

Directed by Lisandro Alonso

With Argentino Vargas, Francisco Dornez, Yolanda Galarza

Still from 'Los Muertos'Lisandro Alonso’s deftly minimalist narrative Los Muertos begins with a tracking shot through a seething jungle, the camera unhurriedly tilting up and down, seemingly off axis. It passes over the bloodied corpses of two young men, on the ground, and then a figure holding a knife passes through the periphery of the frame. The alternation between green abstractions in the blurred leaves of the foreground and crisp details in the forest floor anticipates the shape of the rest of the film, which is bifurcated by the disquieting gap that separates naturalism from intentional ambiguity, familiarity from alienation. While the particulars of each scene and setting are lovingly and immersively captured, the viewer finds everything tantalizingly distant. Alonso lets us in – but only so far. We see events take place, and they are soberly mundane, but their history, their psychology, and their significance to a broader understanding are left out.

The film follows the inscrutable Vargas, as he is discharged from prison, and begins his slow journey home, into Argentina’s backwoods, to find and reconnect with his estranged daughter. It is unclear for the first few minutes that he is even in prison, or some sort of work colony, as he awakens in midmorning heat, sips maté with the other men, and does a lot of thoughtful gazing. He is someone who appears to be in the present only in the most physical sense, while his mind is occupied by the wounds and disruptions of his past – although one may only speculate on this, since he utters only a bare economy of words. With a lush sweep of gray locks and a sandpaper chin, Vargas is affable if reserved, and there is something perfunctory-seeming about his tameness, as though it were merely a polite concealment of something far more chaotic and unruly that has been long out of commission.

Gradually and fluidly Argentino Vargas relinquishes the vestiges of civilized life as he loses himself in the noise and isolation of the jungle. It is a deceptively busy place, whose variety is so profuse as to become a total blank, so the hero may as well be journeying into a vacant snow wilderness. It is perfectly appropriate for the haunted, unemotive man. He is at home in the jungle; we see him ward off bees with fire in order to take their honeycomb, and catch and eviscerate a goat. (Why are animal disembowelments on film always depicted entirely from start to finish? Perhaps as a mark of cinematic bravery?). Society becomes sparser and sparser as he goes along, stopping over at small, horticultural settlements and spending a night at a farmstead. He comes to a canoe that is waiting for him, and begins his journey downriver. The film provides us with a few clues pertaining to Vargas’ history, delivered offhandedly. His interactions with people along the way are briskly amiable, as he shops at a grocery store, visits a prostitute, and delivers a letter to the daughter of one of his prison acquaintances.

Still from 'Los Muertos'At a screening of a subsequent film of his, Liverpool (2008), the director discussed his method of casting local people in his films, non-actors who wear their own clothes and are somehow natural to the landscape. Alonso is of a particular generation of filmmakers, spread judiciously across the globe, whose work breaks down, to a certain degree, the formal hierarchy that places characters at greater importance than their environment, which traditionally forms the background. While Vargas is the focus of the film, he is so much a part of his surroundings that he is enveloped by them, while at the same time remaining, as a character, completely transfixing. The camera will often linger in a setting after Vargas has left the frame, or will be situated for a while before he makes his entrance.

Los Muertos, like Liverpool, finds an instance in which to concentrate on the curious artifacts that make their way from the westernized world into a rural setting (in the latter it is a key chain, in the former a child’s toy that lies broken on the ground) to seem quite out of place. In both cases the shifts in focus that these objects initiate come at a most emotionally-heightened moment in time, a climactic time that, like the rest of the film, reveals presque rien – almost nothing.

Liverpool features a similar hero, on a similar homecoming journey, albeit transplanted into a wintry Tierra del Fuego. But where that film occupies itself with the gulf that has arisen, after an absence of many years, between the main character and the people of his ancestral home near Ushuaia, Los Muertos is in some ways does far less in the interest of differentiation. For Alonso does not reveal to us very much about the other characters, and by the end of the film, we still know precious little about Vargas himself. It is apparent that he is stuck in the past but it is unclear how that influences his interactions with his immediate surroundings. We see his arrival back home, in an indefinably fraught scene, but are told nothing of the results. In a way it is the method of this type of fringe narrative to avoid such points of convergence, to stop before an answer materializes.

Still from 'Los Muertos'Both Alonso and Argentino Vargas himself generate fascination without much need for story, and convey it perfectly, succinctly. Indeed, Los Muertos is infused with a violence that is somehow not violent, and not confronting, but whose presence is palpable nonetheless. This is the sort of latent power towards which narrative restraint always strives. The hero somehow exudes unpredictability while behaving quite conversely to it, solidifying his spellbinding aura by way of staid nonaggression. Were it not for the self-imposed limitations and purity of the film, its exploration of macho and individualist themes would lack its pointed charisma and the clarity of its observational style. By its very taciturn and partially obscured nature, it succeeds quite well in beguiling with the possibilities, as variously remote and obvious as they may be.

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