Mirage

11/06/2017

Peru / 1972 / Spanish

Directed by Armando Robles Godoy

With Helena Rojo, Miguel Angel Flores, Hernán Romero

Still from 'Mirage'A violet light fans out over undulating dunes, the sand raked and rippled, as in a Zen garden, by the infinite winds. The smooth parabola of a ridge curls in on itself. Emerging from the noise of the desert, a scream as stark and elemental as the vistas of sand. Following after the scream, from out of those limitless lines, comes running a flickering Giacometti figure, and a long-haired boy watches, distantly, as the figure thickens into a person.

Hernán wakes up in his rude, one-bedroom cabin. The rest of his family is still asleep. Like in a dream, a rescue rope descends from the skylight above and the boy is pulled, still naked, through it and into the dusty light. He runs with his companions into the wastes, digs a pair of shoes out of the ground, and joins their football game. The boys dive and run at the ball, kick the air in slow mo. Father Jorge referees. When Hernán’s mother, Maria, turns up and angrily interrupts the match to take him home, the priest intervenes, begging her to let the boy finish his game.

Her family has a jalopy-flatbed hybrid, part Grapes of Wrath, part Mad Max, its frame comprised of scraps of timber, its thirsty radiator spilling water. They must wait til nightfall to begin their journey or risk the engine exploding in the desert heat. They have an Ica license plate and no specific plans for after they arrive in big city. The local schoolteacher stops by on the eve of the family’s departure to talk to the father, Gabriel, who is trying to prepare the truck for the drive to Lima. It just has to make it that far, he says – that’s all that matters. He scrapes by in Ica by doing odd jobs, such as trucking the rich hauls of grapes from the local vineyards. But the previous harvest had ruined the engine. He hopes that work in Lima will be at least more steady. “Life is shit here,” says Gabriel. “It’s shit there too, but different.”

Having lunch with the family, the teacher reflects that the town is a like a campsite, a way-station to elsewhere. Always, elsewhere. “Everyone leaves or thinks of leaving,” he says, reflecting on his own complicity in giving them such ideas. Only he stays behind, educating new generations about the world beyond. But then he lectures Gabriel against rootlessness and, by inference, defends Cain. The man was a farmer, and thus eminently defensible. Abel was a shepherd; his brother was merely lashing out at a divergent way of life that threatened his own.

Still from 'Mirage'The long-haired boy from the beginning, Juan José, runs through the palatial house where he lives alone, a now-abandoned hacienda overgrown with grape vines, shouting, over and over, “who is the running man?” A baroque dungeon draped in sheets, the innards of the place are thick with dust and the shadows of metal grillwork, partly buried by decades – seemingly centuries – of Ica sand washing through the bars. He sees figments in every corner of the old place, people from the house’s feudal past, whom he entreats but who cannot answer him. He is trying to find out who the vision in the desert is, the man running out of the horizon but never arriving. Thus he is trying to understand through mimicry, perpetually running, shouting, agonizing. He rages at a suit of armor hanging from the ceiling. But he is alone in the world; there is no one to tell him who it is or why he can’t ever escape the sight of it. And there is no one left to recall who the three horsemen are, dragging the running man along by a rope.

No one seems to know Juan José’s origins. He’s just there, self-possessed and singular, precocious and haunted. Father Jorge says that, amid all the rumors and legends surrounding him, the only real thing is Juan José, alone. The boy comes to the schoolteacher’s class and simply stands at the gate. The teacher invites him in, and the children begin chanting in agreement. But he just stands there, rapt by a stronger force that none of them can see.

Director Godoy periodically cuts back to a local saints’ march at night, with a crowd of people holding torches, all of them rendered in orb. Later we see them again, spread out like stars in a disturbed puddle. The syncretic festival seems to simultaneously be about Christ and the vineyards’ harvest, exalting in both His blood and  primordial ooze. Like Christianity, the grapes were imported to absorb local spirits, local souls. But instead of a Jesus effigy rising from water, hideous and blood-shot eyes surprise us from a vat of wine. A monster face falls back into that baptismal mauve. Over those dark and intense images, we hear the schoolteacher reciting a poem in which César Vallejo lauds “the sublime, low perfection of the swine.” Fireworks and Roman candles are reflected. A fire spreads across the surface, consuming these figurines of damnation.

“Everything is in perfect order,” says Juan José, in his horror-shop kingdom, his cobwebbed hermitage, producing his land deed to show Hernán, to prove that he really did inherit the empty house. “I’m a landowner of sand!” he cries, and runs through the dark corridors. A solemn, aristocratic woman watches him, through a dangling mobile of chipped enamel, as he goes. Rina’s gaze pulls us into another time, as she walks from the garden to sit down to dinner with her father – a Don Francisco – and two brothers.

Still from 'Mirage'The master of the property, this Don Francisco, is rigorous and punitive, variously deriding and micromanaging the ways in which people talk and interact. But he fails to notice the longing eye contact between his daughter and his main worker, Juan, whom he has summoned to the house. Nonetheless the brothers notice, and drop hints while their father obliviously holds court at the table. He tells Juan he’s been losing 1% of his annual harvest due to pickers eating the grapes, so he devises a solution: this year they will only hire men who can whistle, and whistle they will – for the duration of the work-day. That way, they will be unable to eat any of the crop. The plan backfires later when Don Francisco visits the field, and the workers’ innocent Andean tunes coalesce into a massed whistling of the Internationale, as he desperately tries to stop them.

These scenes of another era overlap with the main premise, the equally indistinct present, as Juan José and Hernán show up, in the middle of the night, with donkeys and baskets to steal grapes. Out in the labyrinth of tremendous wine barrels, we see Juan and Rina together under darkness. The whole side narrative of forbidden love between the laborer and the boss’s daughter seems to be trying to contextualize the environment and, as it becomes clearer and clearer through the dust, a backstory for the memory-possessed Juan José. In the daytime the boys sell the grapes in the town square. Father Jorge tries to tell them it’s wrong to steal, but they mock his moralizing, performing a faux-confessional among themselves.

In the mythic past, Rina and Juan continue to meet in the store rooms and in the wilderness, wherever they can. They meet in a shallow, rocky basin, far from anything, to make love. It’s like From Here to Eternity but amid the bellowing paracas (sandstorms) instead of frothy ocean waves. Meanwhile the sanguine sun that bores into the frame is a microscope on their affair.

Still from 'Mirage'In the mansion, a litany of eerily rudimentary visual tricks – perspective aspirated by hallways, thrown and cut by pillars, or rendered disjecta membra by shards of rusted mirror – prefigure those that Raul Ruiz would later deploy with planned abandon. There is a sense of folded-over time, as Juan José simultaneously inhabits the decrepit house he knows and the hacienda as it was in Don Francisco’s day. Through his eyes the kilns still burn, the stables still wheeze with horses, the arbored vines still fruit. Gradually, and through sheer will, those disparate visions connect, like severed nerves rejoining. Each time the horsemen appear, he is there to see them. The running man’s face comes into focus, as do the faces of his captors.

Mirage performs an interesting overlay, cycling between the proletarian reality of Hernán’s family’s plight, the unashamed supernatural melodrama inside Juan José’s mind, and the religious/ethnographic sights of the religious parade. The camera, pointed straight down, passes over the congregated torch-bearers far below, so they resemble loose cinders drifting up toward the sky. Intercut frantically – along with propulsive music – is a scene (quite stylized) of men ritualistically stomping grapes with the Christ float churning through the crowd.

Composer Enrique Pinilla (who recorded tape music at Columbia’s Electronic Music Laboratory in the late 1960s) lays out a typically modernist platter of vignettes, mostly unmixed with ambient sound: the intimacy of a purring guitar for scenes of the boys at play, a thumping membranophone for the desert, sour harpsichord smashes for Juan José’s gothic visions, burbling synthesizer for scenes involving animals. The disturbing shifts to the alluring. Juan José’s memory is of draconian torture, but he doesn’t seem to know where it comes from. He hangs a terrified cat by its neck and watches it struggle to break free. And then there is a beautiful superimposition of the group of boys playing soccer in the bed of a dry canal, which motionlessly dissolves to the same place in full torrent, the children’s heads bobbing above the surface as they swim downstream.

Outwardly Mirage is the stuff of young adult fiction – find some way to wrest the boy’s agency from his parents (usually at least one of them dies), and the self-discovery path opens up ahead. For Juan José, there is no discernible parentage, so it is unclear how he inherited the dream-time in which he lives, or even if his mansion is meant to be physically there. In Hernán’s case, the parents are still with him, but at the nexus of them leaving his childhood behind, there is a momentary vacuum of control when he can see the world without them, with clarity. In contrast Juan José is locked out on another plane of reality, that sand-buried past from which his hallucinations spring.

There is certainly a deliberate continuity throughout Godoy’s work of the period. His earlier film The Green Wall (1970) describes an opposite exodus, with a family moving from the city into the wilderness on a government land grant intended to populate Peru’s interior; a salesman takes his family along to try and hack it in the jungle, and starts a coffee plantation. In that film there is also very introverted boy who lives in his imagination, constructing tiny cities by a stream.

The motif continues in the short film The Cemetery of the Elephants (1974), which similarly has a sense of two time periods somehow elliptically intersecting. In it a young man hides his unpublished novel beneath the floorboards while preparing to run away from home. It seems he wants to erase all evidence of himself before an older man, perhaps his grandfather, reaches the house. In a sense, he is trying to hide himself, or at least stash part of himself away for later while adulthood beckons. With hardly an edit, the old man is him, only having returned home to recover that deep expression of himself in the autumn of his life, when it is doubtless too late to live.

Still from 'Mirage'Those otherworldly children – variously Freudian, Lacanian and Narnian – of Godoy’s films are predecessors to those that would become a mainstay of Ruiz’s work in the 1980s. They somehow attain a greater sense of clarity when bifurcated into two characters, as in Mirage; the solitary visionary who lives alone in a sprawling house, and the frustrated proletarian boy bound to physical reality. The latter has seemingly no memory, the former is completely submersed in it. Like in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, there is the electrifying cult figure, of obscure origins, and the ordinary acolyte who blossoms in his presence, but also becomes acquainted with suffering. Again, Godoy is working with a blueprint of adolescent coming-of-age, albeit building a basement fort of images and metaphors, where the film holes up for its duration.

Godoy works visually with verses from Vallejo along with “anonymous Peruvian authors of the 16th and 17th Centuries.” Poetry can function as a more flexible foil to cinema, more malleable and manifold, in words that hum at multiple keys. Godoy is trying for a film somehow comparable in its overtones and harmonics, and in some ways he succeeds. Vallejo’s poem of the wineless bottle (the wine being “widower of the bottle”) manages to encapsulate the betrayal of Christ and his subsequent, ghoulish glorification. “In the shoulders of wood/between the femurs, sticks,” we hear as the effigy is lowered into sea-dark wine. The bacchanalia of the men wildly stomping grapes equates the local industry with a people’s blood, energetically reaped. Meanwhile the incendiary pop of the religious spectacle seems stewing in a dark and discordant past. It is a patrimony unseen but certainly felt in the veins, reconstituted through torment, akin to the image of the man from the horizon. The sun is sanguine again, and he tries to outrun the desert – or to disappear with it.

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