Mujer de mi hermano posterThe title of Ricardo de Montreuil’s La mujer de mi hermano translates as “My Brother’s Woman,” and really that’s all you need to know about this souped-up but stylish telenovela. You can imagine the plot for yourself: two brothers, like chalk and cheese, one a successful but boring businessman in suit and tie, the other a dashing young artist in leather jacket and stubble. Businessman brother’s wife is tiring of her literally sterile life in a designer-label cocoon in which they have sex only once a week. One day while hubby is off on a business trip, she falls into bed with artist brother. Sparks and moral dilemmas fly. Childhood trauma and repressed identities come to the surface. But, in this case at least, they all live happily ever after.

The film is actually about homosexuality, unsurprising perhaps given that it is based on the novel and scripted by Jaime Bayly, author also of the far superior No se lo digas a nadie. We have the bitchy gay male friend who is wife Zoë’s confidante, reveling in the steamy details of his friend’s infidelity; the obsessively tidy and metrosexual husband Ignacio turns out to be a closet gay, oh and a youthful paedophile to boot; and of course the love triangle itself, with the two men sharing a single woman, is all about homosocial desire.

All this takes place in an ambience of pristine upper-class sophistication, in a palette of muted earth tones drenched in soft late-season sunlight. Zoë and Ignacio live in a designer house that is a glass and concrete box, whose major feature is a swimming pool that traverses inside and outside. And however much Ignacio obsessively cleans the pool of autumn leaves or stranded insects (he’s rich but not rich enough for a pool boy?), each major character feels compelled at some point to throw something into the water: Ignacio chucks his brother’s painting; Zoë dumps her mobile phone; and artist brother Gonzalo pisses into it. Now there’s a statement. It’s the closest this film comes to depth.

Beyond these markers of privilege and style, tainted by the introduction of human bodily fluids, this ethereal film is curiously ungrounded. It’s a pan-Latin American effort, made by a Peruvian director, set in Mexico, filmed in Chile, with stars from Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, and Colombia. We get little sense of the world beyond these characters’ self-focussed lives: when Ignacio goes on his business trip, the hotel from which he phones home (little knowing his brother is in the house with her as he speaks) is another anonymous construction of glass and concrete that could be almost anywhere. This is a Latin version of Eurotrash: the flotsam and jetsam of a regional bourgeoisie at home everywhere and nowhere.

Mujer de mi hermana still
In the end, the film is as superficial as the world it portrays: all surfaces and bleached, unsaturated veneers; a cold borderless neoliberalism in which brief titillation artfully shot replaces passion or human interest. We’re as far from, say, Chicha tu madre as could be imagined. And of the two versions of deterritorialized Latin Americanism, I know which one I’d choose.

YouTube Link: the film’s first ten minutes.


La ciudad y los perros posterFrancisco Lombardi’s La ciudad y los perros is an adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s first book. The title translates as “The City and the Dogs” (though for some reason the book was translated into English as The Time of the Hero). But the film shows much less of the city and much more of the dogs than does Vargas Llosa’s novel, whose first edition came complete with a map of Lima. Lombardi keeps us mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the military academy in which the “dogs,” the army cadets, have forged a rough and tumble community whose hierarchies, values, and abuses both challenge and mirror those of the army, and by extension the nation, itself.

Lombardi also narrows his focus among the group of cadets. The book is notable for employed a narrative style that switches constantly between narrators and perspectives, creating the overall effect of portraying the “dogs” as a kind of multiform, collective subjectivity. Moreover, Vargas Llosa’s novel hides a huge twist in its tail, as on what is practically the book’s final page we suddenly take stock of a dramatic breach between interior monologue and external appearance. Sadly but perhaps inevitably the film excises these properly literary effects, to concentrate on the figure of one Alberto Fernández, nicknamed “the poet,” who functions mostly as an observer through whom we in turn apprehend other characters and the actions they undertake.

The cohort’s top dogs are a group of four cadets known as “the circle,” led by a striking young touch nicknamed the “Jaguar,” who run a thriving black market trade in cigarettes, liquor, pornography, and stolen exam papers for the other inmates of this military boarding school. The film’s plot kicks off as the theft of a Chemistry exam is discovered by the academy’s authorities, and as a result the four cadets who were on guard at the time of the theft have all their weekend leave cancelled. One of the four is a boy who inhabits the very lowest rung of the savage hierarchy that the cadets have established, as is indicated by the nickname they’ve given him: Ricard Arana is better known as the “Slave.” The Slave has managed to pass three years in the institution without making a single friend, except perhaps the Poet himself, to whom he pours out his troubles. The Slave is particularly agonized by the fact of his confinement, as it means he’s unable to meet up with the neighborhood girl, Teresa, to whom he’s shyly taken a fancy. Little does he know that in fact his only friend, the Poet, has started up a relationship with Teresa himself.

The Slave then commits the worst sin imaginable among the boys: he betrays the group by turning stool pigeon in order to have his exit privileges reinstated. As a result, the exam thief, Cava, a member of the circle, is humiliatingly thrown out of the academy and his compadres vow revenge.

La ciudad y los perros stillDuring live ammunition exercises in the countryside, the Slave is shot and mortally wounded. The authorities, hushing up the scandal, declare that young Ricardo accidentally killed himself with his own rifle. But the Poet suspects a more likely narrative: that the Jaguar took rough justice into his own hands, gunning down the weakling who had dared to question his group’s authority.

And so the Poet himself, agonized by his own betrayal of the dead boy, in turn decides to inform on the circle and incriminate the Jaguar. He convinces one Lieutenant Gamboa of the truth of his account: that the cadets are essentially beyond the control of the institution, and that their leaders feel they can even get away with murder. Gamboa, portrayed as a decent man who’s prepared to risk his career in the name of what is right, forces the issue through to his superiors. But little justice is done: the cover-up continues, Gamboa is transferred out to a remote posting in the Andes, and the only (albeit perhaps the most devastating) punishment that the Jaguar receives is to be overthrown by those who were previously his loyal henchmen.

In the end, though the film presents itself as an incisive critique of the corruption and machismo that dominate both the cadet cohort and the army as a whole, it’s unclear what if any values it upholds. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Jaguar, who so stubbornly upholds his own code of honour that he refuses to clear at least some part of his disrepute by squealing in turn on the Poet’s act of treason. Indeed, in some senses the Jaguar is the only figure who avoids the taint of treason: even Gamboa, given a final chance to prove the truth of what has taken places, rips up the evidence before heading out of the school gates and on to his lonely highland exile. The Jaguar believes in his strict moral doctrine because he has nothing else to believe in. But it is this rigidity that leads to the Slave’s demise. It’s the demand for absolute solidarity that drives a merciless scapegoating.

YouTube Link: Cava’s expulsion.


Further to my earlier Arguediana, here’s a lovely little cinematic version of the “Sueño del pongo” (“Pongo’s Dream”), a traditional Quechua story collected and elaborated by Arguedas. The film was made in Cuba in 1970, adapted by Roberto Fernández Retamar. It’s shot using atmospheric black and white still photographs.

See also the text of the story in Spanish and in English. It begins…

“A little man headed to his master’s mansion. As one of the serfs on the lord’s estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.

The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion’s corridors….”


El canibal es el Otro coverOf the three texts studied in Victor Vich’s El caníbal es el Otro, there’s no doubt that the first is the most interesting. What more need be said, after all, about Mario Vargas Llosa’s Lituma en los Andes? The elite discourse of letrado stupefaction and condescension towards the indigenous is hardly a topic that has gone unexplored. And the other text, a testimonio of state-sponsored brutality, is likewise sadly all too familiar. Even Vich himself wonders if his account adds anything: “I ask myself therefore if there’s any sense continuing to comment on this testimonio” (55).

But the text with which Vich begins his analysis of “violence and culture in contemporary Peru” is both fascinating and challenging. It’s a Senderista text, and frankly the guerrilleros’ discourse remains as stubbornly opaque now as ever, despite the reams of interpretation to which it has been subjected. But perhaps that’s precisely the problem. Perhaps the point of Senderismo is the way in which it resists interpretation. Indeed, I suggest that nothing shows this better than the text that Vich chooses to examine.

Rosa Murinache’s Tiempos de Guerra (“Time of War” or, more loosely and with other resonances, “Life During Wartime”) is, as Vich explains,

a clandestine book of poetry that circulated during the harshest years of Peru’s dirty war. It comprises a set of poems whose particular aim is to expound the necessity for armed struggle and for a radically revolutionary change in the structure of the country. The curious thing is that Rosa is the author of the book but not of the poems, which are rather the product of an “editing” operation performed on the political discourse of [Sendero leader] Abimael Guzmán. (13-14)

Indeed, as Vich underlines, Murinache goes to some pains to point out that she has neither added nor subtracted a single word from Guzmán’s work. “All” she has done is to rearrange it on the page, introducing line breaks, indentations, and stanza divisions. So we get verses such as the following:

is worth nothing
The mass
is everything.
If we are to be anything
it will be
as part
of the mass. (28-29)

Murinache’s intervention, then, is purely formal: she has changed the form of Guzmán’s speeches and exhortations from prose to poetry.

Vich is clearly fascinated by what this (presumably) pseudonymous editor has done, and rightly so, and he asks about the subjectivity that the poems reveal, or rather the way in which the subjectivity of the Senderista cadre presents itself as almost completely in sync with the subjectivity of the movement’s leader and grand ideologue. But there are times when Vich also appears somewhat frustrated by this coincidence or confluence between the two subjects. For the challenge of Murinache’s over-respectful editing is its apparent superfluousness. Finally, Vich concludes, what we have here is “a gesture at best, a simple movement, the useless attempt to arrange the words (of the Other) in some other way” (35; emphasis added).

But this “useless[ness]” deserves further examination. Indeed, it’s rather surprising that a literary critic such as Vich should have such little use for form. (Camilo Fernández Cozman makes a similar observation.) For what Murinache has done is to draw out the formal properties of Guzmán’s political discourse. She challenges us to read Senderista ideology as form rather than as content; indeed as a mode of aesthetics or (posthegemonic) affect rather than as politics or (hegemonizing) ideology.

In short, by recasting Guzmán as poet, surely Murinache is warning us against precisely the kinds of political interpretation, engrossed with content and signification, that has dominated and also perplexed all readings of Sendero, Vich’s included. She suggests that Guzmán’s followers were less interested in what their leader meant than in the ways in which Senderista ideology allowed them to find form, to construct their own forms (habits, if you like) from the affective building blocks supplied by a discourse of blood and revolution, reorganization and (literally) reformation.


Dick CheneyI’ve been surprised that in Peru they haven’t made more of Dick Cheney’s recent gaffe. The US Vice-President apparently confused Peru with Venezuela, suggesting that Hugo Chávez was President of the former rather than the latter. But Peruvian friends I’ve talked to weren’t even aware of the incident.

Typically enough, Chávez himself has capitalized on the confusion. “Those who govern the United States are a bunch of ignorant fools,” he declared. “They don’t know where Venezuela is, nor do they know where Peru is.” (Via LANR.)

The story can be read as a simple slip of the tongue, or perhaps as typical of the myopia of an administration run by a man who famously had never left the USA before he became President, and who as presidential candidate was unable to name the leader of Pakistan.

More interestingly, however, the mistake may reveal just how little attention the US is currently paying to Latin America. After all, if Cheney had any reason to have the region on his mind, one would have thought that Chávez’s belligerent rhetoric should have put Venezuela on the Vice-President’s mental map.

Moreover, the particular confusion is also revealing. Rather than confusing Chávez with any of the other Latin American leftists who have won office in recent years–Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Brazil’s Lula, for instance–Cheney seems to find it difficult to distinguish him even from Alan García, a president who came to office by fending off a challenge from the Left. Indeed, during the Peruvian campaign Chávez actively (and controversially) voiced his support for the candidacy of García’s rival, Ollanta Humala.

Cheney’s faux pas, then, seems to indicate not only that the much-heralded distinction between “social democratic” and “populist” lefts has hardly made much impact inside the Beltway. It also suggests that when it comes to Latin America, the Bush Administration doesn’t even concern itself overly with the distinction between Left and Right. It’s all, as they would say down here, la misma mierda.

One is tempted to feel slightly sorry for poor Hugo. For all the man’s best efforts, he still seems unable to attract much attention from Cheney et. al. Though on the other hand, the lesson he might draw is that he really can do what he wants: the US simply won’t notice.

Crossposted to Left Turns?.


Bajo la piel posterBajo la piel is a strange film, and also a distinctly creepy one. It opens with a scene of a man in a hammock declaring that life is good, that he has discovered that happiness really exists, although he learned the lesson only lately, and closes with the same scene of Edenic bliss. What’s shown in the interim, however, is a dark take on a Peruvian society in which primitive violence lurks “under the skin” of even the most respectable façade. And it’s the disconnect between the apocalyptic vision and the contented declaration that gives this film its sinister edge. Comparisons with Hitchcock are not altogether out of line.

The happy hammock-swinger turns out to be a provincial police chief by the name of Percy Corso. At the story’s outset, he’s faced with the fact that a serial killer is on the loose, who has so far killed four young men, decapitating them and removing their eyes. The town is up in arms, and the mayor in particular is putting pressure on Corso to solve the case quickly, so that upcoming festivities can take place without this shadow of fear. But our man Percy, normally a solitary and rational type who once had dreams of being a lawyer and now spends his spare time playing solitaire chess, finds himself distracted with a new arrival: Marina, a fiery young Spaniard, who has taken up the post of local pathologist.

Bajo la piel stillMarina’s over-sexed proclivities extend, it seems, to demanding of Percy impulsive sex when the two are exploring the local ruins, in the past site of bloody sacrifice. Whatever turns you on. But Marina has a problem with commitment, and is soon also found screwing the town gigolo, a young man who happens also to be the mayor’s reprobate son.

The policeman is soon rather more preoccupied with the sexual adventures of his would-be lover, but in the meantime he does manage to solve the serial killer case. All the evidence leads to the fact that the perpetrator is a bespectacled archaeologist who shows unusual scholastic interest in the savage ways of pre-Columbian civilizations. Only he had access to the golden but gruesome Moche instrument of decapitation that turns out to have been the murder weapon. But banged up in police cells, Professor Pinto shows no great willingness to talk, and in the face of the man’s stubborn silence Percy returns to fretting about Marina.

Things quickly get out of hand when Corso decides to take the mayor’s son out drinking, torturing himself by listening to the young man’s bravado descriptions of his bohemian lifestyle. Percy snaps, killing and decapitating his rival in copycat style, taking advantage of the original murder’s suicide to fake a prison break and then burying both bodies out in the desert. And one stage we think (fear?) that the cop will be rumbled for this crime, but eventually as we’ve seen all turns out happily ever after. In the film’s final scene the camera shifts from Corso in his hammock to Marina in the background, apparently barefoot and pregnant, now fully beholden to the alpha male.

So the movie is disturbing not only for its depiction of a millennial savagery that runs from pre-historic times to the present, but also and above all for its reluctance to take any moral stance. We may increasingly find it hard to identify with its policeman protagonist, especially as he passes the line from law-enforcer to law-breaker, but still less sympathy is shown for his victim or indeed almost anyone else around and about. The movie is singularly detached from the violence it portrays. Or perhaps on the contrary: it’s as though it were too close to the bone for the director to be able to take some inevitably hypocritical moral stance.


Flor de Retama posterIt’s striking how many differences there are within the current upsurge of Peruvian regional cinema. Indeed, in may ways you’d be hard-pressed to find a more disparate group of films in terms of their genre, subject matter, and style. Sangre y tradición, for instance, is a monster movie that plays on and supports regional mythology, and it has the air of a home movie made by a student drama group on their weekends off, albeit with considerable technical accomplishment. El huerfanito is both grittier and grainier, a study of child poverty with strong social realist overtones. While Flor de Retama (2004), by contrast, employs a number of professional actors and a style strongly reminiscent of telenovelas to portray a love story in the midst of the war on terror.

Flor de Retama‘s production company call the film a “historical drama,” and it indeed very much has the feel of a period piece. Its plot could almost be lifted out of a nineteenth-century English novel. It features an absentee landlord, a widower with a young daughter who is just emerging into sexual maturity and whose mother died in childbirth. He returns to his estate after an extended period of absence to discover that it has slowly gone to seed, but that the old faithful retainers have been long awaiting his return. One of the young yeomen takes a shine to the daughter, and she likewise to him, despite the disapproval on both sides of this cross-class liaison. The entire populace gets to work on restoring the lands to their former glory, but disaster threatens, in the course of which the long-suffering servants have to prove their true loyalty to the landowner, the daughter and the beau demonstrate their fitness for each other, and the lord of the manor decisively rejects his temptation to sell up and abandon the ancestral pile at the first sign of trouble. Finally, the daughter completes a task first initiated by her long-dead mother, whom her father can only now truly grieve, and the inheritance seems ensured for the foreseeable future. The aristocracy are once again wedded to the land. The peasants and tenant farmer have recommitted to the old order. And tradition is reinforced.

All that is lacking indeed, is a false suitor (flash and seductive but ultimately detrimental to the furtherance of landed authority) against whom the worthy suitor (plain and undemonstrative at first sight, but loyal to the bone) can eventually win out, obviously after a number of tragicomic mis-steps on the part of our heroine.

The big thing separating Flor de Retama from Austen or Hardy then is that the disaster affecting the hacienda is caused by rifle-toting Maoists. For the landowner’s return coincides with a Sendero revival. But this is where the film’s temporality is peculiar. For despite the production company’s label, in fact the bulk of the action has to be set in the present: if the flashbacks to the point at which the mother dies and the father leaves (by helicopter) to retreat to the city with his newborn child are all set in 1985, then the return to the Andes must take place around 2000. Or even, if Nova Imágenes Producciones are to be trusted, in 2005 if twenty years have passed.

So this is both a curiously displaced Sendero drama, in which the terrorist threat is presented as being as real in 2005 as it had been twenty years later. And yet it’s also a fake historical drama, in that it presents action that must be taking place in the present as though it were part of some semi-mythic feudal order. There’s a double sleight of hand here: Sendero has to be reactivated in order to set the present back into the past, relegitimating willing campesino subservience to the landowner returning to their property abandoned during the war. The insurgent provide the excuse for a test of loyalty and love: will the landowner’s work supervisor, a gun thrust in his hand by the embittered Senderista, go through with the assassination of his boss or (as in fact happens) turn the weapon on the guerrilla. A blood pact is forged in which all concerned can return to the pre-war status quo… as if nothing had really happened. Hence the daughter completes the painting her mother had begun two decades earlier. A hunky local has been brought into the family, but the girl has shown that she’s the one with the balls, as she has rescued him from under the noses of the rebels, hitting one of them over the head with a block of wood for good measure.

So finally here’s the point of contact between the three regional films: each is incredibly conservative, no matter the genre they choose to convey their remarkably unsubtle messages. Sangre y tradición is a plea to maintain rural traditions and customs. El huerfanito proposes to reinstate the patriarchal family. And Flor de Retama justifies the return of the seigneur to his rightful place in the Andean hierarchy.

Honestly. And people had problems with Madeinusa‘s politics?!

YouTube Link: the movie’s trailer.


Police and crime dramas are popular genres in Peruvian cinema (see for instance Alias “La gringa” or Bajo la piel) and also in Latin America more generally (Plata quemada or El chacal de Nahueltoro, say). There are various reasons for this. Among them, first, that crime is consistently an issue in contexts where the state is relatively weak and so either rural banditry or urban delinquency rife. Second, even when the state is present it is often the object of distrust; a sense that official corruption is tolerated and the poor unnecessarily targeted often turns criminals into folk heroes.

Django posterDjango: La otra cara purports to show this “other face” of criminality and to humanize the conflict between cop and robber, but frankly it’s all too predictable and far from credible. This despite the fact that allegedly it’s based on a true story, of one Oswaldo Gonzales, alias Django, a notorious Peruvian bank robber during the 1970s and 1980s, who may even have started his own blog devoted to detailing his subsequent conversion to Christianity.

In the film, however, what we are shown are Django’s final days at large, as his criminal career starts to unravel thanks to a botched hold-up in which a partner and friend is killed, and thanks also to the single-minded pursuit of a police captain by the name of Manuel. It turns out that Django and Manuel were once friends, way back when they were young men in the provincial town of Trujillo. What’s more, Django’s wife, Tania, was once Manuel’s girlfriend. So the policeman’s investigation is also a personal matter, which leads to a measure of respect and consideration on the one hand, but also all the more determination in the quest for justice on the other.

Meanwhile, on the run, Django hooks up with his dead buddy’s woman, and together they go on a desperate rampage with shades of Bonnie and Clyde while poor Tania is left literally holding the baby. So Django is hardly the gentleman, despite his debonair ways and the fact he repeatedly examines an old black-and-white photo of his family for some kind of inspiration and/or succor. There’s also the suggestion of yet another backstory, in which our hero villain may have been the lone survivor of a car crash in which his parents and brothers were killed, but nothing is made of this over the course of the film.

The stress is on the different paths followed by the two old friends. One has sided with the forces of law and order, the other has become intoxicated by the thrills of crime and ill-begotten money. Constant flashbacks continually ram the point home. But these nostalgic scenes of bygone days don’t in fact clarify either of the two characters: in fact their destinies already seem to be set from the outset.

Django would probably like to suggest that the problem of law and outlaw, of criminality as both menace and popular myth, and of the state as both moral guardian and broken promise, is a question of a singular entity with multiple faces, some kind of social doppelgänger. But the movie never succeeds in charting such ambivalences. The paths of lawman and villain only touch tangentially; they never actually cross. Django seldom deviates from being headstrong and self-centered, while Manuel is almost always scrupulous and considerate. The final scene hints at some ultimate betrayal, in which some rough code of honour between the two at last comes to an end, but by this time we really no longer care.

YouTube Link: Django’s prison break.


Peruvian flagAn index to the Peruvian films analyzed on this blog:

Madeinusa (2006)
Chicha tu madre (2006)
Sangre y tradición (2005)
La mujer de mi hermana (2005)
Mañana te cuento (2005)
Flor de Retama (2004)
El huerfanito (2004)
Doble juego (2004)
Días de Santiago (2004)
Polvo enamorado (2003)
Paloma de papel (2003)
Ojos que no ven (2003)
Django: la otra cara (2002)
Tinta roja (2000)
Ciudad de M (2000)
Bajo la piel (1996)
Asia, el culo del mundo (1996)
Anda, corre, vuela (1995)
Sin compasión (1994)
Caídos del cielo (1990)
Juliana (1988)
La ciudad y los perros (1985)

That’s probably more Peruvian cinema than you ever suspected existed, right?

An essay on Peruvian cinema, focussing on Chicha tu madre, Días de Santiago, and Madeinusa:

“Subalternity, Betrayal, and Flight: Three Recent Films from Peru” (.pdf file)

And some links to other resources:

Aldea cultural: Cine latino
Butaca en línea
La cinefilia no es patriota
Gonzalo Portocarrero
Páginas de cine andino
Pantalla interior