The Peruvian film theme continues (and there’s more to come, too)…
Paloma de papel is a well-intentioned take on the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, but it never really takes off. The central character is a young boy called Juan, who lives in an Andean village caught between the two sides: Sendero on the one hand, and less the army per se but the state-supported civil guards or ronda on the other. Juan is dragged into the conflict, and moves from playing war games with his friends to making war alongside people who only call themselves friends, when he discovers that his stepfather is a Senderista, and as a result is sent off to be press-ganged into the guerrilla ranks.
After some time training with sticks for rifles and learning to make grenades out of sawdust and nails, Juan, now renamed “Comrade Cirilo,” faces the reality of war first when a young companion of the same age steps on a mine and is put out of his misery by the group’s chief, and then when in the aftermath of an assault on a military guardpost he is enjoined to kill a soldier for himself. Juan escapes off to his village, only to find himself pursued by the ronderos and guerrilleros alike. But all he wants is to protect his mother, which he signally fails to do in the subsequent firefight in the village square. Still mourning his mother’s death, he is arrested as a subversive, and the film’s initial and final scenes (for the main body of the plot is effectively told in flashback) see him returning after years in prison, to be greeted and welcomed back by his childhood friends.
But this focus on an accidental terrorist doesn’t really tell us much about the Senderistas themselves. Are we to believe that this is how they, too, found themselves in the movement? As almost always (the Argentine film Kamchatka is another good example), presenting political conflict through the eyes of a child tends to stress the conflict at the price of losing the politics. What’s more, the conflict is almost all external: bad people arrive from outside to disrupt what would presumably otherwise be an idyllic rural order.
The fact for instance that Juan’s mother seems to have married a Senderista, even though (it is hinted) he may have been responsible for the death of Juan’s real mother, might have been an entryway into a more complex view both of the war and of the highlands. But she incarnates only generic motherhood, in and of itself precious and to be valued at all costs. Her character is never fleshed out.
Nor indeed are any of the other characters in the movie developed in any significant way. We have the childhood friends, the wicked and drunken stepfather, the hard-hearted terrorists, and the kindly old man, in this case a blacksmith who gives young Juan a paper dove of the title along with a warm but ultimately banal little parable of hope and redemption.
Again, in some cases there are glimpses at further complexity. The terrorists aren’t all bad, one feels: they feel regret at having to kill their own, and weep when their siblings die. So at least a minimal humanity still pertains to them. But too often these are mere gestures, shadings to suggest three-dimensionality without the effort to show real multi-facetedness. And so, too, with highland life as a whole. The village occupies itself with communal tasks amidst beautiful scenery, but little more of Andean life or culture is ever shown. Is this kind of two-dimensional nostalgic vision what the critics of Madeinusa would really prefer?
YouTube Link: the film’s opening ten minutes.