Friday, May 25, 2018

Tambien la Lluvia (Even the Rain)



También la Lluvia (Even the rain) is a 2010 Spanish movie directed by Icíar Bollaín. It is a history and political drama production that takes place in Bolivia, which includes a dual narrative. The first one is the creation of a movie about the first religious opposition to the enslavement of indigenous people in New Spain during the colonization period. The second one recounts the struggles of poor communities to protect their right to get drinking water opposing a process of national privatization of its supply, carried by an agreement between the city´s municipality and a multinational company. The movie production crew hires locals to perform as extras in the project, while at the same time the political tensions intensify behind cameras. The movie illustrates the events of the Cochabamba water war, as it is known in Bolivia´s history, which took place from 1999 to 2000 and resolved in the expulsion of the multinational and the dissolution of the water privatization law that started the conflict.
The movie director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) travels to Bolivia with a crew formed of Latin American and Spanish people in search for the place and people that will bring his movie the most accurate amount of realism compared to how the events really happened (but they only get what is within their low-budget). Sebastián chooses Bolivia because of its tropical landscape and the facial features of its people which are alike the Taino tribe that Colón first found in his arrival to the Caribbean. His Spanish executive producer, Costa (Luis Tosar), has arranged a casting call in the heights of a Cochabamba neighbourhood, where more than hundred people wait for even the smallest job opportunity. From this initial part, Bolivia is shown as an impoverished place and its people always act in community, which can turn violent if unheard, especially among those with Quechua ancestry. In both revolutionary stories (one led by the Indians in the movie, the other by the people in Cochabamba), the leadership is in the hands of Daniel, a member of the Cochabamba community and activist. He becomes the main character in the movie performing as Atuey, whose crucifixion starts an Indian revolt against the Catholic Crown rule. However, Daniel´s involvement in the water war complicates the project but also makes all the crew aware of the injustices committed in the region, so much that Costa (who showed very little interest at the beginning) ends up providing support to the “insurgents”.
As we can see in the movie, the Bolivian government and national media labelled the protest as an anti-modernization rebellion that had the objective to destabilize a legitimate democratic state. However, just like Sebastián’s character wants to give a voice to the other side of history, to the Indians, in the same way, Bollaín opens the floor to explain the water war favouring the protesters’ viewpoint. By doing this, the plot sympathies with a socialist ideology highly critical of globalization and neoliberalism practices such as the commodification and privatization of services and natural resources. The story advocates for an understanding of social justice through the eyes of the poor, the worker, the exploited, and thus all those social issues shape our perception of Latin American societies and their essence, at least the one portrayed here.
One of the most impactful scenes shows both narratives merging. The leader Atuey brings about a demonstration of all the oppressed Indians against the armed Spanish conquistadors (apparently more powerful, but very small in number). The crowd of natives get uncontrollable after seen his leader being executed. Right after the scene is over, a group of police officers arrive to take prisoner the revolt leader Daniel (Atuey), but all the local people that were acting in the movie successfully rise to defend him. This merging of the two stories duplicates a narrative of struggle and rebellion that let us with one conclusion: not much has changed since colonization. How is so? What about modernity? The critique to modernity is self-evident. The so-called “modernity” of the neoliberal society is just a name given to new forms of exploitation of the same groups: the indigenous and the poor workers in the Cochabamba case.
 What do the portrayal of these events tell us about Latin American society? The coloniality of power relations has become a difficult problem to overcome in Latin America. At the end of the movie Daniel says that a demonstration with force was the only way to make a meaningful change. That is what is being somehow justify with a socialist perspective. When people go to the streets to protest there is an actual reason, a real discomfort and it is not only a selfish act, especially when those people are influenced by a long history of struggle that comes from colonization. Revolutionary rebellions are what it takes in Latin America to stop the socially careless, and economic driven forces of global neoliberalism. 
           

          

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Debt

The Debt (2015) is a drama that delivers a multi-narrative plot to explore how far (or over how many people) someone will go to obtain what they want, whether the reasons are satisfying an appetite for wealth and self-pride or ensuring the well-being of loved ones. The plot details the lives of two Peruvian families (one indigenous and one low-income) and a group of investors from a New York finance corporation.
In the beginning, we are introduced to each group individually. Oliver and Miguel both work for the American finance corporation buying huge proportions of Peruvian agrarian bonds (land debts) for a lot less than the actual price, then to obtain revenue from the actual amount of the debts by negotiating directly with the Peruvian government. Then we have Maria, a low-income nurse whose mother is suffering a treatable, but a painful medical condition. Maria’s economic condition does not allow her to help her mother, especially since treatment is given to those who can pay or to those who have great influence on the system. Finally (but probably the most important), we meet the indigenous farmer Florentino and his family. Florentino has been pressed to agree to sell his land to a Peruvian investor that has promised an agricultural project with stable jobs and possible healthcare to him and the rest of the agrarian community of the Peruvian highlands. Florentino, however, has rejected every single time since giving up his land will mean going back to a serfdom status of the colonial times under the rule of rich landowners.
This Barney Elliott drama movie is also a historical and political work about the agrarian bonds of the twentieth century in Peru which remain unpaid until today. Ancestral land ownership is currently a contested right in many Latin American countries for which agriculture and resource extraction as their main national income source. Historical facts like this one provide this production with a high sense of realism which denounces social injustices and the impact of neo-liberal politics in the lives of the indigenous and the poor, two of the most vulnerable groups in Peruvian/Latin American society. Indigenous people, like Florentino, remember vehemently the huasipungo period when they were slaves of the landowner and see any attempt to take their lands as an attempt to enslave them again. Nevertheless, the history of struggle and resistance of those groups to stop neo-liberal influence (that under their eyes is an imperialist project) is of little importance when American investors (in alliance with local elites) look to profit out of it, as portrayed in the movie. Indeed, Latin American politics, politics that look to decrease social inequality and injustice that come from a shared history of colonialism, are perceived by those US investors as “hearth bleeding politics”, too dramatic, too unrealistic for the free-market politics and interests of the neoliberal project.
Eventually, each of the three sides of this story the characters is challenged to choose a life or death decision that opposes their initial convictions. The farmer Florentino unwillingly gives up his land to Oliver (representing the private corporations) to save his little son's life. After long waiting hours and under the circumstances, the nurse Maria decides to put her mom's life before Florentino's son in her only chance to get medical attention (which will cost the kid his leg).  Finally, the only person left that has the actual power to change repetition of injust enforcements is Oliver. After he finds out that his Peruvian partner and friend died on the highlands looking for the real motivations for taking away the land from the agrarian indigenous community (exploiting the gold mines and not giving them stability and healthcare as promised), Oliver decides to break the chain that could result on a profitable scamming on land prices. "You think they want to help us? We are only cholos indios for them. Do you want to be slaves again?" said once Florentino in Quechua warning his community about selling their land.
Comparing Oliver's thinking at the beginning of the movie to how the plot developed at the end, this movie questions neoliberalism. Oliver talks about free-trade benefits and how the system and social problems of a country are the faults of its people and not the market, thus everyone should follow the project. Politics and economy for the US finance company are black and white, take it or leave it, but as the plot goes on Oliver starts to understand the difficulties of the process and the lives that are getting affected. Undoubtedly this movie has a critical socialist view on the neoliberal ideology. Latin America in that system does not benefit, only serves to the interests of those setting the rules, even though the proposals might seem more promising. Interestingly, however, the Peruvian government is portrayed as highly manipulable. American private corporations have more power and influence than government officials and, of course, the people. Neoliberalism for Latin America is not more than another form of social, political, and economic control, it is neoimperialism. In this case, the vicious change was stopped, but it required the involvement of someone within the power elite, otherwise, Latin America seems too weak to effectively block economic and social issues by itself.



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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Monsters

Gareth Edwards’s 2010 road-movie Monsters recounts the story of an American journalist and an American tourist on their way to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. While the movie’s main theme focuses on the fictional alien invasion and its consequences in Mexico’s and the U.S. security, this is also a border movie in which it is questioned the ways in which “threats” are taken care of before they can cross the border; in other border movies those threats are drugs or violence (usually carried into American territory by immigrants), in this case, monsters (creatures that act independently from human mobility).

The movie starts with an introduction to the current situation: a NASA probe crashed in Mexican land bringing alien forms of life to at least 50% of the country. The United States government has named those areas the “infected zone” and to protect people from the alien infection everyone is requested to wear masks. To avoid the “infection” spread, the Mexican government has paired up with the United States to allow the guarding and bombing of the most dangerous areas. Under these circumstances, Andrew (US photojournalist) is in charge to take back Sam (tourist) to “safe land”, the United States. Throughout their trip to the coast where they will find ferries to take them back home, Sam, again and again, tells Andrew that what is been said about Mexico in the United States is not the reality, that things are much better. In support of Sam’s comments, Andrew recognizes that the media is indeed sensationalist since photos of violence, the alien creatures or dead people are more valuable than photos that show happiness. This leaves him with no other option than look for images that confirm the misconceptions of the sensationalist media. However, as the couple gets closer to their destination, the contrast between what is being portrayed in the media versus Mexico’s reality becomes even stronger.

Once in the coast, crossing the border represents a real problem. Even though Sam and Andrew are American citizens, they are treated in the same way as the Mexican migrants. Before departing, Sam And Andrew go to a night festival in which all people celebrate without any fear of the monsters, however, they do fear and protest against another kind of monsters. The consequences of military intervention in the small coastal village are death and instability. Walls with messages endorsing the military campaign to bombard infected areas have been crossed over and on top Mexican people has written “Que son los Mountros? NO BOMBING” (What are the monsters? No bombing). The indiscriminate bombing to destroy the creatures has also killed hundreds of people, many of them without identification, the unknown dead.

Sam and Andrew lose their passports and have no other option than crossing the border by feet, through the infected zone. After 6 years since the extra-terrestrials arrived in Mexico, the evacuated infected zone became a jungle. Vegetation is growing covering the abandoned buildings and there only sounds that can be heard are those of animals, the creatures, and American aircraft dropping chemical bombs. Thus, the masks are not to protect people from the aliens, but from the chemicals dropped in the zone. “When American planes come, the creatures like animals get mad and become very dangerous… if you don’t bother them they don’t bother you” says one of the people smugglers about the nature of the conflict arising the question of who the real monsters in the story are. These conversations along the road problematize the dichotomy of what is real and what is fantasy within the plot, or in other words, what is being shown in the news (all American news in English, there is no national news reporting the problems) and what Sam, Andrew and the rest of Mexico experience.

The plot recurrently questions the idea and feelings of separation created by the US-Mexico border wall. Though there is a physical wall dividing both countries, several aspects of their societies make them more similar than diverging. One of them, as I have described, is the media present in Mexico. Getting closer to the border all the news on television are American made. Another contradiction to the division of the two North American countries is language, at the beginning of the movie when the main characters are more distant to the border, the language divisions are more tangible. However, as the plot moves up to the border, most of the people in Mexico speak or at least understand English. The last critique is made to the idea of danger/security on each side of the border. Though the general point of view presented by the media is a Mexico full of mystery and danger, especially in the infected zone, people feel quite safe even within that zone (but when the American military is not present). Also, once Sam and Andrew cross the big wall, they think that they are no longer in danger, but at night again they can see two giant creatures, but since this is happening in a US area the media does not report it.

The sci-fi component of this production might turn out attention away from the other aspects of the plot to focus only on the mystery of a typical monster movie. Nevertheless, what this movie tells us about Mexico goes beyond the fictional story. The monsters are introduced to the plot of this movie to question the efforts of building a wall that keeps danger away from the United States. From the movie, we can see that neither the wall not the bombing could stop the entrance of "danger" to American territory, and parallelly, the infected zone and the wall could not stop people from crossing. Additionally, it is very clear the disagreement with the news that is reported in traditional media. Latin America then is more than mystery and violence, is more than the ratings sensationalist media look for.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

The Rundown

During the colonial period, European explorers were convinced that the legendary gold city called El Dorado was real. Desires of finding that promising place full of gold inspired numerous movies such as “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972) and the animated movie “El Dorado” (2000), among others. These fantasy stories recounted adventures of imperialist explorers looking for hidden gold mines in the Amazon rainforest. But how would life look like if the legend of El Dorado was not a tale, but a reality? It is that possibility that Peter Berg presents in The Rundown (2003). Berg creates another treasure-hunting adventure in the dystopic reality of a village called “Hell Dorado” (indigenous from the Amazon replace El by Hell expressing their opposition to the gold mining companies looking for their village).

Beck (Dwayne Johnson) goes to the Brazilian Amazon looking for an American guy (Travis) that should take back to the United States. The huge Amazon rainforest is shown in a wide shot accompanied by the lyrics of a soundtrack shouting “don’t bring guns home”. This shot establishes a romantic view of nature, a beautiful place that has not been touched yet. However, on the way to El Dorado, there are a lot of contradictions that make the idealization of nature fall apart. Beck is warned to stay away from the jungle and from a group of rebels that will otherwise kill him. Once in El Dorado, Beck is introduced to the owner of the biggest gold mine in the area, which is also a source of political and economic power over all the Brazilian people, especially over the poor families living from their work in the mines. For foreign mining investors, the once celebrated source of gold is still a promising way to become rich, however, for the Amazon communities that gold was only the source of an eternal slavery and destruction of nature.

In the middle of the mission, Beck and Travis are caught in traps of the rebel group. After some time coexisting with the group, Beck realizes that the foreign company has influenced him and many visitors in the are with a wrong perception about the intentions of the so-called “rebels”. Indeed, they are rebelling but against oppression. This group of native Amazonians fight against the mining company that even though has provided with some infrastructure and “modern” lifestyle, it has also brought instability, poverty and ways to keep the village under dependency. Both the company personnel and the “rebel” group start a search for a golden statue shaped like a cat that is hidden in the Amazon. Such object will provide the local community with freedom from the monopoly of gold mines, and reform the economic system with practices such as agriculture, among other ones that would go in accordance with their ancestral traditions.

The movie ends with the successful searching of the golden item, and the expulsion of the mining company from the Amazon. The dystopia is eliminated from the plot and the Brazilian Amazon becomes a land ruled by Brazilians. Nevertheless, the fight was not to come back to the previous indigenous lifestyle but to improve the conditions in which modernity is imposed. Because of coloniality people's culture and beliefs are shaped and it is almost impossible to decolonize them. For example, the mine owner insults the natives for being unthankful since he gave shoes for the barefoot indigenous and hired them to buy things they want. Even though natives reject everything that comes from the mining business, they will not stop using clothes or shoes, instead, this is adapted to their own lifestyle.

The visual dichotomies proposed throughout the plot between the beauty of the jungle and the social injustices of people taking advantage of its resources are shocking. The ways in which Latin America, its people, and the people looking for its treasures (natural resources) are portrayed make a call to reflection, especially in the negative environmental and social impacts that resource-extraction monopolies could cause.=

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Dragonfly

A mystery is presented in different manners in Tom Shadyac’s Dragronfly (2002) which confuses the audience about the main genre of the movie. It starts with the sudden death of a loved one and its denial, then it turns into an almost scary ghost film, and finally closes with a dangerous adventure in the Venezuelan jungle, all driven by the conviction that love goes beyond death. The story is full of clues and analogies suggesting a truth that Dr. Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner) will discover after immersing himself into the mysterious Amazon forest.

The story starts with a chaotic scene in which Joe’s pregnant wife, doctor Emily Darrow (Susana Thompson), is taken on a bus from a rural community in Venezuela to another location as part of a Red Cross mission. Waters from a heavy rain soften the soils of a poorly constructed and unsafe road causing a landfall and pushing the bus to an end down the cliff. Some people were rescued, other died, but Emily’s body was never found, which raises doubts in Joe’s mind on whether his wife really died or not. Joe becomes frustrated trying to find answers to what did his wife see in Latin America that she rather put herself and their baby in danger than building a career in a U.S hospital, as he did. “I am needed there”, said Emily before going in the mission which tells us about the interest on helping as one of the reason. But there are some symbols suggesting that Emily was also attracted by exotic nature such as her pet and her favourite animal, a talking parrot and dragonflies which are found in tropical places like the Amazon rainforest.

Meanwhile, the mystery increases more and more reaching a stage of mental breakdown. Joe chooses to work in the pediatric department of the hospital where his wife used to work. Emily starts to appear in the dreams of children at the edge of death and like a ghost hunts Joe’s house attempting to communicate a message. Dragonflies, rainbows, waterfalls and pictures of his wife with an indigenous community in the Amazon forest are the hints Emily provides Joe with to force a trip to Venezuela.

Once in Venezuela, there is a lot of distrust of the alien. Joe is skeptic about the abilities of Venezuelans to handle technology like flying a small plane or indigenous holding guns. On the other hand, Venezuelans are also skeptic about leaving Joe getting into the Amazon and to their villages by himself. Though Venezuela is portrayed as a poor country that lacks knowledge about technologies or medicine, the travel guide and indigenous people of the area own another type of knowledge that Joe lacks: they know the forest and its dangers. The little importance Joe gives to this local knowledge is the cause of a misfortune that almost costs his own life. By the end of the movie, Joe finally finds the place from his wife’s pictures, a village of indigenous people next to a waterfall from where a rainbow usually emerges, and a small mark of a dragonfly on a baby’s foot, the baby the people from village saved before Emily passed away. “I do not know what Emily saw [….] and I do not know how the baby survived so small and fragile in the middle of the jungle”; that is Joe’s reflection on how the plot unfolded and then comes back to its routine in Chicago.

In this movie, the Amazon rainforest is depicted as a dangerous place, especially because of imaginaries of "wilderness" with landscapes free of human intervention. This romanticization of nature takes two forms in the movie. On one hand, Emily's desire to go on the Red Cross mission shows a paternalistic perspective from which arises a feeling of humanitarian responsibility. Taking care of those living in a stage of intellectual immaturity and provide them with the "advancements" of modernity including technology and medicine is a goal to reach. On the other hand, Shadyac presents the survival of Joe's daughter as a miracle. Even though it is very explicit that she was taken care of by the indigenous tribe, Joe talks about the jungle disregarding the people living there and their knowledge, like if the baby was left alone for the whole time.

When the plot moves to Venezuela, the visual hierarchy of the different societies being represented is clear (like in the image). On the top is Joe coming from the United States, a well-educated man who wears clean clothes. Then we have the guide, a Venezuelan who speaks Spanish, the tribe's language, and even more important for the plot, English; he knows how to drive and fly aircraft (though without a license) and wears average clothes, but a bit old and dirty. And at the bottom, there is the tribe. Even under the developing Venezuelan society portrayed in the character of the guide, these people speak only their language, live in the jungle, use primitive tools to defend themselves, and wear almost no clothes. How could the tribe live without medicine, without technology and many other things that are indispensable for modern societies? There is no answer to this question in the movie because whatever they knew or did to maintain their lifestyle is not considered as something important, and on the contrary, indigenous people are happy and thankful to be introduced to Western knowledge. That is what an old indigenous lady tells Joe about what Emily did for them. For the director of this movie the reality of the Amazon tribes and people of Latin America more generally, could change if people like Emily and Joe reach those "wild" communities.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) is a drama that incorporates historical accounts to develop a fictional story about the possible existence of a magical tree that is also the source of eternal life. The search for the secret of life connects all the subplots of the movie to one place: ancestral lands in Central America that were once part of the Maya civilization. Throughout the movie, Aronofsky merges different cosmologies and metanarratives that explain the origins of life and the efforts society makes to understand (or even control) why and when life ends. In the movie, the development of Western societies and their ideologies are compared and contrasted with indigenous "myths" in the form of a fiction novel called "The Fountain".

The movie is divided into three subplots. The first one relates the story of a Spanish conquistador (Hugh Jackman) sent by the Queen (Rachel Weisz) to the Mayan region of New Spain to look for the Three of Life hidden by God, as written in the Bible. The request is made secret since Mayan traditions and beliefs were considered dark witchcraft in the inquisitorial European society. In the missionary quest, the conquistador arrives at the Guatemalan forest inhabited by barbarous indigenous who have blocked the areas around the abandoned Mayan pyramids with human skulls and deadly traps. Once the conquistador finds the location of the three, he gets killed by a Mayan leader and the scene is transported to a stage of highly spiritual afterlife inside a star and next to the Three of Life.

The second subplot takes place in the present lives of Tom (again, Jackman) and Isabel (again, Weisz). Tom is a doctor researching for a new medicine using samples of a tree found in Central America. While Tom works on the development of the medicine trying it out in a monkey with a brain tumour, his wife Isabel (who has also a brain tumour) writes a fiction novel about Mayan mythology on the origins of life called “The Fountain”. The novel remains unfinished since Isabell dies minutes before Tom discovered that his medical experiment is working. Frustrated of the lost, Tom reads the novel and decides to finish the last chapter as he promised to his wife.

For the next part of the plot which corresponds to the future, Aronofsky takes us back to the beginning of the movie to construct a second timeline. The future starts with Isabel’s death, and the previous subplots were part of the fictional novel that Tom will finish writing. At the end of the novel, the Mayan cosmology wins over other metanarratives that explain the origins of life and afterlife. But outside the novel, scientific knowledge is presented as the most advanced and accepted reality.

The Fountain Movie Hd Wallpaper | www.imgkid.com - The ...

Before the novel is introduced as a metanarrative that contextualizes everything into one single truth, it seems like each subplot is part of an ecology of knowledges as the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos would call it. The use of Mayan beliefs, religious convictions, and science to explain life and death are equally important and valid, and they can even work together or overlap creating new viewpoints. Nevertheless, indigenous notions are not really accepted. The depiction of Mayan history as simply mythology that does not go further than being fantasy used for inspiration in a novel endorses Western universalism and shrinks the spaces to share other perspectives or forms of science, especially those that are portrayed as “less civilized”, like indigenous knowledge.

Taking a closer look at the references made about the Inquisition that lasted in Europe until the 19th century, Western societies are portrayed in the movie as a progressive society for having gotten over the belief that supernatural powers like witchcraft exists. Indigenous “myths” are put under the same category as witchcraft for its apparently magical nature. Thus, believing in something that is not explained or proved in scientific terms would mean going backwards not only in history but also intellectually. As the scientific revolution did away with religion in a process of secularization of the state and education, Western universalism (which also includes science) discredited ancestral knowledges of Latin American indigenous communities.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sicario

Sicario, a border film directed by Denis Villeneuve clearly portrays the most popular views, stereotypes, and known realities of southern the U.S.-Mexico border or perhaps only the most acknowledged one: a reality of extreme gun-violence, insecurity, and drug cartels controlling every aspect of the area’s politics and society. The shown illegal and unrestrained drug trade in Ciudad Juarez encourages actions driven by the fear of its possible expansion up to U.S. territory.

One of the most engaging themes present throughout the movie is the constant comparison between North and South which is mainly focused on security. The perception of the United States as a safe place versus a dangerous Mexico appears from beginning to end. It is precisely this deep perception of a generally violence-free America that initiates a war on drugs looking South, where the existence of a Sicario seems to be more possible than one working with or for the United States.

In a collaboration to capture Manuel Diaz, leader of the Sonora Cartel, the FBI agent Kate Macer is sent to El Paso and is forced to participate in an illegitimate operation on Mexican soil. When she tries to oppose the intervention which for her is not part of their jurisdiction, her superior, Matt, accepts the invasive nature of their actions, but simultaneously justifies them for being an attempt to reach a higher end, which is eliminating the Cartel´s leadership once and for all. Additionally, the explanatory discourse of Matt intentionally creates an alarming uncertainty about who should be trusted once Kate crosses the border. Surrounded by an atmosphere of plenty insecurity, Kate explicitly shows her fear towards anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or who does not look like one. The mysterious appearance of the Colombian agent Alejandro is an example of that constructed perception concerning Latin Americans.

Once in Mexico, the warnings that were given by Matt, the sounds of gunfire, and the images of cruel crimes intensify feelings of insecurity, stopping Kate from contributing in the killings of drug trade suspects crossing the border South-to-North. Moreover, numerous visual comparisons appear as the plot moves between the two countries. Crossing the border, an uncountable number of cars and buses full of Mexican people travel north to the U.S, including armed drug traders and gangsters, while the road going South is shown almost empty. At night from the safe and quiet United States, Kate is taken to see the “fireworks”, shooting and bombing flashes that just like fireworks one can fearlessly contemplate from home. As the secret operation continues, Kate realizes that there is actual opportunity to catch the Mexican Cartel leader in Texas, however, her superiors prefer to push the danger to the Mexican side of the border. Arresting the drug dealer or investigating its banking transactions in the U.S. could only create airs of insecurity, so it is better to solve the problem where everyone is used to see violence of that scale.

Although dubious about the credibility of the limited information provided and the legitimacy of the plan to destroy the drug cartel in Mexico, Kate again chooses to continue engaged because of the possibility to prevent future crimes. Surprisingly for her, the paradoxical strategy of using another Latin American Cartel leader to combat the closest one to the U.S. confirms her initial reaction concerning Alejandro. “We cannot trust him, he is not American” Kate had said before discovering that indeed he was equally dangerous than the Mexicans. After discovering the reasons for Alejandro’s participation in the operation, neither Americans nor Latin Americans are to be trusted anymore. But there is one more characteristic that is opposite between the Latino and the American: the motivations driving each one to act and how these are used for the benefit of the collective.

Previously in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico the craving for revenge after the lives of loved ones are taken was already included as an essential motif of the plot. In the same way, in this movie, the leaders of the U.S operation use the only reliable sentiment among Latin Americans that could make a Cartel assassin collaborate with them, vengeance.

The conservative construction of security at the north of the Rio Bravo dominates most of the plot and wins over any moral questioning. The message of this movie moves towards American exceptionalism and the creation of imaginaries of invasive migration in support of geopolitical strategies to protect national interests. The way Latin America is portrayed in this production implicitly suggest few solutions for the immigration problem including stronger immigration laws, stronger border control, and liberties only for those born within its borders.

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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) presents on the screen an ironic parallelism on the struggles and stories behind those people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Parallelism because this time in the attempt to give a proper burial to the Mexican Melquiades for a third and last time, his friend Pete (Lee Jones), who characterizes a Texas cowboy, goes on an unusual journey from North to South the border, to Melquiades's beloved Mexico. Director Tommy Lee Jones questions constructions of identity, justice, the concepts of the legal and the illegal, and finally the idealization of an unknown and promised place, regardless if this is located at the Northern or Southern side of the border.

The main plot relates the story of a Mexican's death and the journey of his American friend to his hometown fulfilling the promise of returning the dead body to his family. The death of Melquiades and its first burial (a quick coverage of the body with sand in the Texas desert) occurs as a result of a mistaken shooting by a US border patrol, Mike, when the Mexican cowboy called Melquiades was in the area as usually required his job. Once the body is found, a brief investigation starts to find the responsible and return the body to the family, but when the Texas police and border patrolmen discover that Melquiades was an undocumented Mexican migrant they decide to finish all efforts to condemn the murder and immediately bury the body for the second time. Outraged for the unjust manner the situation was handled and honouring a promise, Pete decides to take the body out of burial and go to Mexico crossing the desert, through the same path used for “illegal” migrants to follow the American dream.

This adventure is combined with a series of flashbacks that while forming a subplot about Texas people’s daily life (technology, individualism, consumerist culture, purposeless routines), also contribute to the dichotomy of the main plot adding some aspects of Latin American life (landscapes, family values, collective culture, struggles that become part of a purpose) which make the “wild” and beautiful Mexico look like an escape from a society full of deceiving appearances.

By the end of the movie, Pete arrives in Mexico and realizes that Melquiades's stories about his beautiful home and family were lies. The promising but agonizing journey is not but an irony that reveals one reality: whether the migrant comes from the North like Pete in Mexico or from the South like Melquiades in Texas, crossing the border represents the path towards a new life, towards constructing a new identity.

In contrast to other border movies in which the main theme is protecting the U.S from Latin American drug Cartels, murderers, among other negative influences coming upwards, the story presented advocates right-wing opinions on immigration. The idealization of a promising place crossing the border towards the U.S that is endangered by illegal immigrants is undermined. This tries to dissolve the geographical division between the two countries, and instead, it highlights similarities and the fact that a Mexican and an American can be friends, that Mexican people (regardless of their past or by which means they cross the border) can also contribute as part of the society as an American will do if they go to Latin America.

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Once Upon A Time in Mexico

Robert Rodriguez's debut feature, El Mariachi (1992), became the first part of the story of a Mexican legend that was soon followed by two sequels: Desperado in 1995, and Once Upon A Time in Mexico in 2003. The three independent productions maintain not only the legendary Western story of a Mexican gunman and protector known as El Mariachi, but they also share a set of violent combats melted with a background of Mexican people and culture in which somehow the hero is capable of taking the right actions against drug Cartels, only under the watch and advise of an American strategist.

In this final installment of the Mariachi trilogy, the Mexican hero, again like in the past encounters with drug Cartels, is driven into an ultraviolent gunfight looking for revenge. But unlike the previous two movies, now his desires of finally ending with the life of his wife’s murderer and the drug cartels are accompanied by stronger allies that will bring the Mariachi a deserved success: agents from the FBI and the CIA. According to these agents, especially the CIA agent (Sands), their presence in Mexico help to “restore the balance” of the country and also the United States, even if this means taking advantage of the hatred of one man to destroy a common enemy.

In the beginning, the CIA agent Sands pays for information about the Mariachi legend who is presented as “a real Mexican”, a sanguinary and skilled gunman that seems to be invincible. Though that the plot portrays comic-like confrontations with closeup scenes and limited dialogue between the characters, when El Mariachi and his supporters talk about the reasons to get involved in any kind of dispute, there is an emphasis on personal inspirations and moral values that money cannot buy. “A man that wants nothing is invincible” comments one of El Mariachi’s friends (nothing referring to monetary compensations). However, this portrayal of the "real Mexican" as someone with strong convictions and morals is part of the narrative of a legend. Thus, those pure motivations driving the characters to destroy the coalition of the most dangerous organizations in Mexico (drug cartels and illegal paramilitary associations) are not an attempt to describe the real Mexican, but they belong to this kind of Mexican superhero called El Mariachi.

In a society where being surrounded by gunmen like El Mariachi, corruption within the Mexican Federal Agency, and drug Cartels living unaccountable of crimes committed outside Mexico, nevertheless, the incentives to eliminate danger before it can cross the border to the United States become stronger and more effective when different parties join forces. As seen in other movies about U.S international war on drugs like in Sicario (2015), the CIA and the FBI have contrary opinions about the legitimacy of U.S. intervention in Mexican territory, but at the end of the day the need of protecting the U.S. from external dangers wins over diplomacy and encourages a coalition for a greater gain.

Finally, the people that are not involved in the Cartel's conflict are shown close to the end in a revolutionary upheaval to protect Mexico's liberty. Suddenly everyone from the youngest to the oldest adult joins forces to fight against the paramilitary forces with guns and strong nationalism which results in victory.

"El Mariachi" in this movie becomes part of a superhero-story, a legend, like the Mexican version of a Marvel hero. Even from its title, the phrase Once Upon a Time reminds us that this legend is not real. In reality, the victory over the war on drugs has not come yet, the Mexico-US coalition in the fight is more like a Mexico-US division, history does not tell us about a coup d´etat sabotaged by the U.S, and El Mariachi does not exist, though that is what we might wish.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

The Scar

Steve Stekeley's 1948 Noir The Scar (also known as Hollow Triumph) is perhaps most notable because its leading man is Paul Henreid, who six years earlier had played the part of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Beyond that, The Scar is at first sight an eminently ephemeral movie, easily forgettable. But it's interesting in so far as it problematizes the very process of memory and recognition.

Henreid's character in Casablanca is a Czech resistance hero who is strangely both the center of the plot and utterly marginal. For though the film ostensibly revolves around Laszlo's efforts to flee the Nazis and seek asylum in America, what we remember is the tension and romance between Ingrid Bergman (playing Laszlo's wife) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the bar-owner who has the letters of transit that would make Lazslo's escape possible.

Similarly, in The Scar, Henreid again plays a character who fades from view... the difference being that in this film Henreid also plays the character who replaces him. Moreover, this is a film about the replacement itself, and the effect that it has (or, oddly enough, doesn't have) on the audience.

Henreid is Johnny Muller, a sophisticated and intelligent, but also brutal, gangster who at the movie's outset has just been released from jail. Reunited with his former fellow-criminals and underlings, he proposes they rob a casino run by a rival, one Rocky Stansyck. But the heist does wrong and though Muller one of his buddies, Marcy, get away with the dough, they know that Stansyck's men are on their trail, and what's more that Stansyck has a reputation as one who never forgets a slight. "Even if it takes you 20 years," he tells his heavies, they must at all costs make Johnny and his partner pay.

Marcy decides to hide out in Mexico, cursing Muller for letting him down: "I'm through with you. I'm going to blow. Mexico. South America. On my own. As far as I can get." But if there's one thing that Noir teaches us about crossing the border, it's that there's no refuge on the other side. Noir has no time for the notion that frontiers can protect us or keep us safe from what we fear most. Just as Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil finds no sanctuary north of the border, so Marcy finds none south of it. Soon enough, Muller is shown a newspaper headline and photo that confirms that the long arm of Stansyck's rough justice has caught up with his old pal, who has been gunned down in Mexico City.

Johnny himself is hiding almost in plain view, having taken up a civilian job offered him originally by the authorities when he left jail. But he knows that he, too, is not safe for long. And then he stumbles across a stunning coincidence: there's a psychoanalyst who has an office across the street who bears a striking resemblance to him. They could almost be the same person except that the analyst, Dr Bartok, has a prominent scar on one cheek.

And so Muller decides to take on Bartok's identity: he follows him around, studies the basics of psychology, learns the doctor's habits, romances his girl, and then finally etches a scar on his own cheek before disposing of his double and stepping into the dead man's life.


The one flaw in the whole arrangement is that Johnny finds he has accidentally disfigured the wrong cheek: he has made himself into literally a mirror image of his victim, with a scar on the right-hand side where the doctor had been marked on the left. But the film tells us that this doesn't matter: oddly enough, nobody notices the change; everyone, from Bartok's patients to even his wife, is prepared to accept that Muller really is Bartok.

In a film so centrally concerned with psychoanalysis, the message is obvious: desire trumps reality. Bartok's associates so wish it to be him, that they are prepared to ignore--better, that they simply do not see--the dramatic change in his face, the switch of the man's most distinguishing characteristic from left to right. And the same factor determines that the only person who does eventually see through the transformation is precisely the one who wants it not to be so: it is Bartok's secretary and lover, Evelyn, whom Muller had already seduced as Muller, who recognizes Johnny for who he is.

Finally, the ultimate irony is that Johnny's downfall comes precisely from the fact that he cannot over-ride the desire of others to see him as Bartok rather than as Muller. On the point of eloping with Evelyn on a liner to Hawaii, Muller is chased down by two thugs in the pay of a local casino... who are out to make Bartok atone for unpaid debts. Muller frantically tries to point out that his scar is on the other cheek from Bartok's, but to no avail: he, too, is gunned down and the casino's enforcers have got the wrong man, if for the right reason. Caught in the fantasy of living another man's life, Muller finds himself doubly accused in that his alter ego draws the same punishment that he himself had long hoped to evade. The problem with relying on desire to trump reality is that it is not merely your own desire that is at play.

See also: A good account of the film from Noir of the Week.
YouTube Link: the film's opening sequence.

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