With my first semester of college under my belt I have a variety of stories to tell. Some are fun while others are more caustic but what they all have in common is this: I watched a shit ton of movies! (apologies for the vulgarity). This was not intentional, mind you, but rather something which developed out of my classes. One of my courses, my First Year Seminar, Latin American Filming, was all about the examination of Latin American society through film. Needless to say over the course of four months I watched a great many movies regarding Latin American nations. Since they were all in Spanish (and I do not speak Spanish therefore regulating my viewing experiencing to reading subtitles) it was not the happiest class at times but it was highly informative in the art of probing film. Ergo, this is where our current post comes in: during the course my professor required us to write several essays comparing certain aspects of the movies in relation to a topic. These essays were therefore designed to be thought-provoking. And since I have no better place to drop them I decided to let you, my fellow readers, indulge in their content. So without further adieu, essay number one!
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History is wrought with conflicting narratives. When regarding pertinent issues of the day there can never be a single truth. From the ideal of freedom juxtaposed against torture (The Official Story), to familial rivalries (Nine Queens), and the horrors of fascism (Pan’s Labyrinth), we see a range of oscillating ideals concerning freedom. While each films has a potent scene possessing significant historical and social relations, it would be wise to dive into each of the mentioned films to fully explore the contradictions within.
Such contradictions come to light brightly in Argentina in the aftermath of the Dirty War. With the population bruised and shaken from years of torture and brutality the ruling military clique has imposed a harsh system of Rightist rule. Expectedly, many innocents are abused under their reign with many fleeing the country. The Official Story, a 1985 drama which revolves around the life of one such woman, recalls the desperate conflicting narratives of life within such an authoritarian locale.
Captured most poignantly within a scene during the first half of the film, the audience is treated to the protagonist (Alicia) telling her tribulation to her close friend. Nuzzled against one another’s forms, Alicia spills her inner-most torments from her time in a government prison; talking of her treatment she reveals not only the horrid conditions of torture inflicted on her but of her rape as well.
A standout feature of this scene is that it lacks any background music instead opting to draw in the viewer by its overwhelming silence. This strategy works well: without emotional prompts (sad music indicating a turbulent scene) guiding the audience by the hand, they are able to take in the whole width of Alicia’s torment as she recounts her trials. Such is reinforced by the camera angles which alternate between full body shots and close up shots indicating an alternating focus on unity (full body) and intimacy of friends (close up).
Of course closeness not does always impeccably prove intimacy. This much is revealed in another noteworthy Latin American film called “Nine Queens.” Here we are treated to a duo called Marcus and Juan. They have a unique profession: they are conmen; their life revolves around scamming people out of money, precious items, and truly anything else of value in a commodity driven world. Juan, a seemingly naïve youth, and Marcus, the experienced master, have a supposed simple relationship: mentor and master. Yet near the end of this film a twist is revealed which shakes up the whole edifice.
By lopping the viewer on the head it is revealed that Juan was in actuality the master and Marcus the student. For the whole film Juan was conning Marcus into spending great sums of his personal fortune so as to repay his disgruntled family members of the inheritance which was rightfully owed to them. Juan was the tool in which Marcus unwittingly worked through.
Speaking strictly of cinematic direction an interesting tidbit comes to mind, one which makes the surprise at the end all the more powerful. By this I am referring to costumes and props: Juan and Marcus are not dressed like your expected conmen. They wear business suits, formal attire. They do not stick out of a crowd. This is punctuated vividly near the start of the film when Marcus takes Juan by the hand (so to speak) and shows him what true criminals act and dress like. Here, in the bustling metropolis of a densely populated city we are shown the crude and haphazard activities of more brute outlaws, people who are not conmen.
The difference is striking enough: true criminals are tattooed, they are muscle bound, have gang affiliations, operate in broad daylight conspiring to kidnap and worse. It is a harsh life of dog-eat-dog competition. They, on the other hand, the conmen, are the polar opposite: they are civilized and tactile, they know how to talk and walk within a cultured setting.
This sophistication carries over into Juan’s deception. Now regarding props, the collection of some rare stamps dubbed the Nine Queens becomes the center piece of the story. During the intermediate sections of the film, once the duo finds a skillfully forged copy of the stamps, it is snatched from them and thrown into the water by a motorcycled pair of thieves.
Only near the end of the film, right before Juan’s deception is revealed, do we learn that not only were the motorcycled duo working with Juan all along but the stamps themselves (the fake and probably the real as well) were in fact made by Juan in the reaches of his workstation.
If anything this mental befuddlement truly eschews what Westerners think of proper film procession regarding props and brings it into a new light. Icons of the thread once thought of as insignificant take on a new role as relevant and central; to see their centrality all one must do is look carefully and investigate the background of camera shots.
To this end we are obligated to delve into the equally important aspects of film regarding lighting. Why we are required to talk about this detail of filming is precisely for without inspired use of light will we never appreciate the subtle use of imagery and character development as seen through the lens of moviemaking.
For this task there is no better subject than the internationally renowned film Pan’s Labyrinth.
Set during the early forties in Spain, the rise of Fascism also brings a rise in resistance. In woods all throughout the nation Republican soldiers wage guerilla warfare against the maundering troops of the central government. Against this backdrop the film’s protagonist emerges: a young girl named Ofelia.
Bound to her mother who is wedded to a militarist high in the Fascist Franco regime, Ofelia stubbornly resists each and every attempt by her mother to coercive her into giving even the remotest degree of affection to her step-father. Yet living deep in the woods within a small village, surrounded by only ancient ruins, Ofelia has little opportunity to escape her wretched fate.
With the whole of the film possessing dark hues of blues, greys, and black we are able to conclude that the lighting reveals despair as well as a sense of hopelessness. Whether it is Ofelia’s bedroom, the crawlspace underneath a tree, or the corridors of an ancient structure housing a cannibal, the overarching theme is one of loneliness; little in the way of light shines on the protagonist, this reflects an atmosphere of struggle, of Ofelia battling alone against the situation she has found herself in.
Shown spectacularly during the halfway point in the film, Ofelia encounters once more her magical avatar Pan (the satyr who informs her of her supposed royal lineage). This meeting is anything but positive, however. Pan confronts Ofelia solely to denounce her for daring to break the laws he had arranged concerning her foray into her quest’s penultimate location.
Between curses and pleading otherwise Pan shouts that Ofelia will never again bond with magical creatures and that the realm of the occult is not her’s to control. Vanishing into darkness of the room Pan leaves nothing but a frightened girl in his wake.
Such a scene is characteristic of the whole film: an “other” (in this case Pan) is seen as larger than life while Ofelia is seen as small and powerless (the camera angles reflect this in the amount of close up shots). In addition, there are no bright hues, only dark and grey. Ofelia is alone trying her best to confront an entity which has the upper-hand.
Understanding film in this manner we are able to discern that Pan’s Labyrinth is little different from The Official Story or Nine Queens. While the subtext is certainly different (along with the sound, direction, and color palate) insofar as the cinematography and direction preference (in what manner the narrative is arranged) is concerned all three films are but linked reflections of different realities concerning varying times in Latin American history, using their own unique outlook.