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Refreshing reels


The recent festival of Latin American films had politically and socially conscious films

OUTSTATANDING CINEMA Film buffs got to see meaningful movies.

You've probably seen him on a T-shirt. Maybe you even know his name and have idly thought about the number of bad puns he'd have faced in Bangalore. But if you want to know what Ernesto "Che" Guevara was really about, Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries is a good place to start. Based on Che's personal diary of a journey across South America, the film was the showpiece of the Latin American Film Festival organised by the Lakshmisurya Academy for Technical Excellence (LACE) at the Suchitra film society. The choice of films, say the organisers, reflects the broad intent of Third Cinema (as opposed to Third World Cinema) - politically involved, socially conscious films.

No surprise, then, that the name of one organisation kept popping up in almost all the films — a quaint little body called the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. The CIA's role in setting up pro-US regimes in South America is the stuff of nightmares, and this is best depicted in Missing, Greek-born director Costa Gavras' first English film.

Riveting thriller

Missing is the true story of the murder of a young American journalist during the 1973 coup in Chile, told by Ed Horman, the conservative American father in search of his missing son. Jack Lemmon is totally believable as the upright and patriotic father who tries to make his way through a bureaucratic jungle, eventually realising, despite himself, that his government might have been complicit in the crime. Accompanying him in his quest is his fiery daughter-in-law, played compellingly by Sissy Spacek. The two pair up brilliantly, and their stormy relationship adds another layer to an already riveting suspense story. Another high point is Gavras' evocation of a city in upheaval. His Santiago is totally chilling and alien, yet familiar and plausible.

Not as nuanced, and definitely not as gripping, is The Hours of Furnaces (La Hora de los Hornos), by Fernando E. Solanas and Octavio Getino. The film is an impassioned cry for violent revolution in Argentina against political and social injustice. Unapologetically partisan, it includes an angry soundtrack and narration (which soars every time the call for revolution is made), titles exhorting the viewers to take action, and a lot of archival footage, some of which makes for very interesting viewing, but only some. To be fair, the rejection of conventional modes of filmmaking was no doubt deliberate, and the film's potential to encourage radical discourse can't be ignored. But even so, seen today, it only seems like badly-executed agitprop, with very limited historical value.

Memories of Underdevelopment a.k.a Inconsolable Memories (Memorias del subdesarrollo) was my pick for the best-made film of the festival. Made by Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, it's an introspective take on the alienation and anomie that Sergio, a bourgeois intellectual with oscillating political views, goes through in post-revolution Cuba. Sergio's family and friends flee to Miami, but he decides to stay back to write a novel. He has a fling with a young Cuban girl, deciding that he will "Europeanize" her, but is later accused of rape. The narrative is non-linear and dispersed, almost whimsical at times. Extensive documentary footage weaves its way in and out of Sergio's reflections and the film, and the result is an oddly satisfying affair - not a solid story you can triumphantly claim to have "got", but a dreamy wispy sort of tale.

Antonio das Mortes, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha, is one of those infuriating films which you know would be a treat to watch if you were only more familiar with the imagery and the allegories. The organisers also made what is possibly the second-worst blooper possible at a festival of Latin American films (the worst, of course, would have been to screen Evita). Los Olvidados was screened without subtitles, making surrealist director Luis Bunuel's tale of Mexican street urchins pretty much inaccessible to all watching. A pity, because the visuals held the promise of a truly absorbing film.

To Che, finally. The Motorcycle Diaries' greatest strength (and also possibly its greatest weakness) is in its ability to shear the iconic figure of Che of all the ideological baggage that goes with it, and present a story that could be about any average well-meaning intelligent young man on a road trip with a friend. The first hour, in any case, is hilarious, and your personal views on Che's use of violence as a revolutionary tool take the backseat to a rollicking ride across Argentina, Chile and Peru. But gradually the journey changes gear, and we see the beginning of the politics, the awakening of the radical.

Yes, the film has many faults - the subsidiary characters are often unidimensional, and Che's life is summed up in a few trite phrases at the end. But what works is its ability to evoke "a nostalgia for a past not known", a hope in the possibility of change. And the glimpse of a revolutionary before he became a T-shirt.

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