I remember the first time I attended Seattle’s Festival of Improvised Music. Sitting in a cramped performance space as the musicians coaxed unexpected sounds from their instruments, I realized that, if I were to survive the evening, I needed to learn how to listen. There was neither a beat to propel me through space nor lyrics to mull over. There was just sound, and if I didn’t learn how to hear these sounds, I was going to go into rigormatic shock and perish of boredom. Once I started listening, the issue of boredom was no longer relevant, because there was so much to listen to that I could have spent hours anticipating the cry of a fly falling into a spider’s web.
So it was when I started watching “La Libertad,” the first film by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso. I knew that if I didn’t find something to hold my attention, the next hour was going to be excruciating. There was no story, hardly any dialogue, and a character who was more interested in chopping wood than acting. About twenty minutes into the DVD, the telephone rang and I put the movie on pause. As I listened to the voice on the other end, I really started to look at the image. By the time I hung up the phone, I knew I had discovered something above and beyond the comic strip versions of televisions programs that pass for movies in this era of visually destitute film-making.
“La Libertad” follows a day in the life of a solitary woodsman, beginning at the end of the day, with the same image that later concludes the film. Misael Saaveedra eats an armadillo while intermittently scratching his arm. The light from the bonfire reflects on his skin, giving it a reddish cast, the rest of the screen is black.
The first half of the film focuses on labor; the second half examines fruits of labor. Saavedra measures a tree by axe handles, digs around the trunk of a tree, chops it down, and strips the bark. Then he borrows a pick up truck to take a dozen or so logs to market, after which he buys himself a Fanta drink and returns home to prepare dinner.
Alonso divides his horizontal compositions into double panels: mud and trees, earth and sky, cultivated and wild lands. When he uses rectangular images, it is usually to observe a human subject carrying out a centralized action. Some times the shot begins with a moving camera searching for the composition, and other times opens on a fixed image.
A truck’s arrival is preceded by a series of traveling shots outside of the perimeter of Saavedra’s working and living area, The dizzying motion of these pixilated landscapes emphasizes the static enclose of the woodsman’s personal world. One of Alonso’s visual obsessions is the contrast between the enclosures in which people live and the open spaces that surround, and threaten to swallow, them. Although Saavedra lives in the open, the boundaries around his personal area creates an enclosure as severe as the prison in “Los Muertos,” the ship in “Liverpool” and the cinema in “Fantasma.”
Alonso’s manipulation of natural light traces the moving shadows of tree branches on a wall as Saavedra listens to the radio while breaking for lunch, his slightest gesture causing disturbances to the fragments of light he reflectsthe director is also specific in his use of sound. The repeating thud of metal on wood provides a nice metronome for the birdsongs of the jungle, while the chainsaw drowns out the pleasant wildlife sounds. The credit music, heavy on ominous guitar feedback, bookends the film with an air of rough profundity that elevates what is seemingly mundane into an illustration of its thematic promise. Freedom is man in control of his labor, his product, and his profits; the freedom to choose what to eat and how to cook it, what channel of the radio to listen to, and what time to go to bed.
“Los Muertos” is divided into two equal segments. The first half chronicles Vargas’ final two days in prison; the second half his first two days of freedom. Having served a long sentence for the murder of his two brothers, Vargas travels down a river in search of his daughter.
After a stunning prologue in which the camera searches high and low through the jungle for the corpses of the murdered brothers, Alonso offers a minimalist view of the minimum-security prison in which Vargas is incarcerated. A few shots of the work area, the recreation yard, and a glimpse of a man in a cell is all he needs to convey the atmosphere of the place. A haircut and a shave all we need to see in order to know that Vargas is ready for release.
Alonso is fond of filming his protagonists disappearing into landscapes. “La Libertad” has a terrific shot of Saavedra walking away from a stationary camera until he is no longer in its sights. Here, Alonso takes the reverse perspective, with the camera moving away from a stationary Vargas until he is no longer visible. In one of the most quietly spectacular shots, Vargas talks with a man about using his boat when the camera makes a slight movement away from the jungle to reveal the open expanse of the river. It is not that a river going through a jungle is such a unique sight, because it is not, but that Alonso sees, and invites us to see, the tremendous difference between these two environments that, in nature, are side by side.
As Vargas travels the waters to look for his daughter, the color of the river changes from blood rust to a neutral brown. During his forays into the jungle, the soundtrack combines the life-affirming songs of birds with the death-decay buzz of insects. His actions, from a sexual encounter after his release from prison to his casual slaughter and disemboweling of a baby goat he snatches from the river bank, are observed without moral judgment.
Alonso ends the film with the dance of tree shadows on the mud-caked earth where Vargas has thrown a child’s toy after realizing that his daughter is now a grown woman. He enters the tent where we assume she is living, and some chickens exit the tent, showing as much interest in the abandoned toy as might Vargas’ adult daughter.
“Fantasma,” set entirely within the Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires, is Alonso’s most formally challenging work. In it, both Vargas and Saavedra wander the caverns and labyrinths of the great old theater, looking for the cinemas in which their respective films are screening. Vargas is eventually shown to the room where “Los Muertos” is screening. Saavedra, who winds up at the end of the film watching television in a kitchen, is less fortunate.
The opening scene finds Vargas in what could be the mezzanine of a grand hotel, looking out a gigantic window at the city below. We have no idea where we are at first. It is only when he descends to street level that we see we are in the lobby of a movie theater where “Los Muertos” is playing. He checks out everybody who comes in to the theater, suggesting he is waiting for someone. Later in the film, a woman, who we may take to be the cinema manager, is in the lobby, waiting for somebody. We infer that she is probably the person Vargas was previously waiting for, but we are not certain.
Throughout the wanderings through the building, Alsonso toys with the preconceptions and anticipations of his audience. He shoots a kitchen in away that makes it look, at first, like a projection booth, But had the location not been a movie theater, the idea of a projection booth would never have occurred to us. He does not want us to identify things as much as experience the visual presence of them. Saavedra leans against a rail and looks out over the city. Is he on the roof or a balcony? It doesn’t matter.
There is something Pirandellian about these two characters searching for the movies in which they appear, although Pirandello is unnecessary to Alonso’s scheme. His interest is in the corridors, the elevators, the reflection of curtained windows in a mirrored table top, the girly magazines in an unused dressing room, restroom urinals, and a puzzled usher who doesn’t know what to make of the movie star who seems to be without fans.
As Farrel, the sailor returning home after a lifetime of wandering the seas, Juan Fernandez gives the least interesting performance of the three Alonso protagonists. Lacking Vargas’ charisma and Saavedra’s workmanship, he is little more than a figure becoming smaller and smaller in the frame until he is finally lost. When “Liverpool” begins, he is on a ship off the coast of Tierra del Fuego, asking permission to go ashore when they dock at Ushuala, the town where he was born.
The forbidding majesty of this silent deep freeze, only 750 miles from Antarctica, more than compensates for the dullness of the character who dissolves both spiritually and physically in its grip.
Unlike Vargas and Saavedra, Farrel is unable to do much of anything for himself. He spends his time in Ushuala being served in various bars and restaurants. In one scene, he sits in a restaurant that appears to be alongside a tree-lined river, the leaves turning red in the glow of autumn. We feel this seasonal discrepancy before our minds correct it and we realize it is just a painted backdrop, a theatrical illusion. Later, he passes out in the cold after too much vodka, and is rescued and revived by his father. In an earlier scene, we see him similarly coming to consciousness in what appears to be somebody else’s work station. From such scenes, we understand that Farrel is not a creature who could survive alone in the wild.
While waiting for a ride to the sawmill where he believes his mother to be living, he inadvertently alters the social and spacial dynamics of a bar where two men are playing cards. It is only when he leaves the room that we can give our attention to the card players. This scene is like the one in “La Libertad” in which Saavedra rides with a dog in the back of a pick-up truck. When he gets out of the truck, the camera remains with the dog, who, in Saavedra’s absence, now dominates the frame. We have a more complete picture of the dog in the truck after the man, who has dominated him, is removed.
This idea reaches its fruition in the last half hour of “Liverpool,” following what would have been a traditional Alonso ending, with Farrell’s disappearance into a lethal landscape. Instead of ending there, Alonso returns to the sawmill, where his father and daughter continue their daily routine of checking fox traps and tending sheep. We see how little his visit has affected his family. If his life is to have any meaning at all, it would be in the mind and memory of his daughter, who holds in her hands his only legacy, a bracelet made from the name of one of his many ports of call: Liverpool, a word that means nothing to her.