A Year without Love
2005Director: Anahi Berneri
Cast: Juan Minujín, Javier van de Couter, Carlos Echevarría
ou’d be hard pressed to find a more hawkish portrayal of a gay man’s emotional strife with HIV than Anahi Berneri’s debut feature, A Year without Love (Un Año Sin Amor). At once, uncompromising and brutal, weighted by hints of melancholy, unease and hope, this is the sort of movie that sweeps through its very abstractions without at any one moment withering its joys. What’s perhaps more creditable than the story itself is that it emerges from Argentina, a country whose hapless political anxieties have threatened to quash the vibrancy of an otherwise courageous and burgeoning film industry. It’s heartening to see filmmakers like Berneri projecting an independent voice amidst restricted government funding and slim creative support. With recent movies like Carlo Sorin’s Bombon El Perro and Alejandro Agresti’s Valentin, New Argentine cinema has enjoyed a refreshing resurgence in recent years that will—I hope—only improve with time.
As A Year without Love so benevolently proves, queer culture is strong in Argentina. Four years ago, Diego Lerman made Tan de repente, a down-tempo punk lesbian road movie that in many ways preempted Berneri’s joyless melancholy. Berneri’s film, based on a novel by Pablo Perez, is set in a grimy Argentina, circa 1996, when homosexuality was condemned and, for lack of a better cure, AZT was the HIV treatment of choice. Stricken with the disease and living with his aunt in a mucky little flat owned by his dad, Pablo is a 30-year old professor/writer type who gets by on occasional French tutorials and the odd translation for obscure women’s lifestyle magazines.
Being gay and lonely doesn’t amass to much but a cyclical need for emotional support, and Pablo’s quests for love—scouring personal ads in a local newspaper and the occasional trip to a local gay cinema—soon round off with the grimy world of Buenos Aires’ S/M dungeons and underground fetish club. Such encounters temporarily oust Pablo’s writer’s block and culminate in a book/diary charting a year of deviant adventures. It is, perhaps, Berneri’s choice to appropriate much of the movie to these dungeon interludes (whilst being very generous with visual detail), as if to enunciate the emotional and physical gratification Pablo experiences upon being introduced to this world—a stark contrast to his broken self outside those tight leather garments.
But before the cuffs are locked and the whip stings, Berneri almost paradoxically favors emotion over pleasure and such is Pablo’s plight. This is a grown man longing for simple affection, yet ensconced in a world of radical aggression, hedonistic anti-authoritarianism, and sexual freedom. This is also a world of seemingly little else but highly fetishized latex outerwear and safe sex-positivity, men satiated with whips and shiny leather, so it’s difficult to consider Pablo’s choice as any more profound than a casual pursuit of quick sexual relief. All of his needs to cement human connections through sexual pleasure don’t mirror his fragmented self, most strongly articulated with images of him sitting at his computer, writing sappy poems about the leather top he is lusting after. The struggles of a gay man fighting AIDS are all here, jammed between shots of Pablo trawling through empty hospital corridors after yet another doctor’s appointment or sitting alone in a fast food joint over a late dinner. He is lonely, sad, yet Berneri filters a non-judgmental ray of hope through the misty haze, and that’s exactly what lingers after the closing shot has passed.
At this point, it is fair to add that casting Juan Minujín in the role of Pablo could not have been more apt. His gaze is a nostalgic one, barely disguising years of repression and anguish. That said, it’s almost cruel to say that it’s hard to see this as anything but an issue film of sorts. Berneri seems to prefer broad strokes to emotional connections, leaving a broader contextualization entirely up to the viewer. In the end, A Year without Love is a niche movie, yet a necessary one. As a gay story, it is mature and accomplished, but as Berneri unfortunately leaves it, Pablo’s seems to be a battle in an isolated cage.