2004Director: Argentino Vargas, et al.
Cast: Lisandro Alonso
he film opens with a traveling shot, out of focus, gliding underneath a dark hazy green canopy in the jungle. While much of the film remains unresolved or unexplained even to the end, this image does eventually sharpen—we spy bloodied bodies lying still on the ground and, eventually, a man leaving the scene with a knife in his hand.
As we exit the dream or flashback, Vargas, our protagonist, wakes up on the morning of his last day full day in prison. Director Lisandro Alonso guides us languidly through Vargas' routine as he gets a haircut, goes to work, eats, and shares a drink or two of maté. Given the near idyllic, natural setting of the prison, Vargas' impending release seems perhaps less of a turning point than usual for onscreen convicts. In fact, viewers hoping for a major narrative event of any sort may as well just skip the film altogether, unless goat slaughter qualifies.
So, with a shrug and some money in his pocket, Vargas heads back into the free world, ostensibly in search of his daughter. Alonso imbues both his protagonist and the film in general with an all-encompassing diffidence. For instance, when he stops into a store to gather a few provisions, Vargas decides to purchase a dress for his daughter. Asked by the storekeeper what size she might be, he is unsure but apparently unconcerned, simply taking the one closest at hand.
Apart from the victims glimpsed at the beginning, the only death depicted onscreen is that of the goat captured by Vargas as he drifts upriver toward his daughter's hut. That said, Alonso manages to squeeze quite a bit of gruesome impact out of the killing, depicting both the slaughter and disembowelment of the animal in graphic detail. Given the natural tension developing throughout Vargas' journey (how has this absence/violence affected his daughter? will he kill again?), the goat offers little in the way of climax or resolution for what initially seems to be such a portentous trip. Our man simply continues drifting toward his destination.
What are we to make of this beautiful, languorous, difficult movie? Is there, perhaps, a deep and complicated symbolism in Vargas' journey? Does he stand in for humanity as a whole? When he hands the goat carcass to his young assistant near the end, is he in fact perpetuating a longstanding tradition of violence? Although such possibilities might make good fodder for post-screening conversation, it may be wise to keep in mind that bafflement is certainly a valid response to art in general, film in particular, and can serve to enhance rather than detract from a work, particularly one as entrancing as this.
Los Muertos is currently in limited release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-04-26