Sunday, 12 July 2009

La León (Argentina, 2007)

Director: Santiago Otheguy.

Principal cast: Jorge Román, Daniel Valenzuela, José Muñoz, Juan Carlos Rivas.

Being gay in a rural area is always more complicated than in any urban milieu. Countryside’s conservativism owes partly to the fact that rural communities are relatively small with everybody seemingly knowing everybody and their entire family histories. Strangers are easily spotted and viewed with suspicion, often directly as a “threat” to the community’s integrity. “Otherness” among own folk is not appeciated either since any form of change is feared to tip the delicate balance between the underlying traditionalist understanding of how things should be and those “dangerously different” ways of the outside world. So why do many gay people who are definitely not included in the traditionalist understanding of the ways of a rural community still choose to stay instead of seeking a more accepting environment?

Well, being gay doesn’t automatically turn you into a cosmopolitan person. Nor does it always mean that a city is where you belong. And just like Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” couldn’t leave his native redneck-riddled Wyoming simply because his heart belonged there, also Álvaro, the main protagonist of “La León” had chosen to stay on his native island, concealed deeply in the wetlands of the Paraná region in the humid northwest of Argentina.

It is easy to become mesmerised by the hypnotic landscapes of the Paraná Delta where the main river splits into several branches forming a complex labyrinth of subtropical wetlands. It must be this hypnotic effect that makes the inhabitants appear somewhat drowsy and definitely not very talkative. Each word that is uttered seems to come out due to sheer necessity and not for the pleasure of conversing. Forget all about the alleged Latin American temper and fast-paced living! People’s lives here are a far cry from the Brazilian samba – if anything, it’s a tango with some very slow steps. And some kind of bizarre tango of two bulldogs at each other’s throats is exactly how I would describe the growing tensions between Álvaro and Julio, nicknamed El Turu, the self-proclaimed guardian of the island’s traditions and values.

Álvaro is a soft-spoken gay man with big puppy eyes who makes his living harvesting reed and restoring books for a library on the mainland. He spends his free time boating the canal-like branches of the river fishing and occasionaly engaging in sexual encounters with visiting strangers in the woods where his sexual escapades are observed by some migrant labourers from Paraguay, illegally felling trees on a private property. Apparently not particularly judgemental, these misionaros, as El Turu scornfully refers to them, form a special bond with Álvaro. Being an outsider to a certain degree himself, he doesn’t share El Turu’s assessment that these people have come to destroy their community by taking all their work from them and flooding the village with their families. Actually, he couldn’t care less about these allegations. El Turu, on the other hand, whose position in the community apparently comes from being the captain of La León, the only boat connecting the village with the outside world, is full of contempt and hatred towards the migrants. Throughout the entire film, El Turu tries to persuade his fellow villagers “to do something about it”. His bigoted frame of mind comes to the viewers’ attention already in one of the opening scenes when he refuses to believe that a young man from the village committed suicide over some girl, claiming instead that the misionaros are surely behind his death. But the danger from the outside is in his eyes well aided by the danger within, namely Álvaro’s apparent homosexuality. In a community like this one, you are usually left alone if you go about your “non-traditional” sexuality quietly and aren’t caught out but unfortunately, there also always tends to be the odd bigot, the self-proclaimed defender of virtue who will try to catch you out and “teach you a lesson”. However, since the question of homosexuality preoccupies and troubles such people so much, it is also quite legitimate to assume that there is a very good personal reason for that – their own latent queerness. And El Turu is no exception. The two axes of confrontation in the film – the one between El Turu and Álvaro and the other one between El Turu and the misionaros reach a climax when El Turu himself, boiling in his frustration, tips the afore-mentioned balance.

The impressive black and white cinematography of “La León” is somewhat reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” – the panoramic loneliness set against the river calmly flowing by while the minimal dialogue in the film bears resemblance to the moody style of his pal, Aki Kaurismäki. Nevertheless, this feature film debut from the hand of Santiago Otheguy has its own unique signature and I’m certainly looking forward to his future work.

You can watch the film's trailer here (in Spanish with Portuguese subtitles)

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