• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2017

    Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986)


    Running throughout Eliseo Subiela's Hombre Mirando Al Sudeste (Man Facing South-East, 1986) is a single question: is Rantes (Hugo Soto) suffering from delusion, or is he, as he believes, an extra-terrestrial? The film's locations, muted tones and acting styles makes its world feel enough like our world to make this seem unlikely, but then a handful of scenes show him apparently performing explainable acts, a dash of telekinesis here, a bit of mind-control there. Plus the inmates in his psychiatric hospital are starting to form long queues, just to receive his touch.

    Whilst these two possibilities play out, a third concept arises primarily from Dr Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), the specialist to whom Rantes has been assigned, namely the parallels between Rantes and Jesus. Denis, who for most of the film is unaware of Rantes's miraculous powers, nevertheless ponders the ways in which he is like Christ and whether he himself is destined to become Rantes's Pontius Pilate.

    The Christ-figure element is emphasised in many ways throughout the film from early shots of Rantes with a prominent crucifix in the background, to the unexplained acts, to the growing following and the arrival, halfway through, of a Magdalene-esque character, Beatriz Dick. Beatriz's surname is an apparent reference to author Philip K Dick who work often involve scenarios "where nothing is quite what it seems" (Cornejo, 2015: 72). Dick (Inés Vernengo) initially describes herself as an evangelist, whilst Rantes calls her her a saint.

    In a pivotal moment in the film Rantes delivers a Sermon on the Mount/Plain style speech during a discussion with Denis:
    If someone suffers, I console him. He needs help? I give it. So why do you think I'm mad? Someone looks at me, I respond. If someone talks, I listen. You've all gone slowly crazy not recognizing these responses. By simply ignoring them. If someone's dying, you let him die. Someone asks for help you look away. Someone's hungry you are wasteful. Someone's dying of sorrow, you lock him up so you don't see. A person who systematically behaves like that who is blind to the victims may dress well, pay his taxes, go to Mass, but you can't deny he's sick. Your world is terrifying. Why don't you look at real madness for a change? Stop persecuting sad people, meek people, those who don't want to buy, or can't buy, all that crap you'd so gladly sell me.
    The film's most enjoyable scene occurs towards the end when Denis, Rantes and Dick attend a public, outdoor, concert and Rantes gets the crowd dancing, before supplanting the conductor and leading the orchestra himself. Footage of this is intercut with that of a joyous riot which breaks out inside the hospital at the same time. The inmates dance and skip round the hospital as if in earshot of the music, which plays on whilst the camera flits between the concert and the inmates. It parallels the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and similarly leads to the inevitable clash with the authorities. From then on Denis is told to administer DRUGS to Rantes and to use electrocution if he becomes catatonic. Rantes's final words are "Doctor why have you forsaken me?"

    Many of these elements will feel very familiar to fans of Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but in fact the Christ-figure theme is not the film's primary concern. Indeed it's no coincidence that Subiela's film ends on a darker note. Rantes dies; none of his fellow inmates, or even Dr Denis himself discover self-actualisation. Denis finds a photo of Rantes and Dick (who he decides must be Rantes's sister) from fifteen years before with a third person torn off (though their shadow is still visible. In his satisfaction of solving the puzzle - at least in his own eyes - Denis manages to assuage, to some degree, the unease he felt when challenged by Rantes earlier in the film, and his own guilt at Rantes's death.

    This conclusion is one of a number of things about the film that could easily be seen as unsatisfactory. Why is Denis not more troubled by the death of a patient he has clearly formed a bond with? More to the point why when he spots the pattern of the alcoholic father estranged from his children, is he unable to recognise how it applies to his own life? Why does the film seem to indicate that Rantes has special powers, but then conclude that he doesn't? If Rantes is unable to "feel" the emotional impact of the music as he claims, why is he so clearly moved by it in the concert scene? And what about all of the other strange touches in the film: the couple with sacks over their heads, kissing; the way Dick changes her shoes when leaving the hospital; the open windows and doors; the blue liquid that Dick emits.

    These seeming inconsistencies are not the result of careless filmmaking, but more as a way to draw attention to the film's deeper meanings. Set just after the end of the Argentinian military dictatorship (1976-83), the film grapples with how seemingly rational people could overlook the horrors of the regime. The film treats "Argentina's most recent dictatorship...allegorically with reference to repression in a psychiatric institution" (Page, 2009; 182). At the same time, practices at the hospital "become symbolic of the torture and repression carried out in clandestine military during the 1970s" (Page, 2009: 18). As Kantaris explains, "the political allegory, the religious fable, and the theme of disavowal, are carefully woven into a set of subliminal ciphers which the film uses to convey messages about its own subtexts" (1998).

    Some of these "ciphers" are more obvious than others. The couple kissing despite the sacks over their heads both references René Magritte's painting Les Amants (1928) as well as the hoods used by military's torturers to conceal their identities (Reati, 1989: 32). The open windows and doors also touch on the work of Magritte and other surrealists as a sign of transition and difference between dualities such as reason / madness and rational / irrational (Kantaris). Others though, such as Dick's shoes, remain obscure despite the emphasis the film places on them as a bearer of deeper meaning significance.

    However, the central question - whether Rantes is an alien or not - remains highly ambiguous. The miracles are open to interpretation, shaped both by the audience's pre-conceptions and the generic conventions at play. Something is happening in the café scene, which, in many genres, would certainly be seen as miraculous acts. It's notable that the film was released in 1986, just four years after E.T. and it's interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two films. In both films the titular character believes himself to be an alien, but only in Spielberg's film is it clear he is. Both characters perform miraculous signs and contain Christ-like characteristics. Both are hiding from authorities, whilst transforming the lives of the special, more innocent, lives around them. Both face a form of death though only Spielberg allows for a meaningful resurrection metaphor.

    Nevertheless, Spielberg's film is clearly from the fantastical/optimistic wing of the science-fiction genre where stories are clearly fictional and, as a result, miracles are part of the characteristics. In Subiela's film, other sci-fi conventions are largely absent. The setting feels like the real world and Dick's confession and the old photo that the camera closes in on (referencing another Christ-Figure film, Cool Hand Luke) suggests Rantes is deluded. The conventions of voice-over encourage the audience to trust the narrator, in this case Denis, and this is difficult to overcome despite his failings being clear.

    In other words there is no clear, single, agreed upon answer as to who is sane and rational and who is deluded and irrational. Indeed the possibility remains that Denis is sane even though his behaviour is more irrational than his patient's. There's more than a touch of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920) here in terms of the question of who is sane and who is suffering a delusion, but Subiela goes far further than Wiene did, with the film's denouement tipping the balance back towards ambiguity, rather than revelation. Yet rather than a more typical, vague, ambiguity, here there are two perspectives neither of which satisfactory fits the evidence. Some will see the telekinetic scenes as being clear evidence that Rantes is an alien and that Denis's conclusion is incorrect. Ohers will see the photo as affirming that which is seemingly true of the non-filmic world in which we live - that aliens do not live amongst us and that, therefore Rantes is deluded. To quote Denis' response to Rantes, summarising the dilemma he faces "If you're not loony, I'd have to accept that you're an alien. That would mean I'm the loony".

    There are three points here. Firstly that not only is the film's interpretation determined, by questions of genre, but also the film's genre is, to a certain extent, determined by it's interpretation. If the viewer interprets the miracles to be real and Rantes to be an extra-terrestrial then the film sits, albeit loosely within the science fiction genre. If not then it remains within the more realistic medical drama genre (though the film retains certain surreal elements).

    Secondly, that the willingness, or otherwise, to believe that Rantes performs miracles reflects, to a certain extent, the viewers willingness to accept miracles in real life. Those with a pre-disposition to accept otherworldly explanations may be more likely to accept the miracles at face value rather than interpret those scenes in other ways (e.g. coincidence or Rantes' imagination) and they have to provide an alternative explanation for the photo at the end of the film. But accepting either scenario comes down to interpreting scenes in a certain fashion. The Christ-figure elements here are a destabilising force, making the acceptance or rejection of a particular position more instinctive and entrenching positions more deeply.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it can be argued that attempts to find a coherent answer to what really happened is to miss Subiela's point. There is an irreconcilable conflict not only between Rantes explanation of what is happening and that of Dr Denis, but also between either explanation and a plausible "rational explanation of events within the film" (Kantaris). This points "towards a postmodern reading where nothing is what it seems" (Cornejo 2015: 74) which ultimately questions " the very possibility of conveying narrative and / or truth through either narrative or images" (Cornejo 2015: 76). For Kantaris, the unexplained ciphers or unresolvable tensions the film create a "splitting of belief...[an] almost a necessary condition of any accommodation to life under the military regime in Argentina"(1998). Furthermore "the whole psychiatric institution, can be seen as a displaced representation of that which the Argentine middle classes had attempted to disavow and repress, those extremes of sadistic violence carried out on individuals by the very machinery of state" (Kantaris, 1998).

    The film has gone on to become fairly influential, although in it's translation to US culture almost all of its allegorical power has been lost. K-PAX (2001) was more or less a Hollywood remake starring Kevin Spacey as the patient and Jeff Bridges as the doctor. Shorn of the post-military dictatorship context it lost much of its narrative power, and is reduced to 'heartwarming' moments and trite aphorisms. It also injected a greater moment of hope into its ending as scenes of Bridges reuniting with his son (a young Aaron Paul) are accompanied by Spacey's recalled voiceover offering his advice "to get it right this time around, because this time, is all you have".

    A further, and unlikely, incarnation of the film is in the long running comedy series The Big Bang Theory where a visually similar actor to Hombre's Hugo Soto plays an ultra-rational character Sheldon Cooper whose detachment even from his highly scientific group of friends allows him to commentate on the quirks and irrationalities of everyday life. Here both the Christ-figure element and the post-dictatorship theme have entirely disappeared.

    Nevertheless it says much about the power of Hombre mirando al sudeste that it has had an influence far beyond the borders of Argentina ans Subiela's typical audience. It's release on blu-ray late last year will hopefully enable the original to find a greater audience willing to engage with its unusual style and its deeper themes.

    =========================
    Cornejo, Yvonne Frances (2015) The embodiment of trauma in science fiction film: a case study of Argentina Leicester: University of Leicester. Available online -

    https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/32515/1/2014cornejoyfphd.pdf.pdf
    Kantaris, Geoffrey (1998) "The Repressed Signifier: the Cinema of Alejandro Agresti and Eliseo Subiela". In Francisco Domínguez, ed., Identity and Discursive Practice: Spain and Latin America (Bern: Peter Laing Publishers, 2000), pp.157-73.
    Available online - 

    http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/egk10/notes/repressedsignifier.html
    Page, Joanna (2009) Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentina Cinema (Durham & London: Duke University Press.
    Reati, Fernando. 'Argentine Political Violence and Artistic Representation in Films of the 1980s'. Latin American Literary Review 17.34 (July-December 1989): 24-39.

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