Political Voices in Film: La Primera Noche, Bus 174 and El Crimen del Padre Amaro
This paper on three Latin American films – namely La Primera Noche (The First Night) from Colombia, Bus 174 from Vanezuala, and El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Cime of Padre Amaro) from Mexico- probes into the tenuous relatioshiop between politics and film. How do these three films articulate what has now been touted as the everydayness of politics? As this paper will try to show, the films not only serve as a reflection of society but actually intervenes in society in order to challange the status quo. Although the three films come from different countries and contexts, they are unified by the sole aim to perform something outside the dominant ways of the film industry. It can not be denied that these films function within the interstices of the film industry, yet their efforts to inform and politicize the viewers testify their attempt to transcend the currently commercialized characteristic of the film industry itself.
By dividing the discussion of each film into different sections, this paper does not intend to cut the connection among them; instead the purpose is to analyze each film within its own context. In this way, the by-product would not be a analysis that is characterized by a hodgepodge of different contexts. The integration of the three film will be done at the concluding part, after each of the films has been discussed on their own terms.
La Primera Noche and Colombia’s Internal War
Colombia is in the midst of a decades-long civil war between the army, the paramilitaries and armed guerilla groups. According to Amnesty International, the armed forces have been implementing a counter-insurgency strategy “characterized by the systematic violation of human rights.”1 The army has also relied heavily on the paramilitaries to implement their “dirty war” tactics, which include torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. The conflict has also resulted in internal displacement, as refugees and migrants fell to the cities and neighboring countries.
This is the backdrop against which the story of La Primera Noche (The First Night) unfolds.2 The internal war is seen through the eyes of two characters, Tonio and Paulina, refugees feeling from the violence in the countryside. The two find themselves lost and penniless in the city, with two infants to care for.
While chronicling their first night in the city, the film uses flashbacks to tell us what drove them away from their homes. We learn that Tonio was a soldier and Paulina was married to his brother Wilson, a guerilla.
The film obviously mirrors the internal war that wracks the Colombian society. We get to see the army’s repressive counter-insurgency tactics, which include setting up roadblocks, around Tonio’s village on the suspicion that the residents are helping guerillas. We also get to see the harshness of city life, as Tonio is robbed of his money by a corrupt policeman and Paulina is forced briefly into prostitution to earn money for her children.
Director Luis Alberto Restrepo’s background is in documentaries, and that reflects his approach to the film. He makes his camerawork unobtrusive, using simple film language and natural lighting to underlie the characters’ despair and the dreariness of the city. In contrast, his flashback scenes are more brightly lit but gradually darken as the film nears its end.
The film also relies heavily on its actors for its effectiveness. Carolina Llizarazo and Jhon Alex Toro succeed in giving natural performances that make the viewer forget that they are watching actors. But Llizarazo also gives Paulina a spark of life that suggests that she won’t be beaten down even in the worst of circumstances.
The film indeed does speak for itself, as a powerful social statement and a cry against violence wracking Colombia, which has already claimed many victims. It is clear where Restrepo’s sympathies lie, as he shows the aftermath of a raid by the paramilitaries (with complicity of the army) on Tonio’s village, a wholesale massacre that kills virtually all the residents, including Tonio’s mother.
At the same time, Retrapo is not just interested in making a statement but also in telling an interesting story. Thus he includes little touches like showing Tonio’s sergeant comforting a soldier after one of his comrades is killed and an angry prostitute giving Paulina some money. These touches help give some depth to a film that might be otherwise be one-dimensional
La Primera Noche is not entirely successful as a film. Some viewers may be turned off by its structure, in which flashbacks alternate with scenes from the present. Other may find it depressing for denying its characters even the least spark of hope. But taken on its own terms, the film is a promising debut for Restrepo as a maker of fictional films whose content reflects harsh realities.
Bus 174: A Sociological Perspective on Criminality
On June 12, 2000, Brazilians were glued to their television sets as a hostage drama unfolded in an upscale area of Rio de Janeiro. A 21-year-old man had taken a bus full of passengers hostage after what was apparently a botched robbery. As the police and media surrounded the bus, the man, who was called “Sergio” by the police negotiator, threatened to kill all the hostages.3
The siege would last five hours, and would result in the death of the hostage-taker and a female passenger.
Filmmaker Jose Padilha was one of those who was transfixed by the sensational incident. But instead of accepting what he saw at face value, Jose Padilha was moved to explore what lay behind the drama. The end result of his labor is Bus 174, a riveting documentary film that shines a harsh light on Brazil’s justice system, in particular, its treatment of street children.4
Bus 174 uses the unfolding story of the hostage drama as its narrative spine. But it eventually branches out to tell the story of the hostage-taker and set the socio-political context against which he lived and died.
Through interviews with the people who knew him, the viewer gets to know the story of Sandro de Nascimento, who suffered both early childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of the justice system, which may have driven him to this desperate act.
We learn that Sandro witnessed the death of his mother, stabbed to death by burglars, when he was just six years old. The shock led him to walk out on his family and live on the mean streets of Brazil. He then survived the infamous 1993 Candelaria massacre, during which eight street kids were shot by men believed to have been off-duty police.
Sandro then had to endure an increasingly brutal series of prisons, including a youth correctional facility where the inmates endured regular beatings at the hands of the guards, and an infamous prison named “The Vault” where cells were so overcrowded that only half of the prisoners could lie down at any one time, while the rest had to remain standing.
Throughout the film, Padilha makes extensive use of newsreel footage to show how Sandro presented himself to the watching cameras as a crazed killer constantly threatening to shoot his hostages. But he intersperses this with testimonies from people who knew Sandro as well as interviews that place the incident in its proper social context.
A sociologist talks about the “social invisibility” of street children, of which Sandro himself was one. Another expert talks about how many cops in Rio only become policemen because they can’t find other jobs, and how these cops are poorly trained. A policeman, his face masked and voice distorted to conceal his identity, reveals how police incompetence may have delayed the resolution of the crisis.
Padhila also contrasts the media image of Sandro as a crazed killer with the reality, revealed in interviews with his relatives, a social worker and some of his ex-street children friends, of a polite, loving young man who was scarred by his stay on the streets. This is reinforced by interviews with the hostages, who reveal that despite Sandro’s constant threats to the police, they mostly never felt in danger from him during the incident.
The most touching interviews are with an elderly woman Sandro “adopted” as a foster mother, to whom he revealed his desire to get a job and live a normal life. In a moving final scene, she is the only mourner at his humble funeral. Even his aunt refused to attend, for fear that she would lose her job if it were known she was related to Sandro. By the end of the documentary, the viewer realizes that what was seen on the news was not the full story but rather the tip of the iceberg that revealed the myriad of social problems afflicting Brazil’s street children.
Although the film suffers from overlength and a lack of proper exposition (the director starts the documentary too abruptly; he could have started with a news bulletin announcing the hijacking to properly set the stage) it still makes an impact as a powerful social and political document. Watching Bus 174 and seeing the problems street children face will hopefully move the viewer to work for the improvement of the lives the country’s 1.5 million street children.
El Crimen del Padro Amaro: Where Have Morality Gone?
El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro) opens with the bus scene where a old man was robbed of all his money.5 Fortunately, a good young Samaritan was there to help the old man. Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) gave all the little money he has to the needing man and thus exhibits his goodness as a newly assigned priest in the small town of Los Reyes. At the offset, the movie establishes Father Amaro’s pure intention to help other people. As the film develops, however, we witness how Father Amaro is devoured by the corrupt environment he wished to change. Thus, the film has as a protagonist someone who is not the usual paragon of goodness but of the debauched individual who has been influenced by the dysfunctional social system he is subsumed into.
The film immediately intrigues the viewer when Father Amaro discovers with his own eyes the debase activities of his superior Father Benito. Aging and retiring, Father Benito embodies the Church official who has a ‘hidden’ story behind his priestly veil. Father Amaro learns that Father Benito, the supposed pillar of Catholic belief in Los Reyes, has an on-going affair with Sanjuanera, a widow who owns a local restaurant. What is more, Father Amaro supports the drug lords of Los Reyes for the benefit of charity particularly the building of a local hospital. Clearly, what disturbs Father Amaro is the contradictory situation Father Amaro put himself in: he is priest who continually espouses Catholic morality yet he is the same person who disobeys it. The film, however, goes further than that. Other than exposing the corruption in the Catholic Church, the film shows how a faithful and persevering priest as Father Amaro succumbed to sin. This “fall of Man” as the religious texts would put it is animated when Father Amaro meets Amelia.
What strikes the viewer as curious is the fact that Amelia herself desires to be the ideal person for God, just like Father Amaro. One question hurled by the movie to the viewers and the Church is whether this Ideal state is attainable or should be attained at all. To justify the question, the film shows how those who profess the Catholic ideals are the first ones who sin. We see this in the scene where the call of flesh has gotten the better of Father Amaro and Amelia. During her regular confession, Amelia asks Father Amaro if thinking God while masturbating is a sin. Father Amaro’s reply is a laconic “no.” From then on, the sexual tension between the two of them progress until Father Amaro soon finds out that he has impregnated Amelia. Father Amaro, afraid that the scandal would ruin him, opted to leave Amelia on her own.
The key character in the film who documented and revealed the happenings in Los Reyes is Ruben, a reporter and Amelia’s ex-boyfriend whom she left for Father Amaro. After publishing the scandal in Los Reyes – that is, Father Benito’s involvement with the drug lords and Father Natalio’s support for the guerillas – the Church quickly acted to contain the news. Even though Father Amaro knows that the reports are true, he still went on the pressure the paper to fire Ruben and publish a retraction. The film, however, shows more than the rapacious attempts of the Church to wash its hands from any wrong. What is interesting her is the character of Father Natalio and his portrayal as debase for supporting the guerilla movement. As both the media and Church remain reactionaries, Father Natalio’s leanings would definitely be wrong from their point of view. If one were to look deeper into the silenced stories of the guerillas in Mexico, what one may sense is their proactive struggle to radically transform their society that is corrupt to the bone. By sympathizing with the guerillas, Father Natalio indeed in the only one who remained true to his call to fighting for the welfare of the people. Although this has been sidelined by the film, it nonetheless persists to be known to the viewers. Unlike Father Benito who justifies charity by supporting drug lords, Father Natalio shatters the idea of charity altogether and sends across the message that under a decent and functional society, charity would no longer be needed. This new society would only materialize through the tireless struggle of the people for change. According to sociologist/ political philosopher Slavoj Zizek, charities must be understood as performances that do not really, in the long run, change the system, but only cloak its inefficiencies.6 Father Natalio is the key figure in the film who implicitly sent forth this message.
Towards the ending, the film has shown the process by which a corrupt society affects even the most holy people like Father Amaro. Simultaneously, it questions strongly held notions of holiness and dispels that holiness doesn’t come with the priestly garb the predominantly male Church requires its officials to wear. As expected, the film was attacked from all sides for its bravery of exposing an issue that has remained untouchable in Mexico. The opposition is born out of the fact that the film not only shatters the strong grip of the Church of our consciousness but also challenges the viewers to reassess his/her own moral presuppositions. This strength of the film, however, as one may argue, can also be read as its weakness. By diluting our idea of morality, the film might cause the viewers to conclude that society is better off without morality. However, if we look at the film closely, we will see that there is nothing in it that supports this claim. On the contrary, what the film campaigns for is the establishment and affirmation of morality that is lacking in the current society and in the people who are supposed to be exemplars of a moral existence.
The three films confirm that politics cannot, and should not, be distant from the art of film-making. In La Primera Noche, poor social conditions and state violence have been highlighted as the cause of social unrest. Interestingly, the angle of poverty can also be seen in the Bus 174 where poor social conditions are again argued as the factor that breeds criminality. In El Crimen del Padre Amaro, the issue of a corrupt system is likewise put to the fore in explaining how society shapes the individual.
As social commentaries, the films present a very political voice in opposition to the mainstream film industry. Not only do they challenge dominant ideas and practices but they also challenge the viewer to think and participate in the act of building a better society.
1. Amnesty International. Colombia: Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. Date accessed: 22 October 2007 <http://web.amnesty.org/web/content.nsf/pages/gbr_colombia>
2. Alejandro Gambo, director. Released in March 2007 by Estudios Churubusco Azteca S.A.
3. see “Sandro Rosa do Nascimento.” In <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandro_Rosa_do_Nascimento> Date accessed: 23 October 2007.
4. Jose Padilha, director. Released in 2002 by Zazen Produções.
5. Carlos Carrera, director. Released in 2002 by Alameda Films
6. Slavoj Zizek. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1998, p 274.