It is sort of funny to write about the works of Lisandro Alonso after writing about the films of Lav Diaz whose one film runs for longer than the entire filmography of this Argentine director. That just goes to show how different filmmakers, even when working towards similar goals, have different perspectives about the length of their films. Diaz and Alonso share a lot in common as far as their aesthetic choices are concerned. Just that Diaz’s narrative tends to be much more expansive than the latter’s. It is highly interesting that, despite this striking disparity, these filmmakers are two of the most important discoveries of last decade. However, one could argue that, unlike the very “Filipino” Diaz, Alonso is not a very “Argentine” filmmaker and that he is not even remotely interested in the national politics of his country. Even his films would testify that he is not overtly concerned with politics of any kind. Alonso instead seems to take the sociopolitical situation of his country as a given (a la late Tarkovsky and Bresson) and delves into something that is more abstract (as in what connects all of humanity) and more immediate. Most of the director’s films don’t even have societies, just wandering singletons. His characters are ones that live not even on the fringes of society, but beyond its edges. One might compare them to the people in Tsai Ming-Liang’s films, but Alonso’s characters seem to long for and work towards, in addition to the warmth of Tsai’s human connection, freedom and self-sufficiency.
However, despite the differences, Alonso, like Diaz, is a realist too, probably the most realistic of all directors working today. Like most of the filmmakers in Contemporary Contemplative Cinema canon, he mostly works in deep focus mise en scène, allowing the action to unfold at its own pace. He cuts sparely and allows each shot to breathe and develop its own rhythm. In fact, the whole of Alonso’s cinema is built on rhythms and melodies of everyday work. Consequently, he blends both documentary and fiction in his films. His actors may be playing themselves but they do that under slightly altered circumstances and scenarios. This way, the final trace of artificial professionalism in these “actors” is eliminated and what is uniquely theirs emanates. This refusal to dramatize through actors is only one of the many ways in which Alonso resembles Bresson. For one, the remarkable sound design in his films, which exercises an economy of expression and a tendency to nudge to viewers to complete the film’s world, is justifiably comparable to the French master’s (Ironically, Alonso’s films are bracketed by heavy metal soundtracks playing over the credits, as if placing the films into some sort of an aural vacuum in between). The director’s films also betray his keen eye for landscapes and architectures, which is only befitting of a director whose whole filmography studies man’s position in his universe, both in the literal and the metaphysical sense.
La Libertad (2001)
With La Libertad (2001), Alonso comes close to realizing the Italian neo-realists’ dream of recording 90 minutes of a man’s life, without obstruction. Although such documentary observation seldom leads us to uncover higher truths, Alonso’s film provides much space and time for contemplation. La Libertad is a plotless film that chronicles one day in the life of a woodcutter named Misael Saavedra (played by himself) as he goes about chopping trees, shaping the timber, loading them onto a jeep, dumping them at a wholesale shop, returning to the woods in the evening and hunting down an armadillo for dinner. Misael seems entirely cut off from ‘culture’ save for the odd conversation with his friend from whom he borrows the vehicle. He is almost completely self-sufficient in the sense that he derives both his income and his basic needs from nature itself. One could argue that his way of life is devoid of any form of economical exploitation. The ‘freedom’ of the title takes up multiple meanings in this regard. Misael seems altogether independent of the sociopolitical structures of the world that surrounds him. He achieves what the characters in Bartas’ Freedom (2000) and Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002) wish for – to depoliticize the world they live in and lead a life that they want, in peace. Alonso’s independence, on the other hand, is from the equally suffocating restrictions of generic cinema such as psychological realism, causal narratives and novelistic drama. Finally, it is also the audience that is free to make sense of what it sees, hears and feels in this evocatively rendered pseudo-documentary.
Los Muertos (2004)
If not the best film made by Lisandro Alonso, Los Muertos (2004) comes very close to it. The first great work by the Argentine, Los Muertos follows the Cain-like Vargas, a man in his fifties who is released from prison and who sets off to meet his daughter. Vargas is portrayed by Argentino Vargas himself, but, unlike in La Libertad, he is not entirely the character he plays. In a way, Los Muertos is both an explanation for the befuddling mysteries and a thematically and aesthetically enriched version of the director’s previous film. The prison that Vargas comes out of might well have been the prison called society. His subsequent journey, then, becomes one where he sheds (sometimes literally) the artificial social constructions that ties him down and one where he returns to the nascent human state – a transition from the calculated propriety of the ego to the unbridled irrationality of the id (In that sense, Vargas is like Aguirre too, descending slowly into the darkest corners of his own psyche as he proceeds deeper and deeper into the jungle). It seems like Alonso wants us to relate Vargas’ murder of his brothers and his clinical slaughtering of the stray goat. Alonso’s point might just be derived from Freud’s theory that man is bestial by his very nature and morality, society and civilization are constructs to keep him from exercising his impulses. But Alonso’s film is far from a systematic psychoanalytical illustration. It is deeply human and hence infinitely complex. When, in the heartbreaking final shot, Vargas sits outside his grandson’s makeshift home on the verge of an existential breakdown, it isn’t only him who reassesses his life so far.
A work that links La Libertad and Los Muertos, Fantasma (2006) is a one-hour treasure that marks a new high for the Argentine filmmaker. Set in a multiplex in Buenos Aires, Fantasma ports Vargas and Misael, this time devoid of any fictional trappings, from the lush, impenetrable greenery of the South American forests to restricted, deceptive and equally alien interiors of this concrete jungle. However, the human yearning for locating oneself within the world around remains as intense as ever. The four or five characters that we see in the film wander the empty corridors of the building like ghosts that have haunted an abandoned cinema hall. They are rarely seen in the same frame and, unlike the earlier films where they seemed to conquer new areas, keep covering the same set of spaces, taking turns (in a humorously Tati-esque fashion). Alonso isolates them from each other, boxing them out within this human grocery store with his (oft-repeated) compositions. But this sense of urban alienation and lack of communication is only the surface aspect of Fantasma. Two or three of the characters watching Los Muertos on screen in that near-seedy theatre is a grand symphony of cultural uprooting that resonates on multiple levels. In a way, the film’s closest cousin would be Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), where too the pathetic human condition was reflected and distilled in the dilapidating condition of the cinemas of yesteryear. Alonso’s film takes an equally nostalgic, elegiac and optimistic look at a world lost and an art rendered irrelevant.
Alonso’s most acclaimed film, the puzzlingly titled Liverpool (2008) is his most impregnable yet most affecting work to date. The film’s protagonist Ferrel (Juan Fernández) is a worker in a ship that anchors at Tierra del Fuego for a few days. The scenes on the ship are arguably the greatest that Alonso has ever lit and shot in his career. The detached, unfocused figure of Farrel in the opening scene fittingly sums up his condition. The out-of-focus lights of the city far off would remain emotionally out-of-focus for Ferrel even till the end. The warmth of his cluttered cabin is about to give way to a cold, open world that he’s not sure he prefers. One wishes that these scenes would play for eternity. Ferrel decides to take this time off to meet his ailing mother. It is after this that Ferrel progressively resembles Vargas of Los Muertos as he tries, possibly for one last time, to find his footing and perhaps regain his responsibility as a son and, more importantly, as a father that he seems to have disregarded. Alonso cuts his shots in such a way that Ferrel enters the frame after the shot has begun and leaves before it ends. This pattern also reflects the key idea of the film – the world Ferrel enters and exits remains as it was irrespective of his (failed) attempts to integrate himself into it. If Alonso indeed has a knack for finding profundity in the banal, it is in the final quarter hour of Liverpool that he is top form. Before his daughter (and the audience) bids adieu to Ferrel, he gives her a knick knack from his backpack instinctively. It doesn’t absolve him from his guilt, it does not establish a relationship (his daughter is mentally ill to boot) and it does not mean that he has fulfilled his duties as a father. It is a gesture – nothing more, nothing less – and a profoundly human one at that.