A Beautifully Evocative Spanish-language Masterpiece from Argentina
Feb 13, 2004 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
Review by metalluk
Rated a Very Helpful Review
User Rating: Excellent
Pros:Beautifully filmed and emotionally profound masterwork from a troubled time in Argentina
Cons:Viewer must have tolerance for subtitles
The Bottom Line: Highly recommended. One of the most beautifully filmed, profound, sensitive, and moving efforts to emerge from Latin America.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
The tone of this beautifully evocative 1987 film from Argentina is immediately established in its opening. Our first view is a desolate, cracked surface of a salt field in some remote locale. Next, we see fields of dried grass over rolling hills with grazing sheep, behind which looms an imposing mountain range. This is the remote Charcán Northwest of Argentina, an impoverished outpost of civilization, far from bustling cosmopolitan cities like Buenos Aires. A poor husband and wife are solitary workers in a field and their small dwelling hardly more than a hut stands nearby. She is obviously pregnant near term, in fact and he weather-beaten and somber. He seizes a handful of dirt from the dry field, allows it to sift through his open fingers, and says quietly to his wife, The soil is no good. In the background, an Argentinian lute-like instrument plays hauntingly mournful indigenous folk tunes.
Now inside, we hear the sounds of childbirth in the background from an adjacent room as the poor man sits alone in front of a small fire. Next, we see him standing in front of a shallow grave, hat in one hand, holding his newborn son in the other. Then, he stands beside two burros packed for travel, hands his child to an old woman, saying, I want my son called Veronico. Thus begins the life of Veronico Cruz: a life of poverty, alone with his grandmother.
We next see Veronico (Gonzalo Morales) at about age ten. Veronicos grandmother clearly resents his existence, scolding him and belittling him. Veronico walks alone among the rocky cliffs nearby and yells to hear his echo, Foolish Granny!. . .Foolish Granny! Veronicos sole legacy is his fathers lute, which he plays dolefully and with great sensitivity. All he knows of his father is his image from a picture his grandmother keeps hidden away. He is friendless, save for the rocky cliffs. He imagines his mothers voice calling to him from a cliff ledge.
Into this tiny and isolated community comes a stranger (Juan José Camero) a teacher who travels on foot, leading a burro. He stops at the hut where Veronico lives asking for water. The cautiousness with which he is welcomed suggests how rarely an unfamiliar face appears in this desolate locale. Veronico provides water and is given a magazine in exchange a magazine with illustrations of ships. Since Veronico has never seen a lake much less an ocean, these pictures seem like science fiction to him, but his eyes have been opened to the larger world. He visits the nearby salt field and imagines ships sailing over it.
The teacher is called El Maestro, signifying the honor in which a man of education is held in this rural outpost. He is greeted with great deference by the mayor and the police chief, who comprise the entire official organization of the town, and shown to a primitive schoolhouse, which has been out of use for some time. The mayor clearly possesses all the authority in this town and treats the police captain like a flunky.
The next day, when the school bell rings, no one comes. El Maestro must win the trust of the local families. He meets with them, argues with them about the importance of schooling for their children, and his class starts to grow. One of his more promising students is a young girl, Juanita (Juana Daniela Cöteres), who is also a neighbor of sorts of Veronico. He teaches the children the rudiments of writing and soccer. Veronico is not permitted by his grandmother to attend, but gazes wistfully at the proceedings from a distance. El Maestro takes a special interest in reaching out to Veronico.
El Maestro finally wins his place in the confidence of the community when he helps identify the likely cause of a mysterious sheep death a puma demonstrating a practical benefit in his education. The next day, the attendance at the school grows, including the addition of Veronico. As the children beat a rhythm on their desks, Veronico takes out his lute and plays a melody reminiscent of an apparition, and his obvious talent and sensitivity gain him the admiration of Juanita.
One villager owns a radio the villages only link to the outer world. The village thereby learns that another military coup has occurred. Argentina was quite politically volatile at the time. Shortly thereafter, a military jeep arrives and upsets the political balance in the village, placing the police chief (something of a buffoon) in charge and restricting the mayor from any political activity. The police captain is ordered to destroy all books having political content, but since he is illiterate, El Maestro himself picks out a couple of random history books to be sacrificed so as to satisfy the requirement.
Veronicos grandmother dies. El Maestro is now the only adult figure in his life. Veronico dreams of great ships and his friendship with Juanita increases. El Maestro learns from a letter that Veronicos father, now far away, has been working in the cane fields and steel mills, and his sympathies have turned to the workers struggle. Under the military dictatorship, however, labor organizers routinely disappear. The father begs El Maestro to tell Veronico to not be a bad father like me. He mustnt abandon his children. He should stay there in the hills, where his home is, and help his own people. This becomes the core theme of the film: the destructive effect that lack of opportunity and migration to the city has on rural families. El Maestro makes the monumental decision to take Veronico to find his father near Jujuy, the capital city.
In the city, Veronico is stunned by all he sees: automobiles, monuments, government buildings, and cathedrals. The atmosphere in the police station, where El Maestro seeks information about the whereabouts of Veronicos father, is frightening and has the feel of an interrogation rather than aid. El Maestro learns from the rather uncooperative authorities that Veronicos father was viewed as a subversive and that, just perhaps, he has met with an accident.
Upon returning to the village in Charcán, Veronico brings a ribbon and shell pendant to Juanita, reconfirming their blossoming relationship. The monotony of village life is briefly lifted by the radio broadcast of a soccer game in which Argentina is competing against the Netherlands, and joy erupts each time the Argentinian team scores. El Maestro receives a letter informing him that he has been reassigned by the General Education Board to a school in Humahuaca. Veronico and Juanita together watch El Maestro disappear on his burro into the distance, but not before Veronico gives him a last poignant hug.
The story now jumps forward to 1982. El Maestro writes to Veronico, recalling his fond memories of his time in Charcán. It is now the time of the ill-judged cataclysm in Argentina that was the Falkland Islands War with Great Britain. The euphoria of an anticipated thrashing of the British soon gives way to the announcement that the cruiser General Belgrano, with a crew of 1042, has been sunk. Having received no letters from Veronico in a while, El Maestro sets out for Charcán. Unable to find a familiar face, he meets up at last with the villager who owned the radio in the old days (but which has been inoperative, now, for several years). He tells El Maestro that he received a letter from Veronico some time ago, with a picture, and produces it. Veronico is handsomely decked out in spiffy naval whites, standing with a couple of his shipmates from the Belgrano!! None in the village have learned of the sinking. El Maestro sadly but quietly exits but, now, sees Juanita standing in the distance heavy with child. As the lute plays forlornly in the background, he and we realize that the cycle of fatherless poverty is destined to continue for another generation. In opening Veronicos eyes to the larger world through education, El Maestro has unintentionally been the instrument of his destruction. The ideal of service has been defeated by the ignorance of the State.
Though produced on a shoe-string budget, director Miguel Pereira has created a work that is beautifully filmed. The scenic panoramas are gorgeous and the use of light extraordinary. One scene, for example, uses a candle and green bottle to cast delicate patterns onto the stone wall of the schoolhouse. The film, based on The Experiences of Fortunato Ramos is in the style of realism and has been likened to Truffauts classic film, The 400 Blows. It is in Spanish with English subtitles with a running time of 106 min.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Argentina:
Man Facing Southeast
The Official Story
Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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