‘Oscuro animal’: FICCI Review

Courtesy of Cartagena de India International Film Festival
Slower than slow, but has cumulative power.

The desperate lives of three Colombian women are explored in this film by Felipe Guerrero.

The immense silences of the largely wordless Oscuro Animal lend it a portentousness entirely in keeping with the seriousness of its subject, which is the effects of the violence on the bodies and minds of the victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. Relayed to the viewer via three separate stories about three separate women, this is often symbolic fare which has no truck with the kinds of background detail which might have made it more accessible to non au-fait viewers. But what’s left — despite being so slow as to sometimes qualify as pain porn — does have an insistent, raw power and enough story to retain viewer interest in these women’s unimaginably terrible plights.

Probably in recognition of its combination of artistic purity and political message, the film has been doing the festival rounds, including Colombia’s current FICCI fest, and should continue there, quietly earning a reputation for its first-time director Felipe Guerrero.

Each story is broken down into three sections. The first has Rocio (Marleyda Soto) returning, apparently from washing the laundry, to discover that her rural village has been destroyed and abandoned. You might wonder how a village might have been so completely emptied of its people and other signs of life during what looks a trip to do the laundry, and you might wonder later on about other such details, but it's clear that Oscuro Animal is more interested in symbolic effect than in realism — which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. Rocio decides to leave the mountains for the supposed safety of Bogota, the capital. More misery follows, with an attack on the bus in which she is traveling, but a glimmer of redemption follows in the friendship she strikes up with a small girl.

In the second story, La Mona (Jocelyn Meneses) is living with a paramilitary who abuses her and by whom she is painfully pregnant. (The broken-doll symbolism through this section is perhaps the least subtle element of the movie.) Eventually and suddenly, La Mona finds the courage to stab him and sets off through the jungle, again for the city. The final story is that of Nelsa (Luisa Vides), herself a paramilitary who we first see burying the bodies of farmers they have killed. This, combined with the fact that she is being used for sex by her companions, is again enough to send her off in search of the city.

The film’s immense silences bespeak a culture of resigned suffering, as though the characters have learned that verbal communication with others will lead only to more bad things. Even in scenes featuring more than one character, the silences are maintained to the extent that the strategy feels forced. It’s actually OK to have a little dialogue, you feel like reminding the director Guerrero; it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

That said, there is plenty of communication. Often this is threatening and violent, as when one of Nelsa’s paramilitary colleagues simply shifts his eyes from the television to look at her, and very rarely it is even tender and human, as in Rocio’s first exchange with the little girl on the bus, when Rocio offers her food. The script makes powerful parallels, as when it compares the brutal burial of the butchered farmers’ bodies with the altogether more moving burial of the bodies following the explosion on the bus.

The actresses do fine work under the often unforgiving long shots imposed on them. Fernando Lockett’s photography is superb and richly textured, emphasizing the pitiless claustrophobia of both the interiors and the jungle through which La Mona desperately runs, though there is the occasional tendency to frame things into an inappropriate beauty. In the absence of dialogue — an absence which makes it harder than we’d perhaps like to really feel for the desperate plights of these women — the soundwork is excellent, the ever-present noises of jungle nature acting as the film's true soundtrack.

As for the title, which translates into English as Dark Beast, it might be referencing man’s inhumanity to man, or the conflict itself, or the effects of the consequences on the psyche of its victims.

Production companies: Mutokino, Gema Films, Viking Film, Sutor Kolonko, Boo Productions
Cast: Marleyda Soto, Jocelyn Meneses, Luisa Vides
Director, screenwriter: Felipe Guerrero
Producer: Felipe Guerrero, Gema Juarez Alen
Director of photography: Fernando Lockett
Production designer: Marcela Gomez
Costume designer: Ana Maria Acosta
Editor: Eliane D. Katz
Sales: Mutokino

Not rated, 106 minutes

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