Imagine you were a 17-year-old student on a soccer scholarship in Minneapolis, and that your father was the son of an Amazon explorer who’d dedicated his life to finding a long-lost Inca treasure in the Andean jungle. Cool. Then imagine your father wrote you inviting you to help him find the treasure. That’s what happens in A Son of Man; and not unexpectedly, it turns out not to be so cool after all. “God,” the protagonist tells us later on, “did I miss McDonald’s.”
An out-there passion project presumably deriving from the same dark area that drove Werner Herzog to make Fitzcarraldo, Son is a rare excursion by Ecuadorian film into the world of art cinema. Ten years in the making, it’s prefaced by a precredits manifesto stating — perhaps warning — that for the sake of authenticity, no script or pro actors were used. (In line with the director’s manifesto, which states that everything is at some level the truth, the “Produced by” credit appears as “Reproduced by.”)
Despite a festive, Kusturica-esque prologue, in which the director/lead (first-timer Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador y Campodonico, professionally known as Jamaicanoproblem) stands on a canoe and barks out a potted history of the treasure through a megaphone, Son goes on to tell a surprisingly conventional Freudian tale. Pipe (pronounced “pee-pay” in Spanish), about whose life we learn little except what this story directly demands, is summoned, after 14 years of noncommunication between them, to his father’s stunning ranch in Ecuador.
His father, Luis Felipe, seems to be playing out an Indiana Jones fantasy — or rather the Spanish version of that, a conquistador fantasy. With an air of the dashing villain about him, Luis Felipe deliberately cultivates an image of colonialist eccentricity, wearing sunglasses in the dark; carrying the obligatory swearing parrot on his shoulder; and spouting cliches about how he has chosen Pipe to find the lost treasure of Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas.
Originally A Son of Man was to have dealt with the amazing life of Luis Felipe’s real-life father, Andres Fernandez-Salvador, who died during filming. He deserves a documentary at least: Andres was a real-life explorer who spent years searching for the treasure, and the film’s fictional Luis Felipe, who is actually a pretty nasty piece of work, now has the same fantasy.
The trip itself doesn’t start until a half-hour in. Father and son are accompanied into the remote (and stunningly beautiful) Llanganates region of Ecuador by local porters, hand-picked by Luis Felipe apart from one, chosen by Pipe, called Byron, who dies early on. Surreally, Luis Felipe’s European girlfriend Lily (Lily Aimee Juliette Van Ghemen) is also brought along for the ride on some twisted psychological whim of Luis Felipe. Following a series of ritual humiliations of Pipe, Lily and the porters will walk away, leaving father and son to work out their issues in the snowy Andean wasteland: Pipe is now able to peel back the glittering surface of the conquistador myth to reveal the unpleasant truth. A little too suddenly, it’s all over, leaving behind it memories of delirium, striking images and smart ideas that have not been marshaled into order.
The decision not to use a script, presumably in the interests of authenticity, inevitably leads to sacrifices in other areas, such as interesting psychology or any sense of dramatic momentum. Making a suspense-free movie about a search for treasure in the Andes is actually a rare achievement.
Son is replete with hints of the film it could have been, a film for example about the damaging legacy of the colonialist mentality into the 21st century (McDonald’s as 20th century conquistadors, perhaps), but it’s not allowed to focus on anything solid and tangible — apart from a dramatic, politically charged final twist that works very well. Underneath all the daring experimental paraphernalia, this is very much a homely, family affair, and there’s the feeling that the male actors/protagonists might even be working out their real-life issues onscreen.
Visually, A Son of Man is full-on terrific, a symphony of swooping, circling drone shots of skies, ravines, waterfalls and jungle, jungle and more jungle: It was entirely filmed, as part of the directorial manifesto, using drones. It’s a technique that provides as much sweep and grandeur as you could wish for, although it precludes any sense of intimacy. But the tech challenges involved in bringing this project to fruition must have been considerable, and Son probably deserves a Burden of Dreams of its own.
We are left with a brave but failed movie full of intriguing, memorable fragments of the kind that we would have to travel long and far to find anywhere else. One such is the sequence featuring Lily, dressed in spotless white in the middle of the jungle, singing a reeling version of “Lili Marlene” to a bunch of rapt, frustrated porters; another is a shot of a goat suspended high above a ravine, wearing a harness bearing the words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” These are really head-spinning moments that smack of the visionary, and clearly they took great talent to conceive and to shoot. But A Son of Man never helps the viewer by clarifying what it’s straining so hard to be visionary about.
Production company: Paracas Independent Films
Cast: Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador y Campodonico, Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador y Bolona, Lily Aimee Juliette Van Ghemen, Fernando Cunuhay Yanchapaxi
Director: Jamaicanoproblem, Pablo Aguero
Executive producers: Gustavo Santaolalla, Guillermo Navarro, Guillaume Rocheron, Robert Blalack
Director of photography: Benjamin Echazarreta, Ianis Cima
Art director: Alicia Herrera
Editor: Thomas Fernandez
Composers: Jerome Reboitier, Nicolas Becker, Valentin Portron
Sales: Paracas Independent Films