‘Magallanes’: TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A gripping character study built into a story of potent tragedy.

Peruvian actor Salvador del Solar debuts with a thrillerish tale of an old soldier’s struggles to atone for past sins.

The violence of Latin America’s late 20th-century history continues to throw up stories which show its effects will still be playing out for some time to come. With a backstory set during the Shining Path insurgency which started in the 1980s, Peruvian Salvador del Solar’s debut Magallanes is a valuable addition to the list, forging a suspenseful redemption thriller driven by searching character work and a powerful emotional undertow. A classy cast drawn from various Latin American countries (del Solar himself was the star of Javier Fuentes-Leon's internationally well-received The Vanished Elephant) suggests that Magallanes will travel widely across those territories, but its festival trajectory should extend beyond its Toronto and San Sebastian bookings and even into selected offshore theaters.

Harvey Magallanes (Mexican Damian Alcazar, looking close to 100% grizzled), apparently a born loser, makes what little money he can as a driver and companion for aging Colonel Rivero (Argentinian vet Federico Luppi), meanwhile using the car of his increasingly unpleasant alcoholic friend Milton (Peruvian Bruno Oder) as a cab. After he picks up Celina (Magaly Solier, most familiar for her role in Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear-winning The Milk of Sorrow) and sees her struggling to forge ahead with her debt-ridden hair salon, Magallanes digs out an old photo of the Colonel with a naked, underage Celina, back in the day when he and Milton were soldiers in rural Peru, combating Shining Path with often unsavory methods at the height of the country’s internal conflict.

Early scenes feel a little shaky, but after Magallanes has hatched his plan, the drama kicks in and never lets up. His intention is to to use the image to blackmail the Colonel’s son, the wealthy, slimy, slick-haired lawyer Augusto (Christian Meier). Magallanes’ idea is presumably to redeem himself from the abuses of his military past by giving Celina a fresh start: though later, we’ll realize that things go a little deeper than that.

Surprisingly to everyone including the audience and himself, Magallanes’ plan initially goes well, through an elegantly-mounted, suspenseful sequence shot in the outskirts of Lima involving a clip-on mike, police shadows and kids on motorbikes. But, perhaps predictably, the sequence also ends with a bag and torn-up pieces of newspaper, and our anti-hero -- now under suspicion from cop Medina (Jairo Camargo) has to come up with a new, bigger plan.

All of which would just sound like a good, solid thriller did it not play cleverly into issues directly relating to Peruvian history and the wider history of the continent. The Colonel has memory loss, so his roles in old atrocities has faded forever: but Milton continues to long for a time when he and Magallanes were tied together in a camaraderie of violence, making it hard for any fresh start to take place.

Celina was a victim then, and -- as both indigenous and a woman, continues to be a victim now. Her reaction to Magallanes’ reaching out to her, superbly delivered by Solier, is surprising, unconventional and, after a moment’s thought, entirely plausible. (Solier herself was born in the troubled Ayacucho region at the heart of the insurgency during which the film’s back story unspools, and her performance’s intensity, particularly over the final minutes, suggests an intense personal commitment to the role.)

But it’s Alcazar carries most of the dramatic burden. He combines the physical stockiness of the former soldier with the vulnerability of manner and expression of a man adrift in society: it’s to Magallanes’ advantage that everyone with whom he has dealings considers him to be simply an idiot. It’s clear from the start that there’s something inside him which is ill-at-ease, and the film’s emotional trajectory is the record of his against-the-odds struggle to find inner reconciliation -- though perhaps, tragically, he’s seeking it in the wrong place. All of which Alcazar conveys with the minimum of dramatic fuss.

Visually, it’s as appropriately rough and ready as the city outskirts locations in which it events play out. Sometimes, though, space is made for a little revelatory -- if somewhat hackneyed -- poetry, as when Magallanes watches a paraglider sailing free and perhaps mentally hatches his redemption plot, as the Colonel, in the grip of Alzheimer’s, continues to bark out military instructions to him.

One powerful scene by Solier has her shouting in her native Quechua at Magallanes, Medina and Rivero. In other words, even for Spanish speakers, one of the film’s key speeches will be incomprehensible. On the print caught, there were no subtitles to help, and in a film which is explicitly pitting the language of power against the language of victimhood, perhaps there should be.



Production companies: Pendulo Films, ​Tondero Films, ​CEPA Audiovisual, ​Proyectil, ​Nephilim Producciones, ​Cinerama LTDA
Cast: Damian Alcazar, Magaly Solier, Federico Luppi, Christian Meier, Bruno Odar, Jairo Camargo
Director, screenwriter: Salvador del Solar, based on ‘La Pasajera’ by Alonso Cueto
Producers: Salvador del Solar
Executive producers: Amador del Solar, Miguel Valladares, Andres Longares, Felipe Martinez, Felicitas Raffo
Director of photography: Diego Jimenez
Costume designer: Anna Guell
Editor: Eric Williams
Composer: Federico Jusid
Casting director: Mireia Juarez
Sales: Meikincine Entertainment

14A, 109 minutes