'Memories of a Vagabond' ('Memorias del Calavero'): Film Review

Memories of a Vagabond Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Dia Fragma Fabrica de Peliculas

Memories of a Vagabond Still - H 2015

Delirious, unsettling road movie about a delirious and unsettling man

The one-to-watch Colombian director’s third feature follows the titular vagabond back to his birthplace

There’s a sense of urgency throughout Memories of a Vagabond, as though director Ruben Mendoza decided that his extraordinary subject has to be captured on film before it’s too late. Mendoza met Antonio Reyes, aka El Cucho, on the shoot of the director’s debut, the The Stoplight Society - a similar blend to this of the clear-eyed and the frenzied. Having taken a rural detour to make the impressive, prize-winning Dust on the Tongue, Mendoza has now built a whole movie around Reyes, whom the director found intriguing as an anti-hero figure, a fascinating bum. It is to Mendoza’s credit that he turns this fairly unpromising source material into a movie which, although rambling and shambling, also feels like a sharp breath of fresh air.

The setup has Mendoza and a small crew accompanying El Cucho -- an emaciated, scary Santa Claus in a Kurt Cobain T-shirt -- back to the mountainous area of Colombia where he was born, where Cucho promises he’ll reveal a long-held secret about himself: “there are people who want to kill me”, the sick man confesses. For 35 years, Cucho was a resident of El Cartucho, a poor, drug-infested barrio of Bogota, having started popping pills at seven: Vagabond features grim footage from Hell or Paradise, German Piffano’s powerful documentary about El Cartucho which reveal Cucho to be nothing if not a survivor.

For long stretches, sometimes too long, Mendoza allows Cucho to ramble on about himself and his memories -- about his decision to kill his wife for having an affair with his best friend, for example, until someone suggested, given that the friend had actually helped Cucho out by removing the burden of a wife, that Cucho should buy the friend groceries instead of killing him, which he did.

Probably about as politically incorrect as it’s possible for a human being to be in 2014, Cucho is egotistical, vain, foul-mouthed, sexist, thoughtless, arrogant and self-pitying. But Mendoza manages to worry away at the surface to reveal the insecurity beneath, as well as celebrating the man’s sheer energy at the end of a life which would have seen many to an early grave. The journey becomes one in search of lost love and lost opportunities, and at some level, against all odds, we inevitably warm to him. Mendoza, whose focus is always on the marginalized, could easily be accused of holding El Cucho up as a comic figure of ridicule, but he’s politically canny enough to be aware of the danger and, aided by Cucho’s sheer human vibrancy, sidesteps it.

Whether Vagabond is truth or fiction is rarely clear and barely matters, but it is studded with moments of bright, shining moments of truth which the road journey format has been able to capture, such as Cucho’s exchange with a clear-eyed old rural lady who has buried four new-borns. What does matter is that through the film’s latter stretch, following the arrival of Cucho’s long-lost brother Abelardo and an argument between him and Mendoza in which he accuses the director of exploiting him, Mendoza leaves, and with him, much of the urgency which has been its hallmark. The final passages are a reflective, melancholy counterpoint to the rest of the film: stripped of an audience, Cucho comes sadly close to becoming nobody at all.

Some of the landscapes through which the cast and crew travel ara breathtaking combinations of mountain, river and jungle, nicely captured by Pedro Pablo Vega’s camera, mostly hand-held. Singer-songwriter Edson Velandia makes suitably jagged auditory contributions.

Production companies: Dia Fragma Fabrica de Películas
Cast: Antonio Reyes
Director, screenwriter, editor: Ruben Mendoza
Producer: Daniel Garcia Diaz
Executive producer: María Fernanda Barrientos
Director of photography: Pedro Pablo Vega
Production designer: Gabriel Mejia
Editors: Ruben Mendoza, Juan Soto
Composer: Edson Velandia

Sales: Dia Fragma Fabrica de Peliculas

No rating, 100 minutes