The Militant (El lugar del hijo): Havana Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A deceptively rambling, serious-minded coming-of-age drama with a sharp political point, built around a central performance that fascinatingly combines blankness and intensity.

Playing at the Havana showcase for new Latin American Cinema, Manuel Nieto Zas’s follow-up to the well-received "The Dog Pound" covers much of the same ground, but goes further.

Like Santiago Mitre’s El Estudiante a take on the well-intentioned but absurd world of student politics, Manuel Nieto Zas’ ironically-titled The Militant filters its reflection on political stagnation through the learning curve of a single, remarkable central character. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking film that’s demandingly slow in stretches, but ultimately rewarding because it’s built on such solid foundations.

The Militant should follow The Dog Pound in marching onto the festival circuit, with art house bookings an outside possibility for a film that’s ultimately about a buzz theme -- the political disenchantment of disenfranchised generation.

The film is set in 2002, when Uruguay was undergoing strikes and the universities had effectively closed down. 25-year-old Ariel Cruz, played by non-pro actor Felipe Dieste, is called away from a students’ union meeting in Montevideo to learn that his father has died.

Ariel heads for his home town of Salto for the funeral, where a notary (Alejandro Urdapilleta) informs him that his old man has left considerable debts for which Ariel is now responsible. He meets his father’s partner Selva (Rossana Cabrera), gets involved with the local students’ union, led by aggressive Richard (Sebastian Blanquer), and finds a little romantic interest with Nadia (Leonor Courtoisie).

Frustrated by the general inability of the protesting students to do anything except go round in verbal circles, smoke weed and have parties, Ariel joins a hunger strike by protesting meat packers, which for the first time exposes him to the sharp end of economic hardship.

Essentially, the film is about Ariel’s education, which threatens to become actually dangerous when, basically in order to settle his father’s debts to the notary, he’s forced into rounding up cattle on a ranch with a bunch of tough, no-nonsense farm hands who basically consider this supposed intellectual to be a complete idiot.

It’s a comic, fish-out-of-water setup that generates some broad verbal and visual comedy, but far more urgent themes are bubbling under the surface, themes relating to a generation that has lost its way under the burden of a bad political and economic inheritance, consisting of people who are playing the roles of political activists without quite knowing what it is that political activists do.  Money – as represented by the notary, is the driving force.

Much of the film is infused with a languid, unrehearsed air which places helps to make its sometimes excessively satirical air convincing but which does lead to some wearying stretches. The tone derives in good part from the character of Ariel himself, an example of a tousle-haired slacker who’s slackerdom has to a degree been forced upon him.

Dieste was in a car accident as a child which affected his speech and motion, and his struggles here are turned by Nieto Zas into a kind of metaphor about the general difficulty of communication. But this is not to say that the role is not compelling of itself, as the winsome, perpetually disheveled Ariel ambles in apparent bafflement from one awkward situation to the next, sometimes engaged, sometimes a frustrated observer.

Touches of surreal, spiky humor are sprinkled throughout -- one parody of a televised political debate has the union representative of the meat packers pulling out his guitar on air and starting to sing a wild protest song. Sometimes, the script seems to wander off into side alleys where nicely surreal stuff with no real dramatic motivation is allowed to unfold, as for example with all the paraphernalia surrounding burning of Ariel’s father blood-stained mattress (though this does lay the ground for the film’s best joke).

Genuflexos’ atonal grungy score feels appropriate, but the voice of whoever delivers the song over the final credits pushes the atonal over into the unlistenable.  

The Uruguayan actor Alejandro Urdapilleta, here so persuasive in the role of the notary, sadly died on December 1, 2013.

Production: Roken Films, 4L
Cast: Felipe Dieste, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Rossana Cabrera, Leonor Courtoisie, Sebastian Blanquer, Carlos Lacuesta, Johnny Rodriguez, Jose Enrique Trinidad, Dana Liseta, German de Silva
Director, screenwriter: Manuel Nieto Zas
Producers: Andy Kleinman, Lisandro Alonso, Manuel Nieto
Director of photography: Arauco Hernandez-Holz
Music: Genuflexos
Production designer: Nohemi Gonzalez, Alejandro Castiglioni
Editor: Pablo Riera, Martin Mainoli, Manuel Nieto
Sound: Santiago Fumagalli, Guillermo Pico, Catriel Vildosola, Roberto Espinoza
Wardrobe: Esther Vaquero
Sales: FiGa Films
No rating, 121 minutes