Ausente (2012, Argentina)
Directed by Marco Berger

La león (2008, Argentina)
Directed by Santiago Otheguy

Ausente (Absent) is notable, not for its depiction of intergenerational attraction between men, but because one of the two main characters, Martín, a 16-year-old high-school boy, actively pursues his older, apparently heterosexual gym teacher. Most gay films depict the older man as the instigator, or as the purchaser of services in some cases, and the younger man as pursued, bought or victimized. Martín knows exactly what he wants, as shown in this sequence in which he checks out a friend in the locker room after swimming lessons:

It’s a refreshing scene. The sexual desires of gay adolescents are rarely shown so directly, even in films by gay filmmakers who tend to prettify pubescent longings. The scene provides a straightforward and honest answer to the question of “How do I know I’m gay?” that most of the columns and posts I’ve read on the topic seem too coy to get around to: You know you’re gay when you’re checking out the bulging crotches of your schoolmates. Also: Erections of your own.

When Martin gets no response from the boy on the other bench, he wanders the changing area and aggressively cruises two older men who are showering nearby. He makes no moves, however, and gets nothing back other than bemusement. Later, he instigates a dryly comic charade that takes up half of the film’s main section as he tries, and fails, to create a situation in which he and his teacher can get it on. One of the ways he does so is putting on poses like this:

Image 010

If that’s not an invitation…

His teacher is aware of the awkwardness of the situation, and so are a couple of his neighbors, but he’s clueless as to the exact nature of what’s going on. That cluelessness extends to the culture at large, I think, and not just in Argentina — adolescents are assumed not to have sexual agency. But, of course, they do. Adults just don’t know how to handle it, or panic and overreact.

There are two wonderful sequences that bookend the main narrative. The opening credits run over a visual inventory in close-up of Martín’s body as he’s being examined by the school physician. The doctor says things, like, lift your leg; spread your toes; open your mouth. What the camera shows are static shots of Martin’s hairy belly, pits, feet and legs. Here’s an example:

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Rather than simply presenting him as a sexual object, it establishes him, through showing secondary sex characteristics, as a developed male. Testosterone grew that hair, and no doubt helps motivates Martín for the rest of the film. This is a surprising concept for some people. In any case, he’s decidedly not an object for the rest of the narrative, not even when he fails to grasp the crush a girl peer has on him.

The final sequence I’ve watched three times, it’s so good and so poignant. It’s a fantasy sequence in the teacher’s head, pursuing Martín through the locker room, eventually catching him and planting an apologetic kiss beside his mouth. It’s a sad scene and this version of Martín in it behaves like a coy nymph, running from desire and completely opposite to the way he’s behaved in the rest of the film. You’ll find out why that is if you watch it.

Those two sequences are the only ones I can wholeheartedly get behind. In them, the presence and evidence of desire is palpable whereas the rest of the film feels too distanced from that. I was also annoyed by some stylistic choices, particularly the non-stop close-ups with an over-reliance on selective focus and the foreshortening of longshots and medium shots caused by the use of a longer lens. The film, as a result, felt cramped, for no particular reason other than the practicality of getting coverage in small spaces. I found both choices exhausting to watch. More importantly, the plot turn that occasions the film’s final moments struck me as a gimmick. Rather than figure out what happens between a student and a teacher when the teacher realizes the student has the hots for him, the film shuts those possibilities down. It’s a cop-out, and despite the lovely expressive sequence I just described, I would have rather had more character interaction.

Still, I don’t want to warn anyone off Ausente. It’s certainly worth a look — particularly for the fine, naturalistic work of young actor, Javier De Pietro — but I wouldn’t include it in my list of great gay films. (I’ll be watching Berger’s Plan B within the next few days.)

Santiago Othebuy’s almost perfect La león, however, I definitely would.

La león is one of those films with a gay character that transcends the category of “gay film.” Like Weekend, the filmmakers are at least as concerned with style and form as they are with content.

The film’s look reminded me of faded tintypes, collotypes or ambrotypes, techniques of photography from its early history. The process involved in producing images gave these photographs a unique look and a unique way of aging. Since one of the things La león explores is the persistence of memory but also its unreliability, the past inside the present, this visual style suits. There are even a couple evocative shots that refer directly to the photographic process and its place in both preserving and mystifying the past. Here, main character Alvaro is reflected in a photograph of his father. Next to that photograph is another, showing Alvaro’s father with his best friend. The best friend is still alive and has become an important part of Alvaro’s life, while Alvaro’s father has died.

Alvaro reflected in a photo of his father, and a photo of his father and friend

Alvaro reflected in a photo of his father, and a photo of his father and friend

It was only during the second time watching the film that I realized the further significance of this shot. It was preceded by a scene in which Alvaro was compared unfavorably to his father by Alvaro’s antagonist, Turu. Then, his father’s friend, the old Iribarren, gives Alvaro a concerned look which also seems to suggest more. So, Alvaro, in studying his father’s photo, is wondering what sort of man he is, but also what sort of man his father was, and what Iribarren meant to him.

The following shot is another self-conscious visual suggesting something similar, but with an even more explicit reference to an antique photographic process. In it, Alvaro looks like a ghost, insubstantial:

Alvaro in the mirror

Alvaro in the mirror

Through the cinematography, La león establishes an indelible sense of place — in this case, the Paraná River Delta — from the very first gorgeously composed landscape shots.

Paraná River

First shot of La león, credit sequence

Paraná River

Paraná River Delta

As the narrative moves forward, it becomes clear how circumscribed each character is within this geographic location — lush environmentally, but impoverished economically. This isolation is made even more explicit by the presence of the boat, El león, captained by the previously mentioned Turu. The only way to get from place to place fast is to take Turu’s boat, as one would a bus, except one is sometimes at the mercy of its cruel and crude captain, El Turu.

El león

The boat, El león

This previous shot of Turo piloting the fast-moving boat is a tracking shot — in which the camera moves, tracking the action — and is one of only three in the whole film. Most of the time the camera is mounted and static. (There’s also only one zoom, and that’s into a close-up of an old photograph of Alvaro’s father, seen in the screenshot above.) This shot, with the camera on another boat, matching its speed, rhymes with a dolly shot later in the film when a drunk Turu pursues Alvaro through the woods at night. In both, the destination is undetermined.

I could spend a long post writing about each individual shot in La león, all of them edited together in a delicate and languid balance, (director Otheguy is also responsible for that), each as beautiful as the next.  There isn’t a bad shot in the whole movie. I can’t think of another recent film to say that about. Cinematographer Paula Grandio is certainly one to watch.

Here, in one of the opening shots during the credit sequence, she introduces two important elements of the film: The boat, El león, and the reed bed, out of which many of the delta’s inhabitants make their living. Reeds reappear in different forms throughout the film — as currency, as craftwork, as environmental detail, as a place to hide secrets. But instead of cutting away immediately, she stays on the reeds for a few seconds. They bend and sway and clatter in a sudden gust of wind off the river and the waves pushed by the boat’s passage.

El león through the reeds

El león through the reeds

Within this well-defined geographical space — literally an island in the delta — social and work-related milieux emerge, and Alvaro’s place within them. The film takes a great deal of care assembling this picture of life in the delta and it’s one of its main strengths. Although alone much of the time in  a crumbling old cement house, he seems well-integrated into the community, visiting a friend after the friend’s son commits suicide, working on a reed-cutting site with a group of men from Paraguay (one of whom he’s attracted to), coaching youth fútbol, attending community meals, and, in a wonderful detail, repairing the bindings of old library books for a little bit of cash.

But, Alvaro has his own secret life: He has sex with men. The film shows this only once. Cruising by an expensive boat in his own old leaking wooden one with an outboard motor, he locks eyes with a younger man, dressed well and alone on the deck. The next scene cuts to a dimly lit sexual encounter in the woods. This scene points out the necessity of Alvaro having sex with men outside of his community, outside of his social and economic class, as a way to preserve his privacy and discretion.

But someone in the community suspects what he’s been doing on the sly, and that’s Turu, the captain of El león. In a tense scene in a bar where Alvaro is trying to trade reed, a drunk Turu accosts him from a table, calling him puto several times and trying to call him out. Alvaro stiffens, and doesn’t respond or turn around. Here’s a wide shot that takes in everything visible on that side of the bar:

"Hey, puto...hey!"

“Hey, puto…hey!”

But, Alvaro does react:

Alvaro

Alvaro

Quickly, he breaks down in tears as Turu continues to mock him for not ever having been seen with a woman. Craggily handsome Jorge Román plays this well, revealing the fear underneath his response, along with his pain. Not fear of violence, but fear of being ostracized within the only community he knows. The two other men, in typical Argentine fashion, try to defuse the situation, saying it doesn’t matter, and for Turu to lay off.

Later we discover the hypocrisy beneath Turu’s taunts, as the narrative turns violent, but as the film maintains its steady pace and calm surface.

La león should belong on any shortlist of great films from Latin America. The sexuality of the main character is not merely incidental, however, nor does it provide a “universal” point of audience identification. Instead, his need to remain secret, and his own sense of belonging in his community, allows a unique entry point to exploring this out-of-time riverine community.

If you’re interested, before you even see the movie, down below I’ve provided a large gallery of screenshots that tell part of the story, including the pointed ending revealed as the tide’s gone out.

postscript:

If there were any justice or consistency in the film world, La león would receive the kind of reverence accorded lesser indie fare such as Little Miss Sunshine, Juno or even the films of Kelly Reichardt, such as Wendy and Lucy, which I didn’t particularly like but which got licked quite a bit by critics, or Meek’s Cutoff, which I did like and which shares with La león an astute depiction of culture and violence through a strong sense of place and geography.

La león isn’t mentioned on any of the lists of gay movies I’ve read, either. It’s certainly old enough to have made it in, but instead there’s a lot of crap and middling fare like Doing Time on Maple Drive, Eating Out, All Over the Guy, ad nauseum. If these are gay crowd-pleasers, I’d really rather not go to the movies with that crowd. Really, there’s a lot of horrible, self-indulgent crap on these lists. One of the things I’d like to correct with my gay canon project is the tendency of gay men to give bad movies a pass as long as they have gay characters — cheerful, hot and preferably young gay characters. The tendency seems to be to settle, to condescend to our own good tastes in order to see movies that speak to our lives and affinities. I do that, too, but come on.

On the other hand, for mainstream critics, I’ve always suspected the lack of attention given to gay indies has more than a little to do with most critics’ being straight. I think one of the most interesting gay experimental filmmakers working today is Julian Hernandez, working in a direct line from Kenneth Anger and an indirect line from Douglas Sirk but I had to subscribe to a Yahoo! group to discover his movies and then pirate avis in order to see them. Sure, straight critics pay attention to Brokeback Mountain and other mainstream films with gay characters, and even an accomplished gay art film like Weekend got a deservedly glowing review in the NYT.

But, by and large it falls to independent bloggers to cover gay independent cinema with any regularity. Asking for some knowledge of film production and film history, however, seems to be asking for too much. Both cultural critic Mark Simpson and the Promiscuous Reader cover film sporadically. Simpson is a clever writer, even if his self-regard taints everything he writes, but he tends to approach every film as it were especially created to support his metrosexual “theory” of masculinity. They weren’t and they don’t. PR is a genuine intellectual and erudite to a fault, but his film reviews bore me, and I often disagree strongly with his premises, unlike his discussions of books, which seem rooted in real love for them, and in lived experience.

If anyone knows of any blogger covering gay cinema regularly, please let me know in the comments.