From BAFICI, a review of Daniel and Diego Vega’s The Mute.
The Mute is the second film from Peruvian brothers Daniel and Diego Vega. The pair initially gained international recognition in 2010 with their debut feature October, which won the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes. Their new creation, which has already received prizes on the festival circuit in Cartagena and Locarno, is more ambitious and complex than their debut work. The film tells the story of Constantino Zegarra, a stern, lifeless judge from Lima, Peru who has a passion for justice and the strict upholding of the law. However, his moral scrupulousness is at odds with the corrupt society in which he lives, a society in which good intentions can shatter any sense of a good reality; for Constantino, his first reality “shattering” comes in literal form.
One begins to wonder whether the down-on-his-luck lead character should just submit to the comforts of immorality
At the end of a hard day’s being moral, Constantino finds the window of his car broken. He is convinced that it was one of the people he has indicted, yet when he finds out that the ruthless efficiency of his morality has put hundreds of people in prison he realises his task won’t be easy. His bad luck then continues when he receives a letter from his superiors informing him of his demotion to a less glamorous district of the city, the district of ‘Mala’ – the joke being that in Spanish ‘mala’ literally means ‘bad’. Then, and by far the worst piece of luck he receives, Constantino is shot through the hole of his shattered car window whilst driving home from work. The bullet hits him in the neck, destroying his vocal chords and removing the ability of speech. What follows is Constantino’s single-minded hunt for those that perpetrated his bad luck. However, as with his life before the incident, his good intentions deliver him yet more problems and one begins to wonder whether he should just submit to the comforts of immorality.
So, at first glance at least, the film seems like an absolutely philosophical one, particularly in its desire to demonstrate that moral behaviour isn’t always treated in kind and that exacting probity can often deliver turpitude. However, talking at the Cartagena Festival of Film, the Vega Brothers made it clear that their film was a critical analysis of the state of their society – of Peru’s rapid economic ascension and adoption of Western consumptive habits, and the corruption, poverty and administrative anachronism this can sometimes engender. However, allusions to this critique are somewhat, as Daniel Vega himself admits, “subtle” and perhaps will go unnoticed by the non-Peruvian observer. So, if this central idea of the film is hard to come by, even in the eyes of one of its directors, then what is the ordinary foreign viewer left with?
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Well, the first answer would be Constantino himself, played by silver screen débutante Fernando Bacilio. Dry, harsh and robotic, Constantino’s life seems algorithmic, his emotions programmed and his presence mathematical. Indeed, there is not one scene in which he isn’t wearing a mechanical grimace, standing like a rectangle or draining away any sense of the natural from his actions. Even the somewhat saucy scenes in which Constantino showers together with his voluptuous wife (Norka Ramirez) seem more scheduled than they do sexual, and are demonstrative of his ability to ruin any notion of spontaneity. Bacilio’s face is long rigid and severe, as if it were chiselled by the same stonemason of the Easter Island statues. It is a face perfect from uncomprehending looks, furtive stares and unpractised and inexpressive emotion, in which tears fall from eyes like overflowing water.
One thing to watch out for is the camerawork, which at times, in its creeping silence, is reminiscent of David Lynch
Bacilio is masterful in his silence, and his helplessness underpins the film’s intentional, or in light of the brothers’ comments, unintentional way of communicating the philosophical concepts of absurdity and morality through dark humour. The other thing to watch out for is the camerawork, which at times, in its creeping silence, its lurking and meandering, is reminiscent of David Lynch. The camera takes on many forms and guises – at times it seems like another person sat at the kitchen table in the dank apartment of Constantino. Sometimes it’s like a fly buzzing around him, following him incoherently and incessantly, and in others it feels like a small child, sat observing, without judgement, in the passenger seat of his car. Indeed, such a variety of camerawork makes for some very interesting and memorable scenes, which advertise the movie as one craftily and professionally made.
On the downside, The Mute can at times feel too much like a wannabe Coen brothers’ film. The pace is the same, the character-types are familiar and it demonstrates the same ambition to make the poignant sad and funny at the same time. However, the most disappointing aspect of this film has nothing to do with sibling relationships; it’s that the film, which is a black comedy, could have been funnier. At times, it’s funny and at others it’s serious, but very rarely is it funny and serious simultaneously, something essential in a film with pretensions of being a dark comedy.
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All images: Maretazo Cine/No Dream Cinema/Urban Factory