The Search: El viaje
Diarios de motocicleta has offered us a tale of discovery. Narratives of discovery hinge on the idea of the “unknown”—a notion which Salles believes to have become increasingly problematic since the advent of television and the Internet (2007, 1). Perhaps this is why many more Latin American road movies adopt another narrative format: that of a search. In fact, with the exception of Diarios de Motocicleta, Salles’s own filmography favors the format of a journey in terms of a search, particularly in combination with the motif of a lost parent. In Terra Estrangeira (1996), Brazilian born Paco travels to Europe to search for the roots of his recently deceased mother—an economic migrant from Spain. In Central do Brasil (1999), 7-year-old Joshue—the son of an internal migrant to Rio de Janeiro— travels with an elderly lady to the Sertao in order to look for his father. The search for the lost parent even marks Salles’s version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, released in 2012, demonstrating his own, personal take on the book. The idea of the lost parent is of course present in Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) in the form of references to Dean Moriarty’s disappeared father, but it does not occupy nearly as much space in the book as it does in Salles’s film. The Brazilian director foregrounds the motif of the missing father, and enforces it through the inclusion ofseveral scenes shot in a family environment that do not appear in Kerouac’s novel. Moreover, Salles proposes a new beginning for the book: instead of the opening to the version published in 1957, in which Sal Paradise refers to the breakup of his marriage as the psychological point of departure of the story he is about to tell, Salles opts for the one on the original “scroll,”22 which takes the recent death of the writer’s father as its point of departure.
El viaje is one of the most famous Latin American examples of a search. In this film, 17-year-old Martin Nunca sets out on a journey across the entire continent with the hope offinding his biological father. As mentioned before, the search is triggered by an experience of frustrated fatherhood: Martin’s girlfriend in Ushuaia decides to have an abortion after falling pregnant, without consulting Martin, despite the fact that that he is the child’s father. His own biological father, moreover, represents the “real” father, as opposed to Martin’s mother’s second husband, with whom Martin does not get along. All he knows about his biological father is that he, Nicolas Nunca, studied history and art, worked for a while as a cartoonist, and remarried in Brazil. Once Martin meets his father’s second wife, however, he learns that his father has again moved on, probably to Mexico.
Nicolas Nunca’s ever-elusive presence prepares for the film’s final lesson: rather than a fixed point of origin or destination, he is the road itself. This road takes Martin across a more ethnically diverse Latin America than was the case in Salles’s film. Besides traveling to Brazil—which does not appear in Diarios de motocicleta for the simple reason that Guevara and Granado did not visit Brazil on their journey—there are also references to the Caribbean through the character of America Inconcluso, who is black and dances the rumba. There are also references to Chile, through the figure of exiled Alguien Boga. Most importantly, there are parts of the film spoken in Guarani, one of the continent’s many indigenous languages, an official language in Paraguay and also spoken in neighboring regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
The discovery of this ethnically diverse Latin America is, then, undoubtedly an important motif in this film, particularly on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing and the ensuing five centuries of colonial and post-colonial discrimination against the indigenous populations. However, the predominant narrative format remains that of the “search,” a choice that necessarily implies a different attitude during the displacement. Whereas the traveler of the journey of discovery adopts an open, exploratory attitude toward the continent, eager to absorb and learn about “the unknown,” the journey involving a search departs from the loss of something that had previously been known. The character’ s attitude in this journey in search of something is therefore less open, and more directed, than that of the discoverer. This is a first element setting Solanas’s film apart from the prototypical road movie, which tends to start as a mainly unmotivated journey. What is searched for, through the figure of the father, is not simply an image of America in Solanas’s film, but a guiding principle that allows us to understand its specific identity and evolution. The search for the father symbolizes the search for an identity, as projected on to an origin which has become lost or diffused.
A second point of divergence with respect to the US model is the absence of a motorized vehicle in Solanas’s film. Martin Nunca travels by bicycle, which immediately places him in the position of the Bakhtinian road traveler, who has the opportunity to meet people of different ethnic and social backgrounds. The identification of Martin Nunca with the vehicle is echoed in the film’s soundtrack, with the lyrics: “I am like my bicycle, wheel after wheel” [Soy como mi bicicleta, rueda sobre rueda]. In this respect, the pace in this film resembles that of the second part of Diarios de motocicleta’s, when walking slowed the speed of Guevara’s travels down quite significantly.
A third point of divergence with respect to the prototypical US road movie is the absence of buddies. Whereas US road movies celebrate the virtues of friendship, as indeed does Diarios de motocicleta, El viaje foregrounds the protagonist’s solitude during his travels. Many scenes pit the minuscule figure of the lonely teenager on his bicycle against the immense surroundings of the landscape he is endeavoring to cross, while the film’s soundtrack—composed by Astor Piazzolla—asserts that “My [Martin’s] voyage is solitude” [Mi viaje es soledad]. At the same time, an important characteristic of this film is the presence of guides who appear fortuitously along the way. Three allegorical figures accompany Martin and explain to him the significance of what he sees. These are the already mentioned Americo Inconcluso and Alguien Boga, as well as Tito el Esperanzador, who quite literally drums up the spirit of Peronism at the heart of the Argentine people (Tal 1998, 11). None of these guides knows how to read, thus they are representative of “the Latin American people,” particularly its lower classes. Their lack of schooling seems, however, to bring them closer to the truth: the first part of El viaje is dedicated to Martin’s life in Ushuaia, and contains an incisive critique of Argentina’s high school system in those years. The role of these guides can best be described as “counterdidactic,” and their function is to put into words what the images try to express. Joanna Page has drawn attention to the priority of the verbal over the visual as a characteristic ofSolanas’s filmmaking and the one ofmembers of his generation (Page 2009, 23). The same characteristic explains the presence of omniscient narrators in this film. Besides the Guarani narrator in the part dealing with Indigenous America, there is the voice of Nicolas Nunca, who appears not only as the object of Martin’s search, but also as an external narrator of the story.
In his comments as an external narrator, Nicolas Nunca—who, as I mentioned before, studied history, besides art—makes frequent use of illustrations from his own cartoon strip, called rather symbolically “The Inventor of Roads” [El inventor de caminos]. The inclusion of these cartoons fractures the visual space of the main story, and produces a distanced mode on behalf of the spectator, who is invited to reflect critically on what s/he sees. Whereas identification and empathy were primary strategies in Diarios de motocicleta, El viaje insists upon the importance of critical distance.23 Indeed, when documentary fragments are shown in El viaje, the director draws attention to the fact that they represent another level in his fictional universe by setting them in a montage studio, where Jacunaima (Nicolas Nunca’s Brazilian wife) is busy editing them.
These different strategies also refer to the more articulate political dimension of Fernando Solanas’s film with respect to Diarios de motocicleta. As a director personally involved in his country’s political life, Solanas has never made a secret of the fact that he endorses a socialist, Peronist program. At the time of El viaje, president Carlos Menem (1989-1998), who had been elected on a Peronist basis, had abandoned this ideology in favor of a free market-policy. Solanas presents a caricatured portrayal of Menem in the film as “President Frog” on account of his exclusive flipper-shaped feet that enable him to stay afloat in a country that is quite literally (as the water level reports on the television warn) up to its neck in excrement-laden water, which acts as a rather crude metaphor for endemic political corruption. Solanas’ s sharp criticism was not without its personal consequences: the director was shot six times in the legs while making this film, and had to continue directing from a wheel chair.24 The critical tone in El viaje is indeed much more outspoken than the one expounded in Diarios de motocicleta. It provides several instances in which caricature and sarcasm produce what Solanas has called the grotetico (Tal 2009, s.l.): a grotesque style used at the service of an ethical message. Whereas Diarios de motocicleta basically participates in an idea of modernity as (self-)d iscovery, Solanas’s film directly attacks the so-called Conquest, arguing that it amounted to nothing more than a real “genocide” (Martin Nunca). It also evokes the successive and multiple dictatorships inflicted on the population, as well as the almost blanket neoliberal policy implemented by Latin American political leaders under the aegis of the United States and the World Bank, bearing the collateral burden of an enormous debt to foreign banks, which the people of Latin America carry again quite literally on their backs. All these aspects of Jean Franco’s notion of cruel modernity are directly shown and commented upon in the film, projecting a unified image of Latin America’s oppression, continuing from the days of the Conquest to the present. The concrete appearances of the “invaders” may have changed, but the struggle for liberation still goes on. Hence, the names of Martin Nunca [Martin Never]—referring to the hero of liberation San Martin (1787-1850)—and of Americo Inconcluso [Unfinished America] are symbolic of the continent’ s unachieved freedom.
Consequently, a heterotopic place of difference with respect to society is not easy to find in El viaje. The continent is represented through an encompassing narrative that opposes the suffering people of Latin America to a ruling class of politicians, sustained (and manipulated) by foreign powers. At the same time, a heterotopic aspect can be detected in Solanas’s obvious appreciation of the world of art. Martin’s best friend in Ushuaia is a singer-songwriter, and his song “Ushuaia”—personified by a lady dressed in red who mysteriously appears and disappears in the film without saying a word—accompanies Martin during his travels, as a sweet memory of his “homeland.” In the final scenes, Martin discovers a picture of his father and mother in happy embrace; it is displayed in a studio in which paintings are exhibited.25 For the same reason, perhaps, the film has two endings: one in which father and son finally meet, and another in which they do not. The happy ending is only there in an imaginary way, and contrasts with the reality of the non-encounter.
In spite of their markedly different ways of dealing with the road movie conventions, Solanas and Salles both introduce an ethical dimension into the US format of the genre. Both filmmakers share an interest in documentary and use the continental journey as a narrative device to reflect on the unity of the continent. It is thus no surprise, then, that Salles’ s work contains an intertextual tribute to Solanas’s earlier film. The sequence filmed in Machu Picchu in Diarios de motocicleta seems to be almost a literal remake of a similar scene in El viaje: in both scenes, the main characters are shot from below while writing down their thoughts in a notebook
Likewise, in both renditions the advanced state of the pre-Columbian civilization is evoked in almost identical terms. In this shared use of the road movie as a critical revision of the Conquest—a discourse of counterconquest—transnational film director Salles acknowledges his debt to the Latin American tradition of political filmmaking, and implicitly positions Solanas as his forerunner more specifically within this appropriative continental vision of the genre. In their affirmative view of Latin America, as a continent that has the ability to unite (Salles) and pursue the struggle of liberation (Solanas), they take a very different stance from the one adopted in Easy Rider. For Dennis Hopper’s film, the advertising campaign ran as follows: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it” (Cohan and Rae Hark 1997, 1; emphasis mine). In Diarios de motocicleta and El viaje, the protagonists go looking for America and they do indeed find it.
This being said, there are significant differences between Salles and Solanas. First, their film poetics are notably different. Solanas deliberately pursues an anti-Hollywood aesthetic, which he identifies with a naive form of realism and a conventional plot structure.26 The inclusion of allegorical figures and poetic images evoking the economic crisis (images of buildings collapsing, of cities being inundated) illustrates his rejection of conventional
Fig. 2.2 Martin Nunca writing down his thoughts on the Machu Picchu in Fernando Solanas’s El viaje (1992)
realism. The double ending of his film (one depicting a successful reunion between father and son, the other one missed encounter) clearly undermines the traditional plot-structure. These strategies are part of a modernist aesthetic, intent on stimulating the viewer to adopt a critical attitude toward what s/he sees and deconstruct the dominant ideology, which—in El viaje—is neoliberalism. Rather than attempting to inscribe onto his film the codes of the US road movie, Solanas has pointed to the universality of the motif of the journey in literature and art, tracing the origins of his film back to Homer’s Odyssey. In rather contrary fashion, Salles instead seizes upon the road movie’s stock figures, inherited directly from US cinema, in order to turn the experience of a legendary hero into a recognizable journey-experience for each and every one of us. This productive use of the genre is complemented in the latter by a transformative attitude which, as I have already argued, refers back to a tradition of political cinema. Though Salles refrains from providing an articulate ideological message, the second part of his film clearly manifests a teleological dimension, describing how the young teenager naturally evolves into the future hero as he is shaped by the journey. In this sense, Guevara’s road trip takes on an epic dimension, which directly engages the viewer both visually and emotionally rather than keeping him or her at a distance.
The difference in film poetics between the two directors is linked to a difference in political outlook. Though both sympathize with the Left, Solanas departs from a clearly Peronist program, which he tries to keep alive not only through his activities on the political scene, but also through his artistic work. Tito el Esperanzador most directly connects to this program in his film. As a result, emphasis is on the diagnosis of the evils depicted in the film, and the denunciation of those instances that are responsible for them. It is significant that the film’s soundtrack uses the word “truth” [verdad]; the guides and external narrators in the film give explicit meaning to this notion of truth via their accompanying verbal discourse. In contrast, the evildoers in Salles’s film remain diffuse.27
In this sense, the director’s overall position resembles that identified by Deborah Shaw in her study on the transnational filmmaking of the Mexican directors Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron (more on this in Chap. 3). She has described this ideology as “liberal-leftist” (Shaw 2013, 228). In her view, these filmmakers’ softening of radical ideas is a consequence of their aim to reach a broader, transnational audience, a tendency that has set in after the heydays of New Latin American Cinema, of which Solanas was a key-figure. However, one might equally see Diarios de motocicleta as an attempt to breathe new life into the image of Guevara; to turn him into an inspiring example for as wide an audience as possible, precisely by leaving the concrete formulation of political answers and actions to the initiative of the viewer, once s/he is at home. Salles’s personal conception of the road movie as a genre favors openness to the unknown and, in this sense, the improvisation matches his decision to leave the ideological and political answers open as well.28 His cinema is perhaps better defined as an ethical variation on the political kind of cinema offered by El viaje29 Rather than “preach,” Salles uses film to “reach” out to the audience.