Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Wind Journeys

Cirro Guerra's 2009 The Wind Follows is mostly landscapes.  The film is like one of those early sixties TV westerns in which a man on horseback is shown traversing a desert in one shot and, then, inexplicably riding the high sierra in the next image.  People go from place to place without transition:  one moment the young hero is high in the Andes; in the next shot, he's trudging through jungle.  This is an intentional effect in Guerra's film, but one that is so disorienting that it threatens to subvert the entire film. 

A traveling juglar (the Colombian word is derived from jongleur or troubadour) has lost his wife.  Bereft, the man sets forth on his donkey, riding side-saddle like Christ entering Jerusalem, to return his accordion to someone named Guerra.  The accordion is decorated with polished horns and there is a suggestion that Guerra is the Devil.  (Backstory annotations in Wikipedia but not really on-screen explain that the film is derived from a Colombian myth, the story of Francisco el Hombre.  Francisco was a traveling musician who spread news and revolutionary ideology throughout the remote villages in Colombia in the 1870's; he was reputed to have defeated the Devil -- or, maybe, been taught to play by the Devil -- and, therefore, doomed.)  The musician named Ignacio in the film, refuses to perform on his instrument and simply wants to be rid of it -- apparently, he believes that his musical prowess resulted in the dark forces seizing his wife.  A kid from the village trails Ignacio.  The teenager, Fermin, wants the older man to reveal his musical secrets to him.  (The initial scenes between Ignacio and Fermin look like the sequence in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai when the young peasant played by Toshiro Mifune trails an older swordsman, lingering near him with a mixture of hero-worship and self-conscious bravado.)  There is a musical duel between Ignacio and a musician using sorcery to defeat his enemies.  Ignacio wins the duel but the sorcerer's father, wielding a machete, wounds the horned accordion.  The instrument has to be repaired in the foothills to high mountains, on a picturesque peak overlooking precipitous green valleys.  The man who repairs the instrument turns out to be the juglar's brother -- he looks like a scrawny Allen Ginsberg.  Next, Ignacio and Fermin cross a lagoon as big as a sea and Ignacio is forced, at knife-point, to play a dirge while two men stab one another to death in a fight with machetes on a rickety bridge.  Within a strange grove of trees, Fermin undergoes an ordeal -- he plays the drums until his palms bleed and is baptized by an African holy man with lizard blood.  Ignacio wanders off, apparently angry that the young man has repeated his youthful error of allying himself with the dark powers.  Fermin attends another competition where three sinister judges, possibly blind and speaking an incomprehensible language, officiate -- the prize for the winner is Ignacio's accordion.  Fermin finds that Ignacio has collapsed in the high Andes and is paralyzed -- he is being tenderly nursed by a group of Ahuaco Indians wearing white robes and white conical hats in a picturesque quasi-Alpine village.  Fermin goes back to the bizarre accordion battle in the rainforest pole shed where other men are making cocks fight. He risks being beaten to death by a brutal Black boxer and, after showing he is willing to die for the instrument, the trio of scary judges gives him Ignacio's accordion.  He goes back into the mountains, a trip accomplished between two shots, retrieves Ignacio and, then, descends to a featureless desert -- this travel also occurring between one shot and the next.  In the desert, Ignacio collapses on a salt playa.  The sea is nearby and master with acolyte end up in a ghost town, apparently, an abandoned fishing village.  Guerra's mummified body festers in a casket awaiting burial.  A woman announces that the corpse is not to be buried until the accordion is returned.  The woman tells Ignacio that Guerra left him a message -- it's in the dead body's front shirt pocket.  Ignacio gingerly retrieves the note, reads it, and, then, a bunch of little kids appears out of nowhere -- they are Guerra's children. (Colombian juglar, like African-American bluesmen, are famous for their sexual virility and beget children with local women in every village that they visit.)  We never find out what the message says -- Ignacio plays for the little kids, who seem to be increasing in number with every shot, and Fermin is last seen wandering in the desert. 

The movie is a rough draft for Guerra's much more accomplished 2015 picture, The Embrace of the Serpent -- there is the same general theme of a shaman with mysterious powers leading a young disciple on a quest through a series of magical landscapes.  Both pictures end unsatisfactorily -- the end of the quest seems insufficient to the hardships endured and the wisdom on display gathered through the adventure is suspiciously vague, inflected with dimwitted and fraudulent New Age sentimentality.  The Embrace of the Serpent is much more effective because the film is shot in black-and-white, chastening Guerra's somewhat kitschy eye for the picturesque -- furthermore, the Amazonian setting grounds the latter film in reality.  The Wind Follows was made at 80 locations and the complete lack of continuity between landscapes makes the film seem, more or less, dream-like and disordered from its opening fifteen minutes.  There is no place that counts as normal; no real ground beneath our feet in The Wind Follows.  A quest has to set out from some place real and there isn't any grounding home from which to venture forth.  (I was surprised to learn that the movie is set in a very particular time:  a banner portrays one of the musical competitions as the first Valledupar vallenuto (the type of music that the accordionists play -- a combination of boastful rap and dance-inflected accordion accompaniment.) festival:  this means the movie occurs around Ash Thursday in 1968 -- but why this is significant is unclear to me.)  And, of course, I have no idea what the film is supposed to mean -- it's some kind of spiritual quest, but the object of the quest is unclear and, at the end, we don't get the sense that Fermin, the shaman's apprentice, has learned anything at all.  The movie is resolutely humorless and portentous but none of the ordeals seem particularly imposing or scary because the cutting from desert to savannah to swamp to high mountains occurs in such a disorderly way that we don't have any sense of real terrain traversed by the characters -- if you can get from jungle pole-barn to 18,000 feet above sea-level in the Andes in a single cut, it's pretty hard to see what's at stake in the journey.  We're in Jodorowsky's  El Topo territory, I'm afraid:  The Wind Follows is often beautiful and the landscapes are extraordinary -- but, in the end, landscape is all that the film has on offer. 

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