Los Muertos
a film by Lisandro Alonso

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Village Voice

(Nathan Lee)

If we're going to talk about Los Muertos, we'll have to go all the way. There isn't much choice in the matter; the film asks for total engagement, and I'm not going to pussyfoot around a single frame. This needs to be said up front because of the spoiler factor inherent in discussing its most notorious scene—or, for that matter, anything else. See Los Muertos with virgin eyes; this cool-headed enigma is best approached cold, ignorant of everything but the title. "The Dead" is an ironic appellation for a movie so fiercely alive, though perfectly apt for what turns out to be a strange sort of horror film.

Set in a rural stretch of Argentina, the story concerns a middle-aged ex-con named Vargas (Argentino Vargas). The opening shot obliquely reveals his crime while announcing the mysterious mise-en-scéne of writer-director Lisandro Alonso. We pivot along a gyroscopic, shallow-focus view of lush vegetation, sunlight pricking through a green-on-green panoply. A shock of flesh-tone breaks into the reverie: the corpse of a naked young boy on the forest floor, then another body, then a passing glimpse of a man with the killing tool in hand.

The screen fades to green--Brakhage would approve--and opens on Vargas imprisoned. It is the day of his parole; he was sentenced, we vaguely gather, for the murder of his brothers. A haircut, a shave, a wordless lunch. He sips maté with an inmate who asks him to deliver a letter to his daughter Marie. These simple things are simply shot with a minimum of talk and maximum limpidity. Alonso's habit of entering a scene on an empty tableau, moving Vargas through it, then exiting a beat or two after he's gone, comes from Bresson, but his minimalism isn't the least bit mannered. Duration in Los Muertos is keyed to the ripeness of the moment, never plucked early or left to rot with self-indulgence.

Vargas goes free and heads into the wild. He makes desultory thrusts into a prostitute. We learn he has a daughter of his own, Olga, whom he will attempt to find. There is a man by a river who offers him use of a boat, a drink of water, and a jug of wine. By now, the movie's vibrant calm and mesmeric pacing have done their work. In lieu of an expressed interior narrative--Vargas has no evident psychology or emotions--the imagination feeds on the surface of Los Muertos as symbol. Have we just brushed shoulders with the ferryman Charon? We are, after all, en route to Marie, and once we get there a character named "Angel" will be mentioned in passing.

Marie takes Vargas in for the night, but when he wakes, he wakes alone. Could be that Marie is in the loo, tending chickens, sound asleep. Could be that Vargas hacked her to pieces. This grim possibility is reinforced in the next scene as Vargas proves his facility with a machete, slicing a makeshift oar from a sapling tree. Into the river, miraculous landscape: Los Muertos connects with the elemental energies of sunlight, water, and leaf like nothing since Blissfully Yours. Indeed, that might have worked well for a title here—that, or Heart of Darkness.

Vargas spies a stranded goat on the riverbank. In an uninterrupted shot, he paddles back, grabs its horn, and slashes open its jugular. Make no mistake, an animal was very much harmed in the making of this movie, and a certain number of audience members who haven't yet fled from boredom will storm to the exit in disgust. Having reckoned my feelings about animal rights against my admiration for Alonso's art over three viewings, I've come to find this no more objectionable than the killing of a rabbit in The Rules of the Game, being just as essential to the film's integrity and effect.

Los Muertos encourages a ritualistic reading, and one way to resolve this violence is to view it as epitomizing the process of cultural evolution, whereby human sacrifice was displaced first onto animals and then into representation. Another is to check your head while Alonso fucks with it. Earlier, we have watched Vargas smoke bees from a hollow log, scoop out the honeycomb, and squeeze the syrup into his mouth—a lovely pastoral interlude stemming from the same impulse as the goat slaughter. Both acts make the same point: Los Muertos is an indeterminate allegory, one of whose vibrations is the Return to Nature in all its harmony and brutality.

Of course, Alonso knows that one carcass will evoke others, and the entire tease of his film depends on our mental substitution of goat guts with human entrails. With trouble in mind, we move to the climax, Vargas reunited with his daughter. Alonso's ambiguous intent reaches a silent scream as the camera scrawls a final riddle. Is Los Muertos a tale of redemption or abomination? Is life?



New York Times

(Matt Zoller Seitz)

The mesmerizing two-minute opening shot of Los Muertos is filmed from the viewpoint of a man lost in the jungle, weaving among the tree trunks and underbrush, looking up at the sunlight streaming down, fleetingly glancing at two dead, butchered boys lying on the ground, then glimpsing the figure (but not the face) of a passing man holding a bloody knife.

That horrendous but beautiful sequence is only the first of many. This stunning second feature film by the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso has a relatively simple plot: a convicted murderer named Vargas (Argentino Vargas) is released from prison after 20 years and travels by boat through the jungle to see his daughter. But the movie doesn't pursue the story in the expected way.

Mr. Alonso divides most of the film into very long takes, some elaborately choreographed, others almost static, the better to plunge the viewer directly into the protagonist's world. Like a slowed-down, more realistic and psychologically penetrating cousin of a Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick film, Los Muertos is primarily concerned with the rhythms and textures of life.

The movie observes Vargas in real time as he has his hair cut, has graphic sex with a prostitute, visits an old friend, navigates his boat upriver, catches and butchers a wild goat; the shots last much longer than you expect, which forces you to appreciate the context of Vargas's actions and marvel that so much beauty could enfold such a supposedly awful human being.

Mr. Alonso lets us grasp the physical details of Vargas's life but little else. We have to intuit his reactions to his emotions and his changed circumstance and deduce his guilt or innocence. (The movie avoids confirming whether Vargas committed the murders, and when other characters mention the subject, he talks around it.) The phrase "in the moment" has rarely been illustrated so vividly.



Time Out NY

(Tom Beer)

"I have little faith in words," Argentine director Lisandro Alonso has said, and his second feature, Los Muertos, is a film of long silences and spare dialogue. It follows a man named Vargas (nonprofessional Argentino Vargas), who is being released from prison after serving a 20-year murder sentence. (In a brief prologue, the camera roams a jungle landscape, passing briefly over the bloodied bodies of two boys.) Outside, he begins a journey to find his daughter, traveling upriver in a small boat, deeper and deeper into the forest. "They say you killed your brothers," comments the man who lends his craft. "I’m over it all," replies the impassive Vargas.

Alonso, one of the young "new wave" filmmakers who emerged after Argentina's economic crisis, has no truck with bravura editing or jittery handheld camerawork. Los Muertos succumbs to the stillness and natural rhythms of the jungle; the film doesn’t so much tell a story as record events: Vargas visiting a whore, foraging for honey and--in a sequence not for the squeamish--slaughtering a goat. The meaning of this odyssey, and the film’s long final shot, may be too enigmatic for some, but Los Muertos is undeniably hypnotic and absorbing.



International Film Festival Rotterdam 2005

(Sandra den Hamer, Director)

The emptiness is sublime in Los Muertos, the second feature by Lisandro Alonso. This Argentinean filmmaker has completed a minimalist masterpiece on the fringes of cinematographic expression. In the opening scene, the camera's eye glides through an antediluvian jungle. Between the leaves, we catch sight of two dead boys and their murderer. Then the film takes a leap many years forward in time to the intriguing old man Vargas. His last day in jail has dawned and he is getting ready to taste freedom again. For the rest of the story, Vargas is on his way to his daughter who lives on an island in the jungle. A meditative boat trip in a tempo determined by the primary necessities for life. Vargas is trimmed by a barber, visits a whore and slaughters a wild goat on the way. In silence, he is one with the jungle and the river that takes him both forward and back in time. Apart from that, there is nothing but silence, the gruesome secret that Vargas bears with him and the viewer's nagging questions. Los Muertos is a self-confident and daring film with an utterly original visual language. The experience of the physical reality of the journey is just as important as the metaphorical overtones. The river seems to lead towards the essence of Vargas, but eventually doesn't provide an answer. Right up until the end, one continues to wonder whether Vargas is a man of silent resignation or of latent bloodlust. It looks as if the jungle has wrapped up the past - until it opens its chops wide at the end of the film.



"That's How a Man Lives"

Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos
(Andy Rector, FIPRESCI, Viennale, 2004)

The words "and that's all" concluded one festival synopsis of Lisandro Alonso's first film La Libertad. The synopsis wasn't meant as a criticism, it was simply too difficult to recount the phenomena of this film of a woodcutter where there's no back-story or psychology and every daily action is under a microscope.

Alonso's second feature Los Muertos is even stronger and as confounding as La Libertad. When Alonso spoke after the Viennale screening he used the words "I don't know" and "observe" a lot. The cinema can only benefit from this, Alonso proves. He is observing people in a new way, outside of capital (without a single insert shot) in solitude. Alonso appears to be a director of loneliness.

Shot in the Corrientes province of Argentina, seven hours north of Buenos Aires, Los Muertos has a similar geography and form as La Libertad: a male main character who is in every shot in blunt truthful long durations, living as he does, off the land. The major difference in Los Muertos being the addition of fiction: 54 year old Vargas, in prison for murder, is released and on a land to river journey to see his daughter. This addition of fiction expands the film's scope and implications beyond La Libertad as a view of the size, life and violence of humanity.

People are dwarfed by trees and vegetation (as buildings dwarf people in the city). They are dwarfed by the curve of the earth seen in a pan over a river. They are dwarfed by the duration of simple actions. Alonso's film makes the size of the figures and events reverberate. Vargas is all different sizes in the frame - and in the world when he's dropped of by the police from prison, breaking off honeycomb and sucking on it for nourishment, or rowing himself across a green river. In the diorama-like final shot, humanity is dwarfed to science-fiction proportions.

When out of prison people can traverse huge spaces, hunt and kill or gather their own food. Out of prison Vargas does this, in prison (a shockingly minimum security prison compared to the high tech isolation cell blocks I know of in the States) he eats out of Tupperware, washes and sits. Even in prison Los Muertos is a positive film. In the workshop another inmate says to Vargas as he works on a wooden chair: "We have plenty of time to work here... we could do good work". Most of the encounters with other humans in the film, excepting Vargas's visit to a prostitute, result in a stated possibility, hope or affirmation. "There's a lot of ways to cut hair," says the barber. People seem to be waiting for each other just so that they can offer them something: knowledge, a drink, hospitality.

Not to be idyllic about the place, after all there is murder and pain. The woods are constantly brooding for the viewer. For Alonso's people this brooding doesn't seem to exist.

After seeing Los Muertos I went over to John Ford's Iron Horse. As in many Fords there is a landowner character who corrupts everything. It made me wonder if Vargas, his daughter or her son would ever have to pay rent or move because of private property or "progress". The world is brooding!



The Melbourne Film Festival


The Fipresci-winning Los Muertos (Cannes, 2004) places Lisandro Alonso firmly in the ranks of Argentina's best. Alonso achieved much with his 2001 debut feature, La Libertad, but this powerful and primal film is unequalled in its creation of atmosphere and uncompromising realism. Masterful long takes combine with a beautifully restrained narrative to deliver filmmaking at its best.

Vargas is a man who has been incarcerated for murder. On his release, he makes a journey through the remote wilderness in search of his daughter, engaging with others only as circumstances dictate. The past is largely unknown in Los Muertos and yet it is everywhere, haunting and shaping both Vargas and the film's action. The towering natural environment diminishes the self-contained Vargas, evoking a sense of his isolation and inevitable return to the past.



Strictly Film School


Los Muertos opens to the visually atmospheric and strangely surreal image of an unpopulated tropical forest, tracking sinuously (and disorientingly) through the lush wilderness, momentary revealing the dead bodies of two young people splayed amid the obscuring brush, before returning to the idyllic shots of foliage that becomes unfocused and diffused, imbuing the image with a sense of organic, subconscious somnambulism. The film then takes on a more mundane and naturalistic tone with the shot of Argentino Vargas waking (perhaps from the haunted dream), assembling chairs at a workshop, and eating in silence, before an intervened confrontation reveals that the setting is a rural prison, and Vargas is serving the final days of his sentence for the murder of his siblings. Eventually released from prison, the taciturn Vargas sets out to honor a promise that he had earlier made to a fellow inmate and deliver a letter to the old man's daughter before embarking on his long, lonely journey home. Lisandro Alonso creates an evocatively atemporal and even otherworldly experience through the film's indigenous primitivism. Like the seeming mystery of the dead bodies in the jungle of the opening sequence, the film represents a subversion of expectation, most notably in Vargas' seemingly arrested memories of - and anticipated reunion with - the daughter he left behind (his purchase of candies and a fashionable blouse for her seems to indicate a young girl or teenager and only later does it become evident that she is already a grown woman). It is this process of supplanted expectation that is perhaps alluded to in the film's contextual reference to the titular dead: a laconic and unstructured presentation of images without narrative form, rather like cinematic ghosts, existing outside of time and physical space in the ephemeral, dense, and impenetrable medium of personal memory.



Edinburgh International Film Festival


Released from prison, a middle-aged man sets out to see his daughter, who lives on an island somewhere up-river. The subsequent journey, which occupies most of this elegant and concise film, is depicted as a series of natural events, satisfying basic human needs: eating, buying a gift, visiting a prostitute - all permeated by an atmosphere of mystery. Yet from its opening shot (gliding slowly through a forest, the camera floats across the bodies of two dead youths) to its unsettling and ambiguous finale, this is a work of extraordinary precision and grace, whose exquisite minimalism conceals a darker and more elusive purpose.



The Fascination with the Real

(Hans Christian Leitich, FIPRESCI)

Splitting a prize may give an impression of indecisiveness. Then again, this might be a statement - hopefully a strong one. In case of the long final round of the debate of this FIPRESCI jury, the term "comparing apples and oranges" came up so often that precisely that seemed worth telling in the end.

The question of comparability came up because there are specific basic similarities in the construction of the plots of the two finalists - namely focusing on the attempt of a main character (each of a quite distinctive lower class aura) to restart a life at the fringes of civilization. In Los Muertos, Lisandro Alonso introduces us to provincial Argentina and to a taciturn man in his fifties who after a release from decades of prison travels deeply into the rainforest to reunite with the remains of his family. The more familiar, also poverty-stricken suburbs of upstate New York are the background for an inner travel of a woman of about thirty. In Debra Granik's Down To The Bone, a married mother of two is fighting heavily to get rid of her addiction to cocaine and to self-destructive tendencies. Open endings in both films.

Completely different were, on the other hand, the approaches of storytelling. With his second feature film, Lisandro Alonso (La Libertad) delivers another striking example of how much the new wave of Argentine cinema works on contemporary film styles - specifically underlining the fact that they are made on 35/16 mm. In many scenes, cuts come remarkably late, forcing the viewers to stay with scenes of a possibly disturbing nature (circling around sex, death, silence) or allowing the camera to drift around to show more of the surroundings - and making the sounds take over the viewer's attention. Combined with elliptic plot omissions, namely explaining the murder victims which make the title, Los Muertos can be described as looking glass cinema - a fine example of hypnotic realism somewhat comparable to portrayals made by the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, Le Fils). The emphatic approach to low life is similar, just calmer.



The San Francisco International Film Festival

(Jason Sanders)

The jungle: a summer swarm of insects, slivers of sunlight and a leafy, overwhelming green. Los Muertos opens like a portrait of verdant nature, of the light and shadows of the tropical world, until its prowling camera discovers something more: the murdered bodies of two boys. With this startling scene, Lisandro Alonso opens his elegantly austere investigation of the boundaries between the natural world and the human-and the violence that lurks within them both. Jumping forward 20 years, the film shows the aging Vargas released from jail. Seemingly anxious to get lost, Vargas buys a canoe, visits a prostitute, then heads downriver. Shucking clothes and money along the way, he lets the jungle reclaim him. Alonso's refusal of easy explanations leads to a wealth of metaphorical interpretations: the isolation of Argentina; the path from guilt to absolution; ex-criminals reintegrating into society. But like Mexico's Japón or Thailand's Blissfully Yours, Los Muertos is a true motion picture. Luxuriating in the sensual sights and sounds of the tropics, its camera captures not still life, but an ever-moving one, filled with color and texture. The story can mean anything; what matters is the world that surrounds it, the one we all live in, but rarely take time to see.



LA Weekly

(Scott Foundas)

This ongoing series of acclaimed recent films that have yet to screen locally, curated by members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, returns as part of this year’s LAFF, complete with a panel discussion in which critics (including this one), distributors and exhibitors will discuss the market forces affecting the distribution of foreign and independent films. Among the films screening, the revelation is Los Muertos (2004), the extraordinary second feature by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso, about a recently paroled felon (nonprofessional actor Argentino Vargas) making the long and arduous river journey back to his adult daughter. The movie begins with a dreamlike opening shot of sunlight flickering through dense jungle brush, until the dream turns into a nightmare when Alonso’s camera comes to rest on the bodies of two dead children. As the film progresses, we gather fragments of the story — enough to know that the man returning home now was the killer of his two younger brothers back then. Little beyond that is certain, for as in Alonso’s striking 2001 debut film, La Libertad, the strength of Los Muertos lies in its lyrical silences and in the strange and terrible beauty Alonso evokes from his synthesis of man, labor and nature. More often than not, what we see on the screen is simple human behavior, unobtrusively observed, as Vargas carefully removes honeycomb from a beehive or, in the film’s most striking set piece, kills and guts a goat that he will bring to his daughter as a gift. Los Muertos is no mere ethnographic record, however, but something darker and more unsettling: a passage into the haunted recesses of a human soul. No title in this year’s "Films that Got Away" program — from the dystopian, neofuturistic Chinese fable All Tomorrow’s Parties (2003) to Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness (2002), about the collision of tradition and modernism in a seaside Mauritanian village — is without merit. But Los Muertos qualifies as a major event, not just on its own terms, but for offering local audiences a window into the exciting new wave of films and filmmakers that has emerged from Argentina in recent years.



Salon.com

(Andrew O'Hehir)

"...an extraordinary film from the young Argentine director Lisandro Alonso, which premiered at Cannes and Toronto in 2004 and has yet to find North American distribution. It's a gorgeous, troubling odyssey through the South American jungle with a recently released convict (Argentino Vargas), who has completed a long sentence for -- as we learn almost accidentally -- killing his two younger brothers.

There's not much action and even less talking. Vargas (it's the character's name too) gets his long hair cut off on his last day in prison. He borrows a boat, kills a goat, raids a beehive for honey. He buys a blouse for his daughter, not knowing what colors she likes or whether it will fit her. And off he goes, by river and overland, in search of the remote jungle camp where she lives. Alonso doesn't want us to know what to make of Vargas or his crime. (The title, literally "the dead," may refer to Vargas' brothers or to something else.)

Vargas isn't a professional actor, and although he radiates a kind of weatherbeaten, mild-mannered ruthlessness, the character is as unreadable as the jungle he travels through. Possibly that's the point, or one of them, but I don't actually think Alonso has some philosophical agenda about murder or human evil. He wants you to take this mysterious journey with a mysterious man through a mysterious landscape, and each of us will experience it literally or allegorically or however we may. It's a tremendous experience, whatever it is; the kind of thing supposed art-movie audiences used to tolerate and pretty much don't anymore.



Kino Slang

(Andy Rector)

LOS MUERTOS played last night as part of the "Films That Got Away" series during the LA Film "Fest". Robert Koehler gave an inspired introduction, mentioning Bielinsky's death, Lisandro's new film FANTASMA (which I knew nothing about), and heralding a new generation of filmmakers who haven't forgotten cinema, even "pre-storytelling" cinema, linking LOS MUERTOS and this new generation to silent film, saying that they have not forgotten 35mm...

"Shot in long, stationary takes, the film is a minute-by-minute account of regeneration, as the returning prisoner renews his acquaintance with nature, negotiating the shallow rivers that lead to his home, feeding on honey stolen from buzzing hives." -- Dave Kehr

There are very few "stationary takes" in LOS MUERTOS. The ebb and flow of the film, its very form, depends on preemptive, autonomous, or structural camera work (not to limit the moves to those three descriptions) -- most of which are worthy of Murnau. In my piece on the film for FIPRESCI I mentioned seeing the curvature of the earth over the green river in one of the shots. I though I had seen this directly, a curved horizon where the river meets the sky. Seeing it a second time I realize this is a result of the camera's path in accord, and THEN in opposition to Vargas's boat, a kind of drift that spatially creates a curve, i.e. he starts the shot looking to the left diagonally, pans and stays with Vargas in profile, then lets Vargas go diagonally panning to the right, with the camera following wind and stream. An incredibly simple "follow" shot made rich by the resistance/guidance of the circumstances.

LOS MUERTOS has the advantage of making all other films seem false, another inspiration to start anew. This has been said of films before, genre films to genre films mostly. It is to the whole of cinema that Alonso speaks. Alonso is the only filmmaker of his generation, plus granted 15 years older or younger, who cares about the green of the earth. Positif called Alonso's way of filmmaking "haughty". While watching LOS MUERTOS I suddenly thought "hardly any filmmakers give a shit about people".

Lisandro's masterpiece and his way of working, truely unique today, along with Koehler's introduction, have stirred a lot of expolsive yearnings in me, to fight further and harder for the solidarity required if any more free films like LOS MUERTOS are to be made. And by freedom I don't mean the freedom of those other green rivers only producing the freedom to buy and sell. We ought to put an end to independent film, for the only thing independent about it is the dealing. LOS MUERTOS is something else.



MORE ACCOLADES


"New Argentine cinema finds its poet and master in Lisandro Alonso."
(Deborah Young, Variety)


"...a powerful and disturbing masterpiece."
(Bergen International Film Festival)


"Los Muertos has a certain cold beauty, full of startling magical imagery, and a final shot that is equal measures baffling and chilling."
(IO Film)



AWARDS


Winner
FIPRESCI Prize, ex aequo
"...rewarded for its hypnotic fascination with the real"

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