Sunday, March 17, 2013

108 (CUCHILLO DE PALO), Renate Costa Perdomo's quiet documentary about a dictatorship and a dear, dead uncle

Invited to 27 international film festivals and the winner of Best Film at two of these, 108 (CUCHILLO DE PALO) is the quietly devasta-ting documentary from a young Paraguayan woman, Renate Costa Perdomo, who now lives in Spain, but retur-ned to her South American home-land to make this, her first full-length documentary. If the title of this movie sound like perhaps a street address to the uninitiated and/or non-Spanish-speaking, it's not. Both the number and the phrase are epithets for a homosexual.

The number 108 became a kind of code for a gay man; cuchillo de palo means a stick-like knife, hence a useless tool (think of it, in a macho, Latin America country, as a limp dick). Both the number and the name were used to describe the filmmaker's uncle Rodolfo Costa (shown on the left in the photo at right), also known as Hector Torres, an alias he went by during the time -- 1954 through 1989 -- that Paraguay was under the thumb of right-wing dictator Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda.

Stroessner himself, as we learn from some of the interviewees here, had a gay son. But instead of this mellowing the man and opening the door to understanding and acceptance (as it might today, in a more democratic society), it only made matters worse for gays during the last half of the century past. Just how much worse, we come to know via the many interviews -- with relatives, especially the filmmaker's father (at left) and brother to her dead uncle; friends and/or lovers of Rodolfo; and other homosexuals who speak about their life during this period of repression, torture and murder.

Ms Costa Perdomo (shown at right) has made a quiet,  strange and sad movie, in which, when she appears, is usually as a blur or in very soft focus. We hear her asking questions, but she wants the people she is speaking with to register most strongly. They do. What they tell us is anything but reassuring -- about both the past and the present.

How her uncle -- whom she clearly enjoyed and admired as a child -- came to die remains a mystery, and one that it is clear his own family still prefers not to solve. She gives us the circumstances of that death and what followed in pieces, explai-ning, "I think I started to get to know my uncle the day he died."

Despite the negativity and repression on view, particularly from her father, who is still full of denial, anger and the crap religion of a Catholic Church under the thumb of a right-wing dictator (similar, I would guess, to that of Spain under Franco). Renate's father actually refers to his brother as a monster. "And what must a monster do? Change! Recognize his mistakes and change!" This sounds like something my own father would have said -- hooked as he was on a poorly perceived idea of the Christian religion to the exclusion of everything else. (From what the New Testament of the Bible tells us, Jesus, the fellow who preached those lovely Beatitudes from The Sermon on the Mount, would never have uttered something so crass and unfeeling.)

Despite the subject matter, Ms Costa Perdomo has made a surprisingly warm and intimate little movie. Her own quiet but insistent attempts to get her relatives to face up to things go a long way toward making this sad story more bearable. And her interviews with Paraguay's gays are thoughtful and pointed. One fellow, still fearing reprisals, keeps his face hidden. "Politics may change," he tells us, "but people's mentality does not."

From the beginning of the film, we see the little corner laundry/apartment where Rodolfo/Hector lived (above). By the movie's end and we see it for the final time, we've learned so much more than we knew at the beginning that it seems a whole world has opened up before us. You will wonder, by the finale, if father and daughter are still speaking. Probably so, for you can't image that this talented and feeling woman would ever do to her father what he had done to his own brother.

108 (Cuchillo De Palo), from Icarus Films and running 91 minutes, opens tomorrow, Monday, March 18, for a week's run at the Maysles Cinema, New York City. Click here tickets and screening times and here for directions.

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