The Lovers (1928), René Magritte
Eliseo Subiela, Argentine director and one of the most controversial Latin American filmmakers died on December 25, 2016. He was born in Buenos Aires and studied literature and philosophy at the film school de la Plata. At the age of 19 he filmed his first short, “Un largo silencio (A Long Silence).” As shown by his 1986 magnum opus “Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Facing Southeast)” his work is an aesthetic treat to the imagination and often gravitates to the lyrical and illusory.
“Hombre mirando al sudeste” is like a silent and profound dream where the viewer gets submerged in the sounds and movements it offers; while at the same time it opens doors to understanding our own humanity or lack there of. The movie was not an immediate success in his country, but it won five international awards and was a hit in the U.S. and Canada. After an international success it was shown again in Argentina and this time it was appreciated by the public. I have seen “ManFacing Southeast” many times, because of the revealing dialogue, the images and characters, the plot and a melancholic atmosphere that at times overflows with desolation because of what it says about humanity and our treatment of others. It is one of those films that forces the viewer to reflect on what it’s communicating. It takes place in an insane asylum where one day a man named Rantés appears saying he is an alien from outer space who arrived in a spaceship to study humanity´s stupidity. The doctor he is assigned to does not take him seriously. He thinks he committed a crime and is merely trying to hide in the asylum. Little by little in their talks and with his abilities and talents, Rantés begins to intrigue Dr. Denis. The doctor becomes interested in the patient and they establish a friendship. In one conversation, Rantés tells him that human beings, including himself, ignore the stimuli that surrounds them. He says he hasn’t. “If someone suffers I console him, if someone looks at me I look at him, if someone asks me a question I answer.” And on the contrary, “if someone is dying of sadness, you lock him up….your reality is terrifying, doctor.” Rantés asks him to look at the real madness for once. To “stop persecuting the sad ones, the meek. Those who don’t want to buy or cannot buy.” It is this exchange that makes the viewer question their own reality.
If Rantés is indeed someone from another planet, an insane asylum is the perfect place to study not only people’s folly, but also how some of the most vulnerable humans are treated in these social institutions. The movie becomes a criticism on the callous and cruel way these vulnerable people are treated. People like the doctor and his superiors become adjusted to this culture where it’s normal to let them suffer, a society that makes this type of injustice normal. They don’t treat the patients in order to cure them, they just sedate them into oblivion. The medications and electroshocks are a criticism on the inhumane way science is used. Rantés says how typical it is for people to ignore these brutal inflictions on one another. One of the first shots in the movie is that of Rene Magritte’s painting “The Lovers.” This is shown when a patient is telling the doctor how he shot his girlfriend, and how with the remaining bullets he was supposed to shoot himself, but he didnt. The doctor thinks that those memories will be his punishment, how nothing in the ward will help him. He finds it inconceivable to know that the patient thinks he can help him. This exchange between them shows that indeed this place is not where anyone will find a cure. Dr. Denis himself is a broken and lonely human being. He recently got divorced and this separation has affected him both at his job and on his outlook on life. We get a peek at a much happier past when he watches home movies of his ex-wife and children. Rantés, who is very perceptive when it comes to noticing the pain of others sees how hurt the doctor is. The interest in each other is mutual. Dr. Denis thinks Rantés is a genius and notices how caring he is towards the other patients. He doesnt believe he is merely a projected hologram from another planet.
The movie is named because Rantés stands without moving facing southeast. When questioned, he says he is receiving “transmissions from his planet.” Rantés stops taking his medicine and leaves the hospital whenever he wants to. The doctor eventually gets in trouble during an outing with Rantés where Rantés gets arrested when he becomes mystified by Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” and takes over the orchestra. This causes the hospital director to reprimand Dr. Denis and makes him sedate him heavily. When Dr. Denis expresses concern that Rantés might become catatonic, the director tells him to give him an electroshock. Eventually the high doses of medicine do make Rantés catatonic. And it is the director who gives him electroshocks treatment without telling Dr. Denis. Rantés dies from a heart attack. The patients believe he will return and take them to his planet. Perhaps another holographic projection of another Rantés will come and save humanity.
Leticia Cortez is a teacher, writer, and activist. She was born in Mexico and grew up in Chicago. She travels the art world, both in her imagination and in her music, book, art and film reviews. She writes political essays, short stories and poetry. Presently she teaches Latin American Literature and English at St. Augustine College in Chicago.