the angels of history

Tierra de los padres
dir. Nicolás Prividera (Argentina 2011)

Of all the things one could say about it, it would be hard to accuse Tierra de los padres of a lack of ambition, aesthetically or politically. The film, which was controversially excluded from the BAFICI and Mar del Plata festivals despite being lauded in Toronto, Havana, and Mexico, examines the political history of Argentina through its foundational texts, which are read aloud among the mausoleums and monuments commemorating the nation’s “fathers” (and iconic jefa espiritual, Eva Perón) in the Cementerio de la Recoleta. As Prividera writes in a letter to the audience distributed at the film’s belated national premiere, the work explores”the construction of identity over and against an ‘enemy’ to be fought (as is always the case when politics turns into war).”

This “always” is key: Prividera—whose criticially acclaimed first film, M, traces his attempts to discover what happened to his mother after she was “disappeared” by the state in the late seventies—keys in on the ideological and discursive commonalities among the moments of violence that have marked Argentina’s history and, in so doing, blurs the line between past and present, documentary and narrative.

Prividera’s telling of this (hi)story is divided into three movements. In the first, the national anthem is played over a string of still images: of the victims of the military campaigns into the desert at the end of the 19th century, the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo (1955), and the casualties of the Ezeiza masacre (1973); of fallen soldiers in the Falkland Islands (1982), the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo denouncing the state terror of the Dirty War (1976-1983), and the tumult in the streets after the economic collapse of 2001.

Cut to a little girl in a school uniform holding a very large book. To her left is a flag embellished with the national crest; the tight alleys and house-like crypts that run through the urban necropolis stretch out behind her. Haltingly, she reads a passage from a text written in exile by Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851) during the rule of the Federalist (despot) Juan Manuel de Rosas and dedicated to the “martyrs” who gave their lives for their homeland. Echeverría’s lament for the political polarization between its Unitarian and Federalist citizens catch on her tongue; when she reaches the end of the selection, she pauses uncomfortably for just a moment before closing the book and running, away from the camera, to join her peers.

We’ve moved into the centerpiece of the film, a series of readings from seminal cultural and political texts that date from the earliest days of Argentina’s nationhood to the present. People of all ages—some of them recognizable writers, some students; some appear to have been plucked at random from the alleyways of the Cementerio—give voice to the work of historical figures like D.F. Sarmiento (President of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, author of Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, and importer of European educational models) and the Federalist caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), to whom the title of his categorical denouncement of Rosas refers; Juan Bautista Alberdi (intellectual and diplomat who contributed to the composition of the Argentine Constitution of 1853); Rosas himself and his liberal opponent Bartolomé Mitre (President of Argentina from 1862 to 1868, author, founder of the newspaper La Nación). The list goes on. (This is where the aesthetic ambition of the project is most pointed: Prividera sustains this pattern of still shots of readers in front of a crypt or monument, nearly unvaried in the way they are framed and punctuated only by momentary contextual vignettes, for over an hour.)

To these voices are added the more recent ones of Eva Perón, patron saint of the working class, the writer and political activist Rodolfo Walsh, who died in a shootout with the armed forces one day after publishing his famous “Open Letter to the Military Junta” in 1977, and public statements issued by heads of state and business leaders to allay international concern over the political and economic instability toward the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The tracks are gradually layered over one another to create a stunning wall of sound (think Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North”) that in turn gives way to the opening notes of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” as the camera pulls back and up, swirling over the neatly arranged rows of mausoleums, then back further still to include the neatly arranged rows of apartment buildings surrounding the cemetery. We’re still trying to digest Prividera’s juxtaposition of these two spaces as a traveling shot takes us over the city and to its edge at the ports.

In the final moments of the film, as Verdi’s soaring, aching strains evoke the pain of exile and the restorative power of memory (“Fly, thought, on wings of gold;/ go settle upon the slopes and the hills […] may the Lord inspire in you a harmony of voices/ which may instill virtue to suffering”), we come to a stop above the rippling waters of the Río de la Plata, the final resting place of countless victims of the military dictatorship’s “death flights.” There is nothing else in the frame. We’ve moved from a chaos of voices to a categorical silence—not the absence of sound, but the silence of a history suppressed—and we remain suspended there for quite some time.

But wait, you might say, this doesn’t sound like a narrative film at all. And you’d be right, except for the parallel stories being told at the margins of the focal scenes, which combine to form an account of a present in which the past is both entirely assimilated and almost completely forgotten. Through exchanges between the groundskeepers and the families of the entombed, through the flood of schoolchildren scrambling to copy factoids into worksheets in front of Evita’s crypt, and the tourists prospecting for the perfect photographic souvenir, the question behind the project asserts itself among the polemics: Who is the guardian of our history? Whose voice will tell it, and how will it be told? I couldn’t help but feel a bit complicit in the dissipation of historical specificity as I sat comfortably in my seat in the Sala Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938; writer and political activist) on the tenth floor of the Teatro San Martín (named after General José de San Martín [1778-1850], liberator of Argentina, Peru, and Chile from Spanish rule) on the Avenida Corrientes (a city in the north that fought with particular fervor for independence).

But data can only take us so far. “It is one thing to recite,” Prividera insists, “and another thing to understand.” In these micro-portraits of class conflict, the educational system, and the fickle gaze of the consumer of culture woven among the ghostly discourse that inhabits the space, conjured only momentarily by the readers and then lost again for however long, we see the distillation of fraught historical moments into a thin stream of names and dates; as George Santayana would remind us, with their abstraction and gradual progress toward oblivion comes the inevitability of their repetition.

And so we come back to that “always,” and Prividera’s claim that the polarization and the oppression integral to the nation’s founding are still present in a structural, rather than an episodic, way. Though there’s always the danger of such a stance naturalizing these abuses by presenting them as inevitable or as part of a grisly tradition, the spirit of denouncement in which the film was made comes through more than clearly in the camera’s final movement, which joins the official, monumentalized version of the nation’s history to the one hidden beneath the water’s surface, just offshore, condemning a violence that accumulates not as a series of isolated events, but as a single mass. Rubble piled upon rubble, cast at our feet.