Blessed by Fire (Iluminados por el fuego)

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Dir. Tristán Bauer, Arg./Spain, 100 min., 2005.

In 1982, the Argentine military dictatorship decided the time had come to go to war with the United Kingdom over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands at the southern tip of the South American continent, which the English had claimed for over 100 years. It was supposed to be an exercise in nationalism, but the handful of ill-equipped boys that were sent down to the frigid, bleak, and muddy end of the Earth merely suffered, and several hundred died, their army surrendering to the Europeans and limping home with its tail between its mangled legs.

This film bases itself on the story of a journalist, Esteban (Gastón Pauls of Nueve Reinas), and the attempted suicide of his old war buddy, Vargas (Pablo Ribba). From there it tells their story of the Malvinas fiasco in flashback segments.

The film is well-made. The pacing between the present-day scenes and the flashbacks carries the film along. Pauls turns in a solid work as the stoic Esteban. Ribba is excellent — alive, visceral, but subtle and human — as Vargas. The acting has a naturalistic feel overall, which is nice, particularly from the roles of Sergeant and Lieutenant. Only veteran Virginia Innocenti’s portrayal of Vargas’s wife seemed a little overblown — but that might be due to her being surrounded by stoic men. Her emotions did seem genuine.

However, the camera work really makes this film. Smooth and nimble or switching to the urgency of hand-held, tight shots or wide, the cinematography really takes the viewer into a journey, not just on one. You can feel the cold of the Malvinas and the shells exploding all around you.

It was military idiocy that caused the suffering of these men: For killing a sheep, Vargas gets beaten then staked out on his back overnight in the freezing rain before being tossed into a hole in the ground; when the Argentines have to retreat the Lieutenant orders Esteban to pack his belongings for him — including his boom box — and carry them, at the expense of his own things and a wounded Vargas. We see how well this managerial method serves. As the Lieutenant “welcomes” the boys, he screams: “¡Veo un grupo de tagarnas y reclutones…que no entienden nada! ¡Solo Dios y la patria! ¡Viva la patria!” and just then shells explode all around them and the grand teniente ends up on the ground, hat off, disheveled.

That speech comes in sharp contrast to that of a general, we suppose, after the surrender: “Han peleado como verdaderos soldados. Van a ser recordados por los demás argentinos como heroes. Esto que han vivido aquí les va a acompañar siempre.”

He’s right on the last count only. Ultimately, this film is about remembrance, and Esteban says that no one remembered this war. There were no parades. Only his mother greeted his return, and the government made all the soldiers swear a pact of silence. Vargas, though married, worked in a factory until it closed, and he ended up begging in the street. No one remembered them. Esteban had buried the experience until Vargas’s suicide attempt, and then says that he can’t think of anything else. Half of the film is this flooding back of his memories, not just a time shift in a film.

Ultimately, Esteban returns to the Malvinas to remember, for closure. Under a British flag he is hosted by English tour guides. A “Photos are prohibited” sign of course means “Don’t remember”. He touches lots of junk from the war that still lies scattered throughout the yellow grass of the countryside. He — somehow — finds the hole he’d lived in and a package with an old photo and a letter. Here it gets sentimental and sappy, and the closing folk song really tries to ruin what has been a solid film with too-literal lines about the war like: “¿Por qué querer matar a los hijos?” It even uses the word “genocidio”, which is a little much at this point. Does the placement of this song intend irony when the refrain sweetly adds: “Todo está guardado en la memoria”? It’s not saved in memory of anyone except the soldiers who suffered. No one else cares. That’s the point.