Starting with the wartime travails of the little-known Argentine painter of the title, Jose Luis Garcia’s restlessly intelligent debut “Candido Lopez — The Battlefields” quickly develops from being a mere appendix to the Lopez oeuvre into an absorbing revisionist history of Latin America’s mid-19th century Triple Alliance War — Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus lowly Paraguay. The war ended, in the words of Argentinean President Sarmiento, only because “we’ve killed every Paraguayan from the age of 10 up.” The quest for the truth travels through three countries and a host of colorful characters, transforming potentially turgid material into suitable docu-friendly fest fare.
Early frames set up the complex historical context with the minimum of fuss via helmer’s voiceover before he makes contact with Lopez’s grandson and historian Cirilo Batalla, who will accompany him to the locations of the battles, spread across three nations. They carry with them a tripod ladder so that helmer will be able to photograph the exact areas, often in the middle of nowhere, depicted in the sketches that Lopez made (later, having lost his right arm in the war, turned them into obsessively detailed oil paintings of battlescapes dotted over with L.S. Lowry-like soldiers).
The story that emerges is full of contradictions, legend mixed with fact, but it becomes clear that what is generally taught in schools as a great Argentinean triumph was actually a genocide. Though the message is universal, pic’s strengths are mainly in its sharp eye for the revealing detail, such as the observation that in Lopez’s canvases, it is only the dead who are painted with eyes and who can see the truth about war.
Helmer’s passion for his project, even when the going gets distinctly uncomfortable as their journey takes them through the mosquito-infested regions of central South America, is infectious, and intensifies throughout. Only quibble about the treatment is that docu spends too much time on the process of its own making, unnecessarily diverting attention from the tragic, epic tale on which it is built.