A potent antiwar diatribe that's also the primary film example of Argentina attempting to exorcise its 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War demons, "Illuminated by Fire" is a watchable if none-too-penetrating analysis of the traumatizing effects of a war largely forgotten.

A correction was made to this review on Sept. 27, 2005.

A potent antiwar diatribe that’s also the primary film example of Argentina attempting to exorcise its 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War demons, “Illuminated by Fire” is a watchable if none-too-penetrating analysis of the traumatizing effects of a war largely forgotten. The first Argentine feature about the Malvinas to be even partly shot in situ, pic spends time on impressive combat footage that could have been spent exploring political and psychological nuances, and is more valuable as testimony than drama. One of the year’s higher-profile pampa productions, the pic should be a hot property in selected offshore locations.

Since its early September release “Fire” has raised temperatures and debate in Argentina, where, until recent years, the pic would have been politically impossible to make.

A phone call to journalist Esteban (Gaston Pauls) about the attempted suicide of a man who fought beside him in the war leads the journo to visit the man, now in a coma. Esteban flashes back to 1982, during the military preparations by the Argentines for the Malvinas, and his own desperate phone call to his mother prior to departure.

Pic flashes back to well-render the tedium and discomfort of the Argentine soldiers on a godforsaken lump of rock in the south Atlantic during the months-long wait for the arrival of the English forces. Esteban and buddies Vargas (Pablo Ribba, the man in the coma) and Juan (Cesar Albarracin) — callow youths all –are living in a foxhole in mud, rain and sub-zero temperatures. The “long live the fatherland” speech from their lieutenant is rendered brutally hollow by the first demonstration of Brit air power — it’s pretty clear the local boys will have no military answer.

The histories of Vargas and Juan emerge through lengthy trench conversations: Vargas argued with his g.f. soon before leaving and didn’t say goodbye properly to his parents, while Juan has a small son. Viewers learn next to nothing about Esteban.

The only remotely comic scene in pic has three deciding to “attack” separately — until viewers realize they intend to catch, kill and cook a sheep. But as Vargas is getting rid of the carcass, he is caught and punished in the most humiliating way. This signals the beginning of the psychological end for him — credibly, there is no hint of any “Private Ryan”-type heroism anywhere to be seen.

When the increasingly desperate boys are dispatched to the front, there’s a terrifically lensed, no-expense-spared night-time combat sequence replicating the decisive battle on Mount Longdon. This lasts more than 20 minutes, and sees the heroes effectively reduced to cannon fodder. Sound work, lensing and tech effects are tops throughout this exhausting seg.Finally back in the present, Esteban decides to return to the islands in an attempt to close the psychological circle. Moving final scenes were shot on the Malvinas, where much war residue, including mines, still litters the ground.

Pic doesn’t have much to say about the psychology of war that a thousand Vietnam movies have not already said as well, but it’s good on this particular war –including such info as the fact that300 Malvinas vets are known to have committed suicide (more than died in combat), about the government’s insistence that combatants commit to a pact of silence following the defeat, about how the military committed to an unwinnable war. Significantly, one “thanks to” credit goes to Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s current president, showing how far things have come.

Dramatically, however, there’s too little happening in the present-day sequences. Perfs are fine, though as the emotional core of pic, Pauls lacks interest and is too impassive. Tech credits are superb, with art direction by Graciela Fraguglia standing out.

Enlightened By Fire

Argentina-Spain

Production

An Alta Films release (in Spain) of a Universidad Nacional de General San Martin production in association with Canal Plus, INCAA. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Carlos Ruta. Directed by Tristan Bauer. Screenplay, Edgardo Esteban, Gustavo Romero Borri, Bauer, Miguel Bonasso, based on the book by Esteban and Romero Borri.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Javier Julia; editor, Alejandro Brodersohn; music, Federico Bonasso, Leon Gieco; art director, Graciela Fraguglia; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Grignaschi. Reviewed at Cines Princesa, Madrid, Sept. 1, 2005. (In San Sebastian Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Gaston Pauls, Jose Luis Alfonzo, Cesar Albarracin, Pablo Ribba, Cesar Albarracin, Hugo Carrizo, Virginia Innocenti, Juan Leyrado, Arturo Bonin, Miguel Angel Ramos.
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