Silence speaks louder than words in Isaki Lacuesta’s hushed, intense and admirable “The Damned,” in which a one-time guerrilla heads to the jungle for the excavation of a former colleague’s grave. Pic is about whether or not it’s best to remain quiet about the past, and as such its obliqueness is appropriate, but the vagueness of motivation and even setting inevitably make the film less a slice of living history than a resonant parable. Item is more about questions than about answers, and those questions are compelling and contempo enough for it to find a fest following.
Ex-revolutionary Raul (Arturo Goetz, always watchable), now elderly but still buzzing with the political ideals of his youth, calls his ex-colleague Martin (Daniel Fanego), who is exiled in Spain and has cancer. Raul tells Martin that he is in the South American jungle, trying to find the grave of their old sidekick, Ezequiel.
An initially reluctant Martin flies over to join the team, which consists of Ezequiel’s widow Andrea (Leonor Manso), imprisoned by the authorities at the time; her close friend Vicky (Maria Fiorentino), whom she met in prison; Ezequiel’s aging mother, Luisa (Juana Hidalgo); and Vicky’s impressionable son, Pablo (Nazareno Casero). Notably absent from the proceedings is Ezequiel and Andrea’s daughter, Silvia (Barbara Lennie), who believes the armed struggle was a waste of time.
Bitter over the fact that Martin went into European exile while the rest of them stayed behind and suffered the consequences, Andrea initially refuses to speak to him. Matters are not eased by Pablo’s admiration for Martin, which leads the young man to start to play with guns. Pablo’s emotional confusions are the direct result of the effects of events of 30 years before — and of his parents’ inability to themselves deal appropriately with those events.
Given the characters’ complex backstory, the situation is understandably tense: As they circle the issues without confronting them, something is aching to be revealed. The script is tailored to suggest that much about the present depends on whether we choose to address a thorny past.
This is a key issue in many Latin American countries and elsewhere, which may explain why Lacuesta, who in his previous work has not been afraid to wear his research on his sleeve, has chosen not to root events in a specific time or place. Conceptually, this is fine, but it leaves the characters somewhat stranded and offers the viewer little in the way of context.
That said, the mainly Argentinean cast is strong enough to compensate for the lack of specifics. Fanego, who’s at the center of things, stands out as the wasted, haunted, mysterious Martin, looking both powerfully charismatic and ghostlike as the others bounce their doubts and insecurities off him.
Pacing is snaillike, and there is much silent musing, with the camera happy to linger on faces. Lovingly framed long takes are the norm, though the slowness rarely devolves into mere dullness. When there is dialogue, it’s rich and thought-provoking: “Words,” says one character, quoting Socrates, “were invented to hide thoughts.” The claustrophobically humid jungle setting is crucial to maintaining an atmosphere of constant menace.
Pic manages to retain an intimate documentary feel without sliding into handheld-camera cliche. Gerard Gil’s daringly listen-to-me soundtrack combines electronic hums and buzzes with simple guitar-based themes.