A dramatic true-life account plays out in dryly empathetic, patiently observed fashion in "Porfirio."
A dramatic true-life account plays out in dryly empathetic, patiently observed fashion in “Porfirio.” Brazilian writer-director Alejandro Landes’ realist feature gives little early indication that its wheelchair-bound subject, Colombia’s Porfirio Ramirez Aldana (playing himself), was responsible for the foiled 2005 hijacking of a Bogota-bound plane, for motives that are incrementally examined here. A painstaking study of paralysis, physical and otherwise, that gently blurs the line between documented reality and fictional reconstruction, pic will be limited largely to festivals, given its withholding narrative approach and unforced pacing. But its expert sense of composition marks Landes as a talent to watch.
Formerly a wealthy farmer and cattle rancher living in the Colombian village of Playa Rica, Aldana found himself caught in police crossfire in 1991, sustaining injuries that left his legs paralyzed. Several years later, civil unrest forced him to flee to the city of Florencia, where he now lives in a disheveled housing project and ekes out a living selling minutes from his cell phone. It’s here that “Porfirio” introduces its actor-subject, sans backstory, the better to build a slow, minutely detailed portrait of a person for whom even the act of climbing into bed reps a near-Herculean feat.
A heavy-set man whose legs have visibly atrophied from disuse, Aldana sports a thick mustache and, despite his downbeat, taciturn manner, a certain twinkle of merriment in his eyes. With zero self-consciousness and considerable dignity, he exposes every inch of his body onscreen as Landes observes every quotidian detail of his life — eating, bathing, selling minutes and, at one crucial juncture that doesn’t initially seem all that crucial, buying diapers.
In a scene typical of the film’s unblinking matter-of-factness, Porfirio relieves himself with the aid of his good-natured but sometimes inattentive son Lissin (played by Aldana’s actual son, Jarlinsson Ramirez Reinoso). Though unable to walk, the man retains the use of certain below-the-waist essentials, shown in a bout of apparently unsimulated sex with his next-door neighbor (Yor Jasbleidy Santos Torres).
Aldana doesn’t say much, but his sturdy, genial presence has an eloquence of its own, bespeaking a desire to have his story told and to be the one to tell it. To that end, “Porfirio’s” view of physical disability often mesmerizes despite its glacial progress and stingy way with narrative information.
Those walking in blind may be startled by the film’s climactic turn, given a decidedly whimsical, tongue-in-cheek interpretation by the press notes’ synopsis (“A man in diapers … dreams that he can fly”). Yet the personal and political stakes motivating Porfirio’s decisive actions, heinous though they were, are subtly established through sheer attenuation of telling individual shots and sequences. Porfirio waits and waits for justice, the gears of which have rarely seemed to grind so slowly; in that respect, the patience of Landes’ dramatic method is all the more fitting.
D.p. Thimiois Bakatakis’ symmetrical widescreen framing ideally captures the actor-subject’s frequently recumbent form in mostly fixed, low-angle setups, offering not only a view of Porfirio but also Porfirio’s view of the world. Occasional camera pans are perfectly and elegantly timed to follow his movements by wheelchair, especially during his occasional trips into town, in which he seems to take silent pleasure in speeding past pedestrians. The palpably warm Latin American temperatures and abundance of full and semi-nudity lend the film a relaxed, earthy sensuality.