Contemporary Peru and the Big Screen

As experienced in the film Sigo Siendo, directed by Javier Corcuera, the music of Peru permeates all aspects of society. The film examines Peru;s different musical traditions in Corcuera's search for the authentic Peru. Photo by Martín Alvarado, Ojos Propios

Nostalgia, Longing and Anomie 

By Alberto Vergara

Peru is most certainly a country of distances, tensions and misunderstandings. Any overarching discourse breaks down at the insolence of the specific. Whether in economic, social, regional or cultural terms, generalizing arguments wither before the insurgency of the particular. Economists speak of inequality and political scientists of fragmentation, while anthropologists claim that there is no country more diverse. Peruvians, for their part, see eye-to-eye less and distrust each other more every day. The country’s recent elections demonstrate a tendency toward an increasingly herd-like mentality in voting: those on top for those on top, and those on the bottom for those on the bottom. But this segmented country is unaware of it own segmentation.

Like almost everything in Peru, cinema has had a boom in recent years. Theaters have proliferated throughout the country. Between 2009 and 2013, movie attendance doubled from 17 to 33 million. Three Peruvian films experienced astonishing box office success, and La Teta Asustada [The Milk of Sorrow] has received international recognition. It is an encouraging moment for Peruvian cinema. 

But what images of Peru does Peruvian cinema show? I’d like to explore this question using the examples of three recent films. What I offer is not an artistic critique of the films, but rather a historical reading. Although each is distinct in genre, quality and purpose, they all help to shine a light on the misunderstandings and the different rates of speed that crisscross today’s Peru. First, we have the comedy ¡Asu Mare! [Holy Cow!], directed by Ricardo Maldonado, a film that has brought to theaters more than three million people in a country of thirty million. It would be a great sociological distraction to think of this film only as a blockbuster. Next, Sigo Siendo [I Go On], directed by Javier Corcuera, in which the music and waters of Peru lend form to a beautiful cinematographic essay. Finally, El Evangelio de la Carne [The Gospel of the Flesh], the terrific creation of Eduardo Mendoza, in which, perhaps for the first time, Lima itself purports to be the main character of a film.

What are these films about? What themes do they develop behind their narrative structures? El Evangelio de la Carne concerns the social fabric that comes together to help those in need. It is about organizing polladas (chicken dinners) for everyone to chip in to help pay for someone’s trip abroad, or about pulling together money to pay for an expensive medical operation. But the film depicts a social fabric that is not only meant to alleviate monetary needs, but also to make bearable another type of distress—that of the soul, if that word still means anything. Take the ex-driver who is responsible for crashing the bus he was driving while drunk, taking the lives of several people, including children. Nothing keeps him alive more than the hope of one day joining the Brotherhood of El Señor de Milagros. In another example from the film, youths from disadvantaged neighborhoods get a new family as part of the barras, the rowdy soccer fans that support Universitarios de Deportes team. Evangelio, in sum, explores forms of survival, both material and moral, of individuals cut off from a society based on mistrust and marked by unreliability.

¡Asu Mare! and Sigo Siendo could not be any more different. The former is a biopic; its universe is the individual. The star, popular comedian Carlos Alcántara is at once both character and actor in this story of personal growth. Even when life is not going your way, as the film moralizes, your own cleverness is what can make you realize your dreams. In a way, Alcántara (the character) is the arrival in Peruvian cinema, finally, of the nouveaux riches that fill the pages of European novels from the 19th century. He is a character out of Balzac. And like with those characters, mobility is confirmed and sealed with the seduction of a high-class woman: in Europe, the woman who belongs to the aristocracy and, in the pigmentocracy of Peru, the woman from the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima. 

The lens of Sigo Siendo, on the other hand, does not attempt to capture the individual, but rather culture as a whole. It is quintessential arguediana, a style influenced by José María Arguedas, the classic Peruvian author. Director Corcuera’s camera goes in search of the authentic Peru, and where he finds it is in the different musical traditions of the country, and in the waters that give life to the forest, mountain ranges and the coast. It is a film that looks to navigate the “profound rivers” of the nation. It begins with a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film: an ethnic Shipibo Canibo woman from the forest appears seated on a tree, whose imposing and established roots tunnel down into the earth. We hear her singing and talking, listening as the rain falls heavily and, thanks to the subtitles, we learn that she is longing for a time when there was more respect, the time of her ancestors. The melancholic staging makes the character almost an extension of the roots of the tree, a scene loaded with stillness. By filming this Peru, Sigo Siendo privileges the immutable, the cultural, the earthly, the ancestral.

A scene from the film El Evangelio de la Carne, directed by Eduardo Mendoza. Photo courtesy of Alberto Vergara

If each of the films captures a different dimension of contemporary Peru—society, the individual and culture—this compels them also to highlight different moral views vis-à-vis those dimensions. According to El Evangelio director Eduardo Mendoza, survival in the context of the jungle of informality that he portrays in his film is a critique of the discourse of success that predominates in contemporary Peru. It is a story in which belonging to clans is the only way to save ourselves in the midst of a Hobbesian society. That said, perhaps the virtue of Mendoza’s film is that it is less an explicit critique of this lawless city and more an effort to show us its quotidian dynamics. 

On the other hand, ¡Asu Mare! and Sigo Siendo both take explicit politico-moral positions. ¡Asu Mare! is a film about mobility. Its tone is pure optimism: less “yes we can” than “yes you can.” It is a metaphor for contemporary Peru. Although it seemed that the country and Alcántara during the ‘80s were destined to bleed dry and perish due to a general precariousness and lack of resources, their strength, tenacity and ingenuity allowed them to stanch the blood and prosper. In the film, Peru and Alcántara become one; the official, optimist narrative of the time is fused with the avatars of Alcántara, the character. It’s not by chance that the film ends with its hero putting on the jersey of the Peruvian national football team. It is a film that does not shy away from (or despise) the character of the parvenu, but rather makes an example of him. “Cachín” Alcántara, as he is nicknamed, is a sharp, moral (if unusual) member of that group that has been endlessly celebrated in today’s Peru: the entrepreneur.

In contrast, Sigo Siendo is not an optimistic film. Its theme is forgetting. The music and waters that give life to the film reveal a country marked by the inability to remember and, further, by the inability to recognize that which forms it. Although the film is called Sigo Siendo [I Keep On], perhaps a more precise title would be Sigo Sobreviviendo [I Keep on Surviving], given its nostalgic mood, which portrays the gradual loss of a host of national traditions. No matter the specific subject, the past is always shown to have been a better time. And that past vanishes irretrievably while the official Peru refuses to rescue it, to recognize it. The original sin of Peru, then, is forgetting.

Because of these distinct focuses, each film deals with historical time in a different way. For Sigo Siendo, evidently, the history of Peru—although perhaps it would be more accurate to say all the nations that populate this territory we call Peru, “todas las sangres” as in the classic Arguedas title —is one long continuity. But it is a fading continuity, exhausted by forgetting and need and, above all, threatened by change. Each of the film’s characters, regardless of their musical traditions (Amazonian, Andean or coastal) returns always to nostalgia. “Como antes no hay [it’s not like it used to be],” croons a creole singer from Lima, creating a pregnant, despairing melancholy. Although the film’s main characters all reinvest this tone with their own meaning, violinist Máximo Damián most embodies this survival of tradition. “No vayas a cambiar por nada [don’t change for anything],” he remembers his friend and teacher José María Arguedas once warning him. He tells us that his violin is like his father and mother (not like his son, I might add). And the film closes with Damián, this exquisite and pure violinist from the Andes, selling ice cream on a Lima beach, wearing a yellow uniform, none of his customers appreciating the historical displacement that envelops the endearing ice cream-selling violinist. Damián is the continuity of a nation forgotten but still present, whose ancestral core should not lead us to believe that it is closed off in time or space. Rather it is a nation that consists of a number of nomadic and displaced roots, the historical purity of its Andean origins endangered by the alien Pacific Ocean.

¡Asu Mare!, for its part, is a film about the national and personal transformations of the last few decades. Alcántara has gone from being a drug-consuming failure to a comedian of unparalleled success—a parallel to Peru’s national success. The film demands a Peruvian audience, specifically an audience that will appreciate its treatment of our national emergence out of the economic shadows. This is evident in the scene in which Alcántara’s mother hurries off to pawn a ring, but when the pawnbroker offers her “dos cientos cincuenta mil millones de intis” [250 billion of a former, useless currency], the mother replies as if she knows she is being swindled, “tan poquito? [so little?].” Viewers laugh because we recognize the story of inflation and utterly worthless paper money. That’s where we come from. Like Alcántara’s mother’s ring, the country is also up for pawning but, like Alcántara, we have taken our heads out of the sand. Something changed in the country, and the film plays on the understanding of a public that, like Alcántara, has prospered in the last 15 years. And the viewers all roar with laughter with their own unexpected success.

To give another example, El Evangelio attempts to be a film about Lima, more than just a film about Peru as a whole. And the foundational Lima that it shows does not seem particularly new (as in the case of ¡Asu Mare!), nor that of venerable tradition (like in Sigo Siendo). On first seeing El Evangelio, I remembered the debate at the end of the 1980s about the anomie that was rampant in Peru at the time. In that debate, sociologist Hugo Neira argued that Peruvian society had entered into a process of social and moral decomposition that contradicted the hopes of the left for the rise of a popular movement with all the right values. In turn, he called upon the social sciences to shift their theoretical lenses toward understanding societal deterioration, rather than societal progress, the lens through which Marxist-leaning Peruvian social scientists viewed society. Invoking Durkheim, Neira depicted his idea of Peruvian anomie, embodied by the struggling informal sector, lack of confidence, misery, decaying of political affiliations, and the absence of a law-enforcing state. Eduardo Mendoza shows us that this anomie did not end with recent economic growth. The film’s characters know that contracts are worthless, and that transportation, communication and music are all pirated. The police sabotage the law, foreign money is changed in the streets and money won in casinos and illegal gambling dens is squandered; as a policeman says in the middle of an illegal software market: “Los gringos sacan un programa nuevo y en menos de una semana estos ya lo copiaron. ¡Qué rico Perú! [The gringos put out a new program and in less than a week, we’ve copied it! How clever is Peru!].” Mendoza’s film thus reminds us that economic growth has not put the brakes on continuing social decomposition and may have even exacerbated it in some cases.

If these films show different views of Peruvian society and its relationship to the history of the country, one could suggest that they also allude to the country’s political situation in the 21st century. ¡Asu Mare! is in form and foundation a film that takes its cue from the style of popular politician Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Its aesthetic, derived from advertising and its urban soul, optimistic and wholly at home, are reminiscent of the way that Kuczynski relates to his electorate; this is a film about the winners. In a way, El Evangelio de la Carne is a film about dyed-in-the-wool Fujimoristas, a group accustomed to illegality, in which the ends justify the means and anomie permits the gestation of the next authoritarian leader. Finally, Sigo Siendo is a film that resembles the Humalista side of Peru (Humala the candidate and not Humala the president, if it really needs to be said). The film gives voice to that nation that needs subtitles in order to be understood, a film that, in the end, aims to redeem the forgotten country with the respect of a missionary who has traded in the sacred writings for a camera; it is a film about things forgotten.

The three films remind us of the strange moment that contemporary Peru finds itself in. We prosper, but at the same time we’re stuck in those same old ways: winners and losers disregard each other, some fly and some fall. But, more than that, these films help us to see those segments of Peruvian society that are blind to what is going on around them and, on the other side, to see that they are less segmented and isolated than they think, that the bridges and roads that connect them are much greater than they imagine. At the same time, in a period of accelerated changes, cinema serves as the conscience of those changes. It is also useful for observing that which, in the midst of the confusion, we are incapable of noticing that which endures in silence. 

Finally, these films and the very different reactions they received from the public have transformed into an index of the distances and tensions that Peruvians live with every day. The millions of moviegoers brought together by ¡Asu Mare! contrast with the dearth of spectators for other films that have to fight to get even one week’s exhibition in commercial theaters. What do Peruvians want to see and what would they rather ignore? These three films are a reflection of these intimate desires, at least of the urban desires. For better or for worse, the big screen suggests we Peruvians want to be unaware of our anomie and our forgetfulness. We prefer, on the other hand—and I’m not the one to make this moralistic denouncement—to avoid, to laugh, to leave it till tomorrow…after everything, who knows how long this strange illusory moment will last? We prefer, rather, to confirm our progress with a smile and hope for prosperity… and a girl from Miraflores.

Alberto Vergara is a post-doctoral Banting Foundation fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. He has lectured on Latin American politics at the Department of Government, Harvard University, and at the University of Montreal. He works on political regimes in Andean countries. His last book, Ciudadanos sin República (Lima, Planeta, 2013), gathers his political essays in Spanish.

See also: Peru, Film