Disturbing “Desierto adentro”

9th Spanish Film Festival: Disierto adentro (“The Desert Within”), by Rodrigo Pla, Mexico 2008, 110 minutes

Yes, the film is disturbing in every sense of the word. It’s disturbing because:

Elias, the main character, is disturbingly praning (paranoid).

It’s the Mexican Revolution and the national army is fighting the influence of the Catholic Church. Despite his mother’s appeal that Elias should fight for their right to worship, Elias does not care. When his unborn child is threatened by a minor accident, his wife begs for him to bring in a priest to bless the child in case of a stillborn birth. When he does this, the army follows him, burns down the whole village and kills most of the people, including Elias’ rebel son. (We missed this part. Thanks to this review, I was enlightened. )

While being held captive by the army, Elias tries to ask for forgiveness from the priest because everyone believes it’s his fault that the town is in ruins. The priest, who is later killed by firing squad, tells Elias to ask forgiveness from God because he himself cannot forgive him. The army let the captives escape but shots them as they run. Everyone is dead except Elias.

When Elias returns to his family, his wife is dead from giving birth to a sickly baby he names Aureliano after his killed son. With the spit of shame, Elias’ mother then leaves her own son and his seven kids believing that Elias is forsaken for what he has done. When Elias asks the Lord’s forgiveness in the cornfield, the Lord appears to him in the form of a caricature (a unique feature of this film that makes it interesting) and tells Elias that his family will carry his punishment.

Bearing this in mind, Elias takes his family to the desert where he builds a church, his way of seeking redemption. At this point onwards, everything seems to be disturbing.

Elias locks the sickly Aureliano in a room and, once in a while, lets him stay in a box and tells him stories to spur his imagination. Aurealiano will later on paint what he has imagined while inside the box and the painting joins the rest of his artworks in the altar of the church they’re building.

Aureliano develops an unusual closeness with his playful sister Micaela who, at the onset of the film, portrays a strong character who can defy their father’s authority. She tells her father that it’s not true Aureliano would die if he gets touched, alarming their father who is overly protective with Aureliano.

Elias is the leader who demands respect from his family, yet a very caring father to his children. He strongly believes that once they’re done building the church, the Lord will forgive him.

Tragedy strikes one night as Elias is taking care of Aureliano, who is sick after playing with his siblings out in the rain for the first time. That scene is unforgettable. Seeing the joy in the kids’ laughter is very heartwarming. Watching them carry Aureliano in his chair, covered in a mosquito net, is quite disturbing.

Believing Aureliano’s sickness is God’s punishment at work, the boys gather to set up the church bell so they can ring it as a way of asking the Lord to let Aureliano be well. It is raining and the bell accidentally falls on one of the children and killed him. Elias tells the Lord it is cheating, letting Aureliano live but taking the life of another child.

Aureliano is then allowed to go out and help out with the church works. He continues painting the family chronicle including the death of his two other brothers when a plague struck the desert. He narrates this to the audience using moving caricatures, a technique used effectively in the film, giving it a unique touch and drama.

When they finally finished the church, Elias and the four remaining children prepare the church for a ceremony. Elias locks himself inside to wait for the sign of forgiveness while the children wait outside. Night comes and no sign from the Lord. Elias is devastated and goes to the nearby pond to contemplate. When the elder sister brings him food, she sees flashing lights in the pond. She tells Elias who rejects her idea that it may be the sign. She then becomes sick, overcome with desperation and in her hallucination, she walks to the pond and drown herself.

The brothers, who have set foot on a journey to seek help for their sister, discover that their father has been lying all along. They encounter a group of devotees and find out that the war has ended a long time ago. They then find their grandmother who has mistaken the older brother for her own son Elias. Feeling betrayed by their father, the older brother decides to stay with the grandmother and asks Aureliano to go back home and bring the rest of the family to the village.

Aureliano finds his father and Micaela fetching water from the pond and is told his older sister has passed away. He then tells his father about the village and that they can now go back as the war has already ended. Elias ignores his son and becomes hopeless and desperate than ever, locking himself in his room while his two children commit the sin of incest.

Out of desperation one day, he comes out of his room and starts destroying the church wall. He tells his children that they have built the church the wrong way so they have to rebuild it. As Micaela mocks her father’s desperation and starts to destroy the wall, too, Aureliano runs to his room and tries to lock himself inside his box. Micaela comes into the room and stops him, telling him it’s not that easy to escape the situation. She manages to persuade him to run away.

When morning comes, their father discovers them having sex in the desert and brings them home in his rage. He locks up both of them in separate rooms, giving extra attention to Aureliano who immediately asks for his forgiveness. Micaela refuses to do so and declines any effort of his father to feed her. Elias eventually gives up and let Aureliano handle the situation.

Micaela begs Aureliano to take her away from there. The two set out to the village but the weak sister died on the way. As Aureliano buries his sister, he hears a church bell ringing. Realizing he is not far from the village, he goes to his grandmother’s home and sees his brother happily planting seed crops with a woman. His grandmother sees Aureliano, not recognizing him, she asks if he needs anything from her son. Aureliano says no and asks for water instead.

Aureliano realizes how desperate their life is in the desert. Full of rage against his father who colonizes their minds, he runs back to their house, and finding crosses with all their names on each one, his rage grows even more. Carrying his own cross, he searches for his father all over the house only to find a lifeless Elias hanging on a rope at the altar of the church they built in the hope of redemption.

I never intended to write a full summary of the movie. But as I write this entry, I felt I needed to tell the story in order for readers to understand why I say this film is disturbing.

The narrative is already disturbing. Religion is, indeed, a very heavy topic for a film. The setting is gloomy. The scenes are dark. It is really a depressing film.

But what disturbs me most is the kind of impact it had on the crowd we watched it with, including us. We laughed at “The Feds.” We laughed at the devotees in the procession who actually have with them fireworks in their pockets. We laughed at the scenes wherein the weak Micaela is on the donkey’s back as Aureliano guides the somewhat poor donkey through the desert. The series of scenes features Micaela’s gradual fall off the donkey. We laughed at the line of crosses that Aureliano discovers when he comes home from the village that set him on a rage.

I reckon, if the filmmaker was watching with us during the screening, I bet he’d be sad that people find some scenes in the movie funny. But then he should not, because I know Filipinos, the majority of the viewers, mask their true feelings sometimes with laughter. I should know, I am a Filipino.

Or maybe because I watched it with a couple of friends who could take the movie as lightly as I could that we really couldn’t help but laugh about it as we walked outside the cinema. We haven’t seen each other for a while and it’s really fun laughing with them again.

Or maybe, in my personal opinion, I believe in the forgiving God, not in the one Elias believes in, in this film.

God is forgiving. It is us who are not. We cannot forgive as easily as Our Father does. Lovers couldn’t easily forgive the person who broke their hearts. Customers couldn’t forgive the waiter who made a mistake with their orders. Parents could not forgive their own children who didn’t follow their instructions. Children couldn’t forgive their parents for being too overly protective or too busy to care for them. People couldn’t even forgive themselves when they don’t measure up to their own expectations.

I believe God is not like that. He is a forgiving Father. We just have to learn what forgiveness is and how to ask for it.

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