By Dimitri Keramitas
Among the films selected for France’s influential Cannes Film Festival were several from Latin America, and one remarkable entry in the Un Certain Regard section is a Colombian movie called Alias Maria, directed by José Luis Rugeles Gracia.
|Karen Torres as Maria.|
With its main theme of the irrepressibility of love and birth, alongside the consequences of insurrection for child fighters, the film - while difficult to watch sometimes - is also a touching work.
It stars Karen Torres as the eponymous Maria, a young woman fighting with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It’s not clear, but Maria may have been dragooned into the guerrilla army, judging by her discontented attitude. The title implies that her name is a nom de guerre, that she’s been robbed of her real identity.
Maria is also clearly of indigenous background, contrary to most of the other fighters. In a telling moment she addresses a woman guerrilla commander as Señora (otherwise they’re all Compañeros). It’s never explicitly stated, but racism seems to rear its ugly head even among revolutionaries, and Torres brilliantly evokes all these registers of feeling and ambiguity.
|Director Jose Luis Rugeles Gracia|
(Photo: Jaden Rangel)
The above-mentioned commander has a baby, and it’s implied that her privileged position gives her the right to do so. Other pregnant guerrillas must abort. When Maria takes up with a young guerrilla and gets pregnant, she keeps her condition a secret, on pain of forced termination. Ironically, the plot of the movie is the mission to take the commander’s baby on a long trek through the jungle and drop it off with friends.
The detail carrying out this mission is a veritable children’s crusade. Maria is in charge of caring for the baby. Yuldor (Erik Ruiz), a child soldier who looks to be about twelve, is sent along for the perverse reason of turning him into a man, in other words to hack away his childhood. An Afro-Colombian guerrilla named Byron (Anderson Gomez) serves as mentor for the boy and overall den mother for the group, though the “veteran” is barely out of his teens. The leader is Maria’s boyfriend, who looks uncannily like Che Guevara. As Mauricio, Carlos Clavijo captures an idealist’s youthful sweetness that gradually develops into the brutality of the professional revolutionary.
|Birth and rebirth in Alias Maria.|
The director portrays the world of the guerrillas with seeming authenticity, as a slog of routine, alternating with flight. One wonders if the revolutionaries have been whitewashed into overly intellectual and soldierly barbudo-type freedom fighters. (Rugeles Gracia dedicated his film to “all those who struggle”.) We don’t see the resemblance to the actual group which kidnaps and deals in narcotics, among other nastiness. But as pointed out above, Rugeles Gracia does show the guerrillas’ underside in a subtle manner, and these shades of gray are definitely of a dark hue.
The paramilitaries who are fighting the guerrillas are even worse. We catch brief glimpses of what seem like psychopathic maniacs committing bloody atrocities. The short, scarifying sequences are the closest that Alias Maria gets to being an action film. But the guerrillas tend to take a sane position when coming too close to the paramilitaries: They get the hell away.
|Child fighters in the film.|
Most of the film depicts the long march through the rain forest. This has all been filmed on location - although here it’s more like in location. Rarely has the all-encompassing, invasive jungle environment been depicted with such vividness, bringing to mind the films of Werner Herzog (minus the hallucinatory quality). The photography, by cinematographer Sergio Ivan Castaño, is a near-perfect balance between clean professionalism and documentary immediacy.
The mix of professionalism and immediacy also marks the acting. Rugeles Gracia seems to be using the Satyajit Ray technique of using both professionals and non-actors (meticulously directing the latter), to great effect. The unknown cast of Alias Maria makes a greater and more lasting impression than many recent performances by better-known actors.
In the course of the march, the young group discovers solidarity and dissension, hair-raising escape and mortality. They seem to grow up before our eyes. Most of all, the life force of the young people persists against all odds. As Maria keeps making her way, we wonder what will become of her in a few years - not to mention the new life she carries within her. The title allusively calls to mind Ave Maria. Whether that’s intentional or not, the film is a work full of grace.
Production: Rhayuela Cine, Axxon Films, Sudestana Cine. Distribution: Cineplex (USA). Photos are courtesy of the film.
Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.