San Sebastián Film Festival: death and happiness
Javier Rebollo’s road movie set in Argentina, ‘El muerto y ser feliz’, divides the critics while Oliver Stone talks marijuana and justice.
By Olwen Mears
El muerto y ser feliz (‘The Dead Man and Being Happy’) was the name of the Spanish-Argentinian production showing on Sunday as part of this year’s Official Section at the San Sebastián Film Festival. It’s a bizarre title with two apparently conflicting ideas; a clue in itself to understanding a film which, in director Javier Rebollo’s words, is not contradictory but “paradoxical”.
José Sacristán plays paid assassin Santos, who is (fittingly, perhaps,) dying. When he skips hospital and sets out on a road trip with money from his last – failed – hit job and a box of morphine, the viewer joins him on a 6,000-kilometre road trip across Argentina – and, says the director, a “nature documentary” of Santos himself.
If it sounds puzzling, it is intended to be. One of El muerto y ser feliz‘s most flagrant features is a constant voiceover which, in line with the film’s self-consciously paradoxical nature, sometimes concurs with what is happening, sometimes doesn’t.
Rebollo’s aim with the voiceover was to sow doubt regarding the “reality” we are watching. The voice, usually a woman’s but occasionally – inexplicably – a man’s, is part of the film’s deliberately indigestible nature. The idea is that the audience may choose to “accept or reject what the film proposes”.
They may also choose to walk out of the cinema, which I was tempted to do on a couple of occasions. By the end, however, I had truly begun to enjoy it, which may be proof of just how “paradoxical” it is. It is certainly testament to the film’s brave if unconventional approach to storytelling.
By definition, a paradox is two contradictory things that may both be true, and the film plays cleverly with a number of apparent dichotomies in this way; not least in the pairing of Santos’s slow, painful and often undignified process of dying with a script that is, far from being tragic, deliberately and darkly humorous.
There is something innately South American in the spirit of Rebollo’s movie, though neither he nor Sacristán are Argentinian. It is fitting, perhaps, that the story as we see it through Santos’s eyes should be unreliable given the huge tumour eating away at his brain. But the almost fantastical way in which the film challenges the idea of one single truth also conjures up the spirit of a country and people who are, says the actor, “marvellous, absurd and crazy”. This is a journey through Santos’s mind, but also an “interpretation of Argentinian culture.”
Ultimately the character of Santos is “a myth”. He becomes a sort of Don Quixote figure, not fighting windmills exactly, but running away from his suffering and sense of guilt. Whenever he stops moving he begins to recall the names of all the people he has killed for money. It is not until the end that he remembers the name of his first victim, at which point both the character and the film enter a state of oblivion.
Rebollo spoke at great length to the media about the meaning of his film, and I couldn’t help but wonder about his apparent urge to explain what he had set out to do. El muerto y ser feliz is, nevertheless, the kind of film that could triumph at an event like the San Sebastián Film Festival. It is a worthy attempt at exploring a potentially uncomfortable topic. Unfortunately, it sometimes gets lost in its own ingenuity.
Unsurprisingly, this paradoxical film has divided the critics.
Oliver Stone, John Travolta and Benicio del Toro were in San Sebastián on Sunday to present Stone’s latest film, Savages, while Stone and Travolta were also there to pick up their Donostia prizes.
True to form they did not disappoint either the crowd or the press. Travolta was all smiles and dimples on the pink carpet, while Stone defended marijuana (which is at the heart of Savages) and called for José María Aznar to be tried at The Hague.
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