Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (aka Hombre Mirando al Sudeste) (Argentina, 1986) ***

Written and directed by Eliseo Subiela. Cinematography, Ricardo De Angelis. Music, Pedro Aznar. Editing, Luis Cesar D'Angioullo. Exec. producer, Lujan Pflaum. Art direction, Abel Facello. Sound direction, Carlos Abbate. Production mgr., Hugo Lauria. Camera, Aldo Lobotrico. Set designer, Marta Albertinazzi. Cast: Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto, Ines Venengo, Cristina Scaramuzza, et al. Produced by Cinequanon Fiilms, released by Filmdallas. In Spanish with subtitles. 105 minutes. Rated R.
Let's start with significant incidentals. In a period where photography is so very often the real star of movies, the recording of sound has lagged behind. In the wonderfully dialogued MAN FACING SOUTHEAST the clarity of speech is exceptional. If you know Spanish, the (to me,at least) attractiveness of the Argentine accent can be an additional source of pleasure. Even if you don't speak Spanish, it is possible that subliminally the musicality of the Argentine sing-song modulations will add to the film's peculiar appeal.

For at least its first two thirds, the movie is spellbinding, as Dr. Dennis (Lorenzo Quinteros), a lonely, disillusioned psychiatrist in a mental hospital, becomes, against his better judgment, fascinated with Rantes (Hugo Soto) a new inmate who claims that he is an extraterrestrial. Rantes calmly declares that he is the beamed product of advanced laser holography, and but one of many identical replicants sent to this planet in order to study it and try to help it against itself. He adds that in every physical and mental way, clinical tests will later prove this.

With a genius I.Q., Rantes is exactly like a human, except for a total absence of feelings. Every day he stands motionless for hours,facing southeast, as though communicating with his planet.

Yet this theoretically emotionless creature moves people through music (he is also a gifted organist), soothes the other inmates through his mysteriously charismatic presence, disturbs Dr.Dennis with lucidly disenchanted denunciations of this planet's cruelties and follies.

Rantes himself is a messianic figure who believes in justice and kindness, not however for apostolic, spiritual or moral reasons. It is strict logic that makes him maddeningly aware that the world's values are demented, its priorities insane, its spiritual and material resources askew; that (as Pirandello would put it) the naked should be clothed, the hungry fed, the unhappy consoled. But this planet does not care.

The search of records reveals nothing about the stranger. The doctor is convinced that Rantes is an exceptional creature but for sure also a madman. So probably thinks the audience too, until we--cleverly, not the doctor--witness the unsettling scene of Rantes in a restaurant telekinetically moving the food of others in front of a destitute woman and her children. Might he really be an E.T.?

There is nothing particularly new in reversing commonly held notions of sanity and madness. Where the movie shows originality is in its additional premise: that rigorous logic sans emotion, is in itself sufficient as reason and effect to validate criticism of mankind--just as it validates Rantes himself. He thinks, therefore he is.

This position is not sustained to the end. Rantes is eventually compared to a Christ figure by the skeptical Dennis. With a deepening relationship between doctor, patient and a third character, Beatriz (Ines Vernengo), an attractive woman who is presumably an evangelist, the extraterrestrial gradually seems to become "infected" by "human" feelings of indignation. These culminate in his telling Dennis: "Your reality is terrifying, Doctor."

It is after this that Rantes, casting a kind collective spell at an outdoor concert, starts waltzing to a (rather awful) rendition of Beethoven's Hymn to Joy, and sets others dancing too. As a result, he becomes a public menace in the eyes of the traditional law, order and hospital authorities...

From the start we sense that we are more or less in Borges territory, in the domain of the Ibero-American school of the fantastic novel. This is quickly confirmed when Dr. Dennis finds a literary precedent for Rantes' otherwordly "beingness."

It is no less than "La Invencion de Morel," the influential 1940 book by Adolfo Bioy Casares--a writer also made famous by his collaboration with Borges. "La Invencion" is a kind of psycho-metaphysical work partly spinning off the H. G. Wells novel "The Island of Dr. Moreau." In the Casares story, creatures are formed by projection, years before anyone had heard of lasers and holograms.

The soberly intense, controlled performances by Soto and Quinteros (the latter sometimes registering his emotions like a suffering Tom Conti) add to the otherworldiness of this parable and paper over any excesses and contradictions. The use of music and the original parts of the score are particularly apt.

"Man Facing Southeast" received the FIPRESCI (International Critics) Prize at the 1986 Toronto Festival of Festivals.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel