If we’re going to talk about Los Muertos, we’ll have to go all the way. There isn’t much choice in the matter; the film asks for total engagement, and I’m not going to pussyfoot around a single frame. This needs to be said up front because of the spoiler factor inherent in discussing its most notorious scene—or, for that matter, anything else. See Los Muertos with virgin eyes; this cool-headed enigma is best approached cold, ignorant of everything but the title. “The Dead” is an ironic appellation for a movie so fiercely alive, though perfectly apt for what turns out to be a strange sort of horror film.
Set in a rural stretch of Argentina, the story concerns a middle-aged ex-con named Vargas (Argentino Vargas). The opening shot obliquely reveals his crime while announcing the mysterious mise-en-scéne of writer-director Lisandro Alonso. We pivot along a gyroscopic, shallow-focus view of lush vegetation, sunlight pricking through a green-on-green panoply. A shock of flesh-tone breaks into the reverie: the corpse of a naked young boy on the forest floor, then another body, then a passing glimpse of a man with the killing tool in hand.
The screen fades to green—Brakhage would approve—and opens on Vargas imprisoned. It is the day of his parole; he was sentenced, we vaguely gather, for the murder of his brothers. A haircut, a shave, a wordless lunch. He sips maté with an inmate who asks him to deliver a letter to his daughter Marie. These simple things are simply shot with a minimum of talk and maximum limpidity. Alonso’s habit of entering a scene on an empty tableau, moving Vargas through it, then exiting a beat or two after he’s gone, comes from Bresson, but his minimalism isn’t the least bit mannered. Duration in Los Muertos is keyed to the ripeness of the moment, never plucked early or left to rot with self-indulgence.
Vargas goes free and heads into the wild. He makes desultory thrusts into a prostitute. We learn he has a daughter of his own, Olga, whom he will attempt to find. There is a man by a river who offers him use of a boat, a drink of water, and a jug of wine. By now, the movie’s vibrant calm and mesmeric pacing have done their work. In lieu of an expressed interior narrative—Vargas has no evident psychology or emotions—the imagination feeds on the surface of Los Muertos as symbol. Have we just brushed shoulders with the ferryman Charon? We are, after all, en route to Marie, and once we get there a character named “Angel” will be mentioned in passing.
Marie takes Vargas in for the night, but when he wakes, he wakes alone. Could be that Marie is in the loo, tending chickens, sound asleep. Could be that Vargas hacked her to pieces. This grim possibility is reinforced in the next scene as Vargas proves his facility with a machete, slicing a makeshift oar from a sapling tree. Into the river, miraculous landscape: Los Muertos connects with the elemental energies of sunlight, water, and leaf like nothing since Blissfully Yours. Indeed, that might have worked well for a title here—that, or Heart of Darkness.
Vargas spies a stranded goat on the riverbank. In an uninterrupted shot, he paddles back, grabs its horn, and slashes open its jugular. Make no mistake, an animal was very much harmed in the making of this movie, and a certain number of audience members who haven’t yet fled from boredom will storm to the exit in disgust. Having reckoned my feelings about animal rights against my admiration for Alonso’s art over three viewings, I’ve come to find this no more objectionable than the killing of a rabbit in The Rules of the Game, being just as essential to the film’s integrity and effect.
Los Muertos encourages a ritualistic reading, and one way to resolve this violence is to view it as epitomizing the process of cultural evolution, whereby human sacrifice was displaced first onto animals and then into representation. Another is to check your head while Alonso fucks with it. Earlier, we have watched Vargas smoke bees from a hollow log, scoop out the honeycomb, and squeeze the syrup into his mouth—a lovely pastoral interlude stemming from the same impulse as the goat slaughter. Both acts make the same point: Los Muertos is an indeterminate allegory, one of whose vibrations is the Return to Nature in all its harmony and brutality.
Of course, Alonso knows that one carcass will evoke others, and the entire tease of his film depends on our mental substitution of goat guts with human entrails. With trouble in mind, we move to the climax, Vargas reunited with his daughter. Alonso’s ambiguous intent reaches a silent scream as the camera scrawls a final riddle. Is Los Muertos a tale of redemption or abomination? Is life?