AFED #20: La Mujer Sin Cabeza [The Headless Woman] (Argentina, 2008); Lucrecia Martel

Latin American cinema is almost a complete mystery to me. To the best of my knowledge the sum total of my viewing consists of Amores Perros, City of God and Santo vs. The She-Wolves.

I was hoping I could also include El Perro, a rather odd seventies picture in which The Exorcist's Jason Miller plays a fugitive chased across Venezuela by a relentless dog; but it turns out to have been a Spanish production.  Either way, you can see it's not exactly an impressive return.

Yet the consensus amongst film critics and scholars is that the region has made huge strides in the past decade, even if the general English-speaking public aren't paying much attention. That Mexico, Brazil and Argentina now have prospering national cinemas is perhaps not so surprising, but Chile and Uruguay are also getting in on the act. Of course it's all relative and Hollywood still dominates at the box office.

It would be remiss if at least a handful of the intended (but don't count on it) 365 entries on this blog weren't from Latin America. However, in the case of Argentine film The Headless Woman I'll confess it had more to do with my curiosity about the title and that it had a highly regarded woman director, Lucrecia Martel.

This, her third feature film is the story of Verónica, a middle-aged woman who's driving in the country when she's distracted by her mobile phone and hits something. Quite what she struck is uncertain, either to Verónica or the viewer; although when she looks back there's a dead dog lying by the side of the road she thinks she may have collided with something, or someone, else. The experience leaves her shocked and confused and the film follows her over the next few days as she struggles to reassemble her mind and get to grips with what may, or may not, have happened.

But a synopsis can't really do justice to the effect Martel achieves; the true craft lies in the detail. Not only are the facts of the accident unclear but we're told so little about Verónica, her life and background, that in the first half of the film we share her dazed confusion about precisely what's going on and who people are. Elliptical scenes and obtuse shot selection draw us into her chaos.

Gradually some of the pieces start to coalesce, only to grow more ambiguous. When Verónica confesses to her husband and brother about what happened they set about erasing any record of the accident or her subsequent trip to the hospital. Yet we also discover a local Indian boy has disappeared and police are dragging a stretch of the canal our protagonist had been driving beside when she struck something. Every time Verónica begins to distance herself she's drawn back to her anxiety.

Martel's use of the classic theme of return of the repressed serves as a metaphor of sorts for the guilt of the white Argentine bourgeoisie, albeit without becoming overtly political. There are also overtones of Antonioni's Blowup and the mutability of reality. A clever example is the child's handprints that can be seen on the window of Verónica's car after the collision, but might just as easily have been there already. As viewers we're being challenged as to how much significance or meaning we wish to read into these details.

An intelligent and provocative piece of work that's likely to reward multiple viewings


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