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The Repressed Signifier: the Cinema of
Alejandro Agresti and Eliseo Subiela

© Geoffrey Kantaris, 1998

Originally published as: "The Repressed Signifier: the Cinema of Alejandro Agresti and Eliseo Subiela". In Francisco Domínguez, ed., Identity and Discursive Practice: Spain and Latin America (Bern: Peter Laing Publishers, 2000), pp.157-73.


This paper examines the portrayal of shattered identities and psycho-linguistic censorship in two Argentine films of the Post-dictatorship period: Hombre mirando al sudeste (1986) by Eliseo Subiela, and Boda secreta (1989) by Alejandro Agresti. I aim to show how the films implicate the very medium of cinema, its processes of representation centred on point-of-view, cutting, and suture, in the psychic censorship and 'invisible' violence of the dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s. The relationship between identity and representation becomes a central concern in these films, giving rise to a series of universalizing metaphors for social and military repression, from the confession box to the psychiatric asylum. It has sometimes been argued that such metaphors work to de-historicize, and, possibly, to disavow the social and class determinants of the violence of the period, but I shall suggest that such criticisms misunderstand the radical nature of the films' critique, which is aimed at exposing the mechanisms which underlie the viewers' inevitable complicity with the scopophilia of power.

Plate 1: Publicity Poster for
Hombre mirando al sudeste

To examine the issue of identity through its cultural inscription is to engage uniquely with the processes of identification at work in a society, rather than merely to provide some reflection of the broader social or historical construction of identity. Moreover, cultural representation, unlike its political counterpart, can attempt to read identity symptomatically, not as an essence, nor as the mantle of some pre-given socio-historical subject, but as a hodgepodge of partial and ongoing identifications. Read in this way, the films of the post-dictatorship period in Argentina are not so much a series of glossy images, as 'texts' full of scratchings-out and torn pages. Indeed, the two films I shall be referring to here display precisely such attention to the complex processes of identification, and both exploit the ways in which spectators are themselves caught up in chains of representation, their identity at least in one sense constructed by their relationship to camera and screen.

Hombre mirando al sudeste is set in a psychiatric hospital which is clearly standing as a metaphor for the repressive military régime of the late 1970s in Argentina, but also for a much wider régime of psychic control operating in capitalist society in general, and which seems to proliferate a generalized human cruelty. Boda secreta takes as its context a small, remote, provincial town, and maps the military paranoia and its régimes of social control onto a generalized repression of desire and sexuality promulgated in particular, it is suggested, by Christianity. Like the two most internationally distributed Argentine films of the post-dictatorship period, La historia oficial (Luis Puenzo, 1985) and Camila (María Luisa Bemberg, 1984), these films operate a series of thematic displacements of politics and violence. In the case of La historia oficial, the critique of the ravages of militarism is displaced onto a classroom and a 'family romance', while Camila displaces its critique of male-dominated authoritarianism onto the historical referent of the Rosas régime and a doomed love affair between a governor's daughter and a priest in the style of 'national romance'.[1] On a discursive level, however, La historia… and Camila are largely conventional, providing the spectator with a stable viewpoint, the illusion of omniscience, and clear identification characters (Alicia and Camila respectively). In contrast, Hombre mirando… and Boda secreta engage with the psychic processes at work in the displacements which they operate, the implication of these displacements with censorship and repression, and in the process both films call into question the fixity of the viewing subject and its identifications.

Censored dreams

The opening sequence of Boda secreta, cut through with blackouts over which the credits are projected, initially appears to be portraying one of those nightmare scenes with which we are probably all familiar. After the initial credits over which a pulsating rhythmic background music starts up on the soundtrack, we observe from an elevated overhead shot a distant figure walking along a narrow walkway, and climbing over obstacles in his path, in what appears to be the middle of the night. As we peer more closely into the bluish dark, we can just make out that the figure is a naked man, but suddenly the screen blacks out and a title credit fades in for six seconds and fades out. The black screen cuts to a new shot, from ground level, and we see the figure approaching us along some railway tracks, his body smudged with soot or dirt. Again, a blackout interrupts our gaze with some more title credits. The next shot shows the man from behind, still naked, ascending on an elevator, past a sign which reads "Plaza de Mayo". Suddenly the point of view shifts to that of the man, as the camera adopts a disorientating panning and tilting movement sweeping across the tops of the buildings as we ascend into a Plaza de Mayo bathed in early morning daylight. Cut to tracking shots of the man running along a street in broad daylight, covering his genitals with his hands, stumbling forwards, while over the pulsating soundtrack can be heard the sirens of police cars. Another blackout. Cut to a view of him running along the Avenida de Mayo, followed by a shot of a police car, and then a fast tracking shot, as if from the point of view of the police, chasing the man to the foot of some marble steps. Cut to the man sitting on the steps of a public building as a policeman emerges from the car to interrogate the now slumped naked man, whose only response to the policeman's questions is "No sé, no sé" (0:04).

Sigmund Freud interprets the latent content of dreams of embarrassing nakedness in public as being concerned with forbidden wishes that have fallen victim to repression, generally related to childhood sexual or pre-sexual impulses such as unashamed exhibitionism, or even simply childhood memories of a prelapsarian state of unashamed nakedness (The Interpretation of Dreams, pp. 340-47). As the child is gradually socialized, it learns to repress and structure its unsocialized impulses under a series of prohibitions governing the symbolization of desire. As is well known, Freud uses the political metaphor of censorship (p. 223) to describe the psychic force which transforms and displaces into symbolic activity the unconscious wishes constructed in the dream, although it is possible to extend this analysis to many other spheres of symbolic activity, whether talking, writing, socializing, or even in the mediation between spectator and the imaginary signifier of film. It is this metaphorical censor which, translating and distorting, condensing and displacing, imposes the feelings of shame experienced in dreams of nakedness, a shame which is not present in the original unconscious wish. The description Freud gives of the elaboration of symbolic content in dreams under the imposed need to evade "censorship", itself a metaphor taken from issues of literary creativity, in turn provides a fruitful framework for the analysis of cinematic texts produced in the aftermath of social and political trauma:

[T]he dream has above all to evade the censorship, and with that end in view the dream-work makes use of a displacement of psychical intensities to the point of a transvaluation of all psychical values The thoughts have to be reproduced exclusively or predominantly in the material of visual and acoustic memory-traces, and this necessity imposes upon the dream-work considerations of representability which it meets by carrying out fresh displacements. Greater intensities have probably to be produced than are available in the dream-thoughts at night, and this purpose is served by the extensive condensation which is carried out with the constituents of the dreamthoughts. (p. 651)

The sequence that I have described is clearly drawing a link between psychic repression and censorship, and state repression and censorship, for example in the sound of police sirens overlaying the dramatic background music, a kind of literalization of the censor metaphor. This linking of political and psycho-sexual repression in the examination of personal and social identity is indeed a fundamental aspect both of Boda secreta and of Hombre mirando al sudeste. In their psychic displacement of the mental and physical violence and mutilation carried out by the military régime, the films are able to examine, both at the level of personal and social identity and at the level of the filmic signifier, the effects of censorship, silence, self-denial, and the atmosphere of denunciation and conformity of the period. Although these films are produced under democracy and are not themselves subject to censorship, they employ techniques of displacement and condensation as their very mode of political commentary, through a series of psychic metaphors, as well as through filmic devices which question the binding of the spectator into cinema's régime of belief.

The naked man whom we see during the credit sequence of Boda secreta is taken off to a police station for interrogation; unfortunately, however, he has no memory either of who he is or of where he has been, and answers all of the policemen's questions with "No sé, no me acuerdo":

Hombre: No me acuerdo, por favor, no me acuerdo. […] ¿En qué año estamos? […]

Policía 1: En el '89.

Hombre: ¿1989 dice?

Policía 1: ¿Por qué, en qué año creías que estabas?

Hombre: '76.

Policía 2 [a Policía 1]: ¿No le dije que éste estuvo guardado?

Hombre: Guardado, no. Vengo de abajo. […] De abajo, del Subte.

Policía 1: Escuchame, si vos no hablás, yo te voy a pasar, y te vas a pudrir en una celda o en un loquero. Por última vez, ¿ c ó m o t e l l a m á s ?

Hombre: No me acuerdo, no me acuerdo. (0:05)

In the interrogation scene which follows on from this, we see the man in a darkened room, with an interrogation light shining into his face, peering into the light and naked once more. The camera adopts an encircling, inquisitorial movement, as the disembodied and amplified voice of the interrogator gives the man a list of names to choose an identity from:

Interrogador: ¿Cómo te llamás y quién sos? Te voy a dar nombres: Julio Marchetti […] Claudio Iníguez […] Fermín García …

Hombre: Ése, ése soy yo, Fermín García, soy Fermín García …

Interrogador: ¡CALLATE CUANDO HABLO YO! ¿Sabés una cosa? No te conviene decir que sos Fermín García. ¿Sabés por qué? Porque Fermín García era chófer de micros en la Línea del Sur.

Hombre: Sí.

Interrogador: Un gremialista.

Hombre: Sí

Interrogador: Un agitador… Y en mayo de 1976, ¿sabés qué le hicieron?

Hombre: Me mataron. Ya sé. Me mataron. (0:06)

Staying, for the moment, at the thematic level of interpretation, symptoms such as amnesia and loss of identity are, according to Freud, the result of extreme repression either of some highly traumatic experience which is then disavowed or as the result of extreme parental repression in childhood which is then turned inwards against the self. It is, then, fairly simple to draw a connection between the psychic symptoms of memory loss displayed by Fermín García in this sequence and the extreme forms of repression experienced by the people of Argentina under the dictatorship. Fermín's memory loss involves not only his own identity, symbolized by the forgetting of his name as signifier of that identity, but also, significantly, the whole period from 1976 - i.e., the year of the military coup - to the present of the film (1989), some thirteen years which have simply disappeared, just as he had simply disappeared for the same period of time. This personal amnesia is just the beginning of the film's examination of a collective amnesia, as worrying and as strange as that displayed by the characters in Juan Rulfo's stories, and with similar effects at the level of the characters' relationship to the signifying chain.

If Fermín García's amnesia can in some sense be understood as a loss of mastery over the signifier, then the careful camera work of these opening sequences seems aimed at disrupting that coherency of the spectator's vision which, according to Mary Ann Doane, "ensures a controlling knowledge which, in its turn, is a guarantee of the untroubled centrality and unity of the subject" (p. 28). Although the concept of identification in cinema is a troubled one, I shall here take it in the psychoanalytical sense employed by commentators such as Christian Metz and Stephen Heath. I am referring here to what they term primary cinematic identification, linked to the specular construction of identity (as in the Lacanian mirror phase),[2] a process which involves the spectator's identification with the very act of looking.

As spectators, we naturally identify with the position of the camera, its view constructs our cinematic identity, so to speak. Cinema's conventional régime of belief attempts to stitch the viewer seamlessly into its signifying chain. This process, known as suture, attempts to cover over the lack which is implicated in the disposition of camera and scene, through techniques such as the shot/reverse shot structure which appears to 'answer' the spectator's absence from the screen through the alternating of points of view, creating an illusion of presence and of mastery over the signifying medium; or through continuity editing, the hand of the realist which must hide the 'cut' that underlies all cinematic montage, constructing the position of the camera as a kind of transcendental subject. In the credit sequence, the disavowed lack in the field of vision together with the editor's 'cut' are made explicit in the blacking out of the screen. Our gaze literally fails, while the audio track propels the action forward in the absence of vision. Excessive camera movement also disorientates, since it creates a psychic split between our own immobility as spectators and the mobility of the visual field, rupturing fixed positions of identification. The variety of shots which we see in quick succession - overhead, panning, tilting, point-of-view, tracking, crane, swift cross-cutting - all combine to produce such an effect. And last but not least, the voyeuristic circling of the camera around its half-blinded victim in the interrogation scene, interrupted occasionally by the blotting out of the interrogation light, disturbingly implicates our own desired-for mastery over vision with that abuse of power and mastery which we term torture.

Madness and civilization

A switch of scene now, from the streets of Buenos Aires to a psychiatric hospital. The opening sequence from Hombre mirando al sudeste shows some equally striking, self-conscious use of editing. The establishing shots show the empty corridors of the asylum from various angles over which some of the title credits are projected. The sound-track initially plays recordings of general bustle and noises of activity in the distance, which continue through a series of blackouts which are similar in effect to those at the beginning of Boda secreta, only even more irregular in that they do not always serve to carry credits. A bell begins to toll, but the recording is slowed down as it tolls, giving a slow, warping 'countdown' effect until a final dedication appears on screen: "A mi padre". The action proper begins with shots of a white-coated doctor walking through the corridors of the asylum; he encounters some security guards escorting a new inmate, who looks straight through him, raises his arms and shouts, "Mirta, mi amor". The doctor looks around; cut to a point-of-view shot of the empty corridor behind him. The scene then switches to the interview room, with the doctor slumped at his desk, his fingers on his temples, listening to the compulsively repeated story of the patient:

Paciente: Disparé dos veces, como habíamos quedado. Quedaban dos balas para mí. Después me puse el revólver acá, y disparé los otros dos tiros. … Entonces no … vi más nada. Sólo escuchaba que ella … se quejaba … [Insert shot 1] agonizaba. Yo quería ayudarla, pero no había más balas. Y la sangre no me dejaba ver. [Insert shot 2] La oía, pero … no sabía dónde estaba. La sangre me salía de adentro como un chorro de agua de un caño roto. … Y ella se fue. [Insert shot 3] El pacto era morir los dos. Ella había ido a comprar el arma… Y yo le fallé doctor. … ¿Cómo puede ser? … Usted me tiene que ayudar. … […] Disparé dos veces, como habíamos quedado [etc.]

Voice-over of doctor's 'thoughts' as patient repeats his story: ¿Quién le dijo a este pobre infeliz que yo puedo ayudarlo? Mejor le haría un sacerdote. Nunca se va a sacar de encima estas imágenes. Lo voy a dopar. En poco tiempo desaparecerá entre los otros, será uno más [… Insert shot 4] […] (0:04)

There are no less than four brief, silent, insert shots in this sequence, each lasting no more than two seconds. The first shows a close-up of the Doctor putting a saxophone to his lips and beginning to play; the second shows two figures kissing, their heads covered entirely by sheets in the form of hoods; the third shows the same hooded figures, but with blood soaking through the hoods; and the fourth is a home cine-camera image of the Doctor with his children. The shot of the hooded figures is immediately recognizable as being an enacted setting of the famous surrealist painting by the Belgian artist René Magritte, called Les Amants (The Lovers) of 1928 (see Plate 2). This is a text-book example of the process of translation, displacement, or distortion of a real referent which Freud identified at the heart of the Dream Work carried out by the censor. The image condenses a whole series of unthinkable referents, and at the same time displaces them onto a pre-existing cultural image - the Magritte painting of shackled desire.

Plate 2: René Magritte, Les Amants (1928)

On the most basic level, the image condenses the elements of the patient's compulsively repeated story of the mutual suicide of the two lovers. This is overlaid with the Doctor's own frustration in love - we later learn that he is separated from his wife and children - and this is also represented here by the self-referential insert shot of the home movie of his children, cinema itself figured as a kind of Proustian attempt to recapture Lost Time, although here it is more conventional than the Lost Time of Boda secreta.[3] On a deeper level, as is pointed out by Fernando Reati (p. 32), the atrociously hooded figures, their identities rubbed out, may well be a displaced representation of the hoods and blindfolds which the military torturers would put over their victims' heads to prevent them from recognizing those who were carrying out the torture, the hoods sometimes being left on for months at a time, terrorizing the victims and rendering them psychologically helpless. On this level, not only the surreal picture, but also the whole psychiatric institution, can be seen as a displaced representation of that which the Argentine middle classes had attempted to disavow and repress, those extremes of sadistic violence carried out on individuals by the very machinery of state, which still cannot be thought rationally. Does this process of displacement of a specific historical moment onto the allegory of psychiatry, let alone onto a surrealist painting, represent, as suggested by some of the film's reviewers, a kind of erasure of the precise political and historical circumstances which made the military dictatorships possible, thus colluding with censorship and silence? It would be, if the film were not laying bare, through these self-conscious cinematic techniques, precisely the processes of its own displacement of history.

Hombre mirando al sudeste is the story of the curious relationship between the Doctor, whose name is Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros),[4] and a patient called Rantés (Hugo Soto; see Plate 3) who one day suddenly appears in the asylum, no-one knows how, claiming to come from outer space (this is not the same patient of the opening sequence). The film sets up two narrative chains: the first equates the asylum with any analogous centre of incarceration and torture, with the Doctor as the unwitting torturer; the second equates Rantés with a kind of Christ figure who ends up, as in some tale by Borges, repeating step-by-step the life of Christ up to his torture and death on the cross (we are even given the inevitable "Doctor, doctor, ¿por qué me abandona?" scene (1:29)). The film is basically the working out and intertwining of these two powerful narrative chains, with the Doctor finding himself playing the rôle of an unwilling torturer and simultaneously the rôle of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the inevitable crucifixion. The device is fully sustained throughout the film: we see Rantés performing miracles of a telepathic type, both inside and outside the asylum; we see him ministering to his disciples, the inmates of the asylum, and we see the profoundly unsettling effect he has on the psychiatrist's unquestioning lifestyle and beliefs. Rantés, a kind of cybernetic Christ, continually inverts the hierarchy of Reason and Madness, the comfortable binomials of this side and that side. By insisting that it is his behaviour which is entirely rational, he exposes the irrational bases upon which civil society is built.

Plate 3: Rantés (Hugo Soto)
in Hombre mirando al sudeste

Some reviewers also accused the film of preaching an over-simplistic New Age philosophy which translated a complex political struggle, with clear social and class determinants, into a simplistic moral framework, hence inadvertently colluding with the repression or censorship of politics (e.g., Quintín). This criticism, once more, depends upon a misunderstanding of the way in which the film is engaging at the very level of form, style, and even theme, with the psychic mechanisms underlying such censorship and repression. In fact the political allegory, the religious fable, and the theme of disavowal, are carefully woven into a set of subliminal ciphers which the film uses to convey messages about its own subtexts. At several points in the film, for example, windows unexpectedly burst open in a most eerie manner, and invariably the doctor tries to close them. For the surrealists, the image of opening of doors and windows acted as a powerful symbol of a point of passage between self and other, between this side and that side, between the rational and the irrational.[5] The cumulative effect of a number of such incidents throughout the film is extremely powerful, creating a symbolic network pointing, at a thematic level, to a subtextual encounter with difference and otherness which Dr Denis must disavow. Similar ciphers would be the strange intrusion of distant sounds of radio transmission into several scenes in the film, and the surreptitious and inexplicable need of the Mary Magdalene figure, Beatriz (Inés Verrengo), to change her shoes every time she enters and leaves the asylum.

Plate 4: Christian parables - the first encounter
between Rantés and Dr Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros)

Some more overtly fantastic elements leave us with some doubt about any possible rational explanation of events within the film. For example, when Julio first talks to Rantés about Beatriz, Rantés tells him that when she feels strong emotion she expels a blue liquid from her mouth. Julio takes this as part of Rantés's delirium, but much later in the film, during a love scene between Julio and Beatriz, at a moment of climax, three drops of a blue liquid fall from her mouth onto his white shirt and the side of her mouth and chin are stained with the liquid. I would argue that ciphers such as these serve to emphasize and heighten what is known in psychoanalytic film theory as splitting of belief. To summarize this concept, I quote from Roberto Stam et al.'s New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics:

Metz describes belief in the cinema as a process of denial or disavowal - the mechanism, or mode of defence, invoked in fetishism, whereby the subject re­fuses to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception. Behind every incred­u­lous spectator (who knows the events taking place on the screen are fictional) lies a credulous one (who nevertheless believes these events to be true); the spectator thus disavows what he or she knows in order to maintain the cine­matic illusion. The whole effect of the film-viewing situation turns on this con­tinual back-and-forth of knowledge and belief, this split in the consciousness of the spectator between "I know full well..." and "But, nevertheless...", this "no" to reality and "yes" to the dream. The spectator is, in a sense, a double spec­tator, whose division of the self is uncannily like that between conscious and uncon­scious.

"I know ... but nevertheless" is the structure of fetishism in psycho­ana­lysis, for the subject disavows the lack interpreted as resulting from castration precisely by an imaginary belief in its fulfilment. (p. 148)

The fantastic in Hombre mirando al sudeste plays strongly upon this primordial split, but I think that, given the implicitly politicized context, we can extend this idea much further. If disavowal is a mode of defence whereby the subject refuses to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception, then one could argue that disavowal and splitting of belief were almost a necessary condition of any accommodation to life under the military régime in Argentina. Hombre mirando al sudeste thus plays with great force on both types of disavowal - the socio-political and the cinematic - weaving them inextricably into each other within the film's frame of reference. Rantés, for example, insists that he does not really, physically exist, that in fact he is merely the projection, a kind of hologramme, of some giant, immensely complex, extraterrestrial computer. For us of course, he is merely a projection, a cinematic image on a screen, yet for us he also is not a mere projection, for it is a fact we must disavow in order to carry on believing in the cinematic illusion, just as it is a fact which Dr Denis must disavow if he is to continue having faith in the psychiatric hospital and the rational, bourgeois social order which it supports. Dr Denis does in fact check out the theory of hologrammes, and comes to the conclusion that Rantés had probably read Adolfo Bioy Casares' famous story La invención de Morel, which has become something of a classic of film theory and cinema studies, providing yet another instance of the carefully wrought meditation on cinematic processes at work in this film.

Disavowing the 'disappeared'

I want to turn back to Boda secreta now and show how similar split psychic structures are seen to lie at the heart of the schizophrenic mode of thinking and living imposed upon the people of Argentina during the dirty war and its aftermath. Fermín García (Tito Haas), the protagonist, has been warned, as we saw, not to let his identity be known and not to talk about his 'disappearance', which he has in any case repressed. He does remember, however, that before he disappeared he had a fiancée called Tota (Mirta Busnelli) in a faraway provincial town, Mendieta, at the end of the coach route on which he used to operate (the names are fictitious). Confused by the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires and the immense changes that have occurred in thirteen years, he makes his way by coach to Mendieta, hoping to find Tota. He adopts an alias, Alberto González, and by chatting to the bus driver, he learns that Tota had gone a little crazy when she had been 'abandoned' as she thinks by her fiancé, and had set up a kiosk in the bus station in the naïve, crazy hope that one day, after all these years, her fiancé would return.

The scene when he arrives begins with an establishing long-shot of the kiosk, with the letters "TOTA" painted in blue on the awning. Fermín's head moves into frame as he walks towards the kiosk. Cut to a tracking shot from ground level, following his shoes (with no socks) as he walks up the path, with his leg obscuring our view of the kiosk window. When he arrives in front of the kiosk the camera adopts a fixed crane position from above the awning, with a big blue letter "A" visible top right and Fermín standing in front of the window bottom left. Our view of the kiosk window is thus deliberately blocked as the following exchange takes place:

Fermín: Tota, ¿estás ahí?

Tota: Sí. … ¿El diario, señor?

Fermín: Tota …

Tota: ¿Cuál?

Fermín: Soy yo, Tota.

Tota: Cuatro australes.

Fermín: Soy yo, Tota.

Tota: Cuatro australes, señor.

Fermín: ¿Qué te pasa?

[Searches for money in his pocket, drops some coins, bends over to pick them up, purchases newspaper, p.o.v. from Tota of him handing over the money, turns around and goes back down the path]

In this sequence, our own view of Tota is blocked until the very end when she is too far away for us to perceive her face. We are so used to seeing people who speak in cinema, within the structure of suture which I discussed earlier, that the blotting out of her visual identity is consciously experienced by the spectator as a form of censorship which closely matches the censorship of memory which has fallen over Tota. Her failure to recognize Fermín is presented here in ambiguous terms, suggesting that her amnesia is linked to a fundamental inability to acknowledge his identity.

The events and dialogue later in the film tell us that in every other respect Tota's memory is excellent. She remembers when Fermín took her to Buenos Aires for a week, she remembers small details about their relationship, and she has been waiting for thirteen years for his return, inventing love letters, talking about her relationship and her forthcoming marriage. Yet she is unable to recognize him, as if he himself were a repressed signifier, refused any meaningful place in the film's signifying chain by this process of disavowal. The drastic nature of this situation emerges slowly through his subsequent encounters with Tota. Fermín, or Alberto, finds employment as a piano player in the home of a kind widow, Doña Patricia (Floria Bloise), who runs a small homely restaurant for the local élite. At his subsequent meeting with Tota, we see him rehearsing when she arrives, attracted by the sound of the piano playing - she remembers that Fermín used to play the piano. He stops playing, gets up, and stands face to face with her. In the background, Doña Patricia asks him the name of the piece he has played, but the focus remains on Alberto's face, while a discordant high-pitched tone playing on the audio track also forces her words into the background. Still staring at Tota, he replies "No recuerdo, mala memoria" (0:28). Tota moves over to the piano, and tinkles a few notes, while Doña Patricia, out of frame, continues talking to Alberto, also out of frame. She starts scratching a piano key obsessively, and as Alberto is telling Doña Patricia why he does not want to live in Buenos Aires any more, Tota suddenly interrupts with the following:

yo estuve una semana en Buenos Aires. No me voy a olvidar. La Calle Corrientes, la Avenida de Mayo. La Boca. Pero mi novio no quiere vivir ahí ¿sabe? Y siempre discutimos por lo mismo. Fermín es de Pompeya. ¿Usted conoce Pompeya? (0:30)

The following day we see Alberto and Tota sitting together outside the kiosk, Tota reminiscing about her trip to Buenos Aires thirteen years earlier with Fermín: "No hace tanto que estuve en Buenos Aires. Será unos meses. […] Parece que fuera hoy" (0:40). Here we see something of the enormity of the fictional fantasy construct which Tota has built in her disavowal of Fermín's disappearance. We also very clearly see splitting of belief in action as she both believes and does not believe the illusory fantasy she here re-enacts about a Fermín who will one day return in the same bus that took him away to Buenos Aires thirteen years earlier, a scene we have in fact witnessed to a very different effect. In the slippage between these two scenes, the film is able closely to mirror the splitting of belief at the heart of the cinematic experience itself:

Tota: Hace tanto que no hablaba con nadie, sobre el gordo. No me contestan cuando les hablo, cambian de conversación. Hacen como si … como si no existiera. Se creen que no me doy cuenta. Lo que pasa es que están celosos. Están celosos porque nosotros estamos tan enamorados. Estamos muy enamorados.

Alberto: Muy enamorados, sí.

Tota: Se deben creer que yo estoy loca. […] Y usted … ¿nunca estuvo?

Alberto [whispering]: Yo estoy tan enamorado.

[…] [Tota gets up and stands in front of the kiosk window looking towards the bus stop; elevated long shot of her as she speaks]

Tota [raising her voice]: Pero yo sé que va a volver. Fermín va a volver. Porque es un nene, él. Porque es un chiquilín. [Shouting] Yo sé que va a volver. Por ese camino va a volver [pointing down the path]. Un día, cuando el micro que se lo llevó me lo traiga de vuelta, yo no le voy a preguntar nada, nada le voy a preguntar, [louder] ¡lo voy a abrazar, y lo voy a besar, y lo voy a cuidar para siempre! ¡Fermín para siempre! [Giggling, in a much softer voice, looking at Alberto] Perdón … tengo miedo de aburrirlo. (0:43]

One more sequence serves explicitly to link this disavowal of Fermín's (Alberto's) presence, the traumatic striking of him out of the signifying chain, to the very mode of cinematic representation and disavowal. We see Tota talking to Alberto some days later, when she has invited him to afternoon tea. Fermín asks her if in all these years of loneliness her thoughts have never turned to any other man. As her reply continues on the sound-track, the video-tack dissolves into a black-and-white film insert showing first of all Tota's shadow, and then herself, thirteen years younger, as she moves into the frame and mouths the words which Tota is saying to Alberto:

Alberto: Y en todo este tiempo, estando sola, ¿no se le dio por pensar en otro?

Tota: NUNCA. ¿Sabe lo que quiere decir nunca? [Haunting music on sound track] Nunca fue tan tarde, como aquel sábado en la tarde en que yo lo esperaba y Fermín no regresó. [Black-and-white flashback begins.] Yo prometí que pasara lo que pasara yo lo iba a esperar. Sin embargo un día … rompí todas las fotos … abrí los libros, los sacudí en la ventana, y dije que se volaran todas nuestras florcitas. Y después mi di cuenta … que Fermín estaba adentro mío, [mouthing words on audio track] que iba a volver … y yo lo iba a esperar.

Alberto: Yo estoy con vos para siempre.

Tota [snapping out of it]: Siempre quise aprender a tocar el piano. (1:02)

The black and white film insert, which acts as flashback, also serves to literalize the rupture in the signifying chain which Fermín's disappearance, and by extension all of the 'disappeared' of Argentina's dirty war, has had within the Argentine national consciousness. At the end of the flashback, the silent mouthing of words by Tota almost, but significantly not quite, synchronizes with the character's voice-over, creating the effect of a filmic stuttering, a temporary disruption not only to Tota's control over signification, but to that of the film itself. And at the end of the sequence, Alberto, going upstairs to the bathroom, sees in Tota's bedroom a photograph of himself and Tota with a tear down the middle which once more ties the theme of disavowal to that of a very literal cut in the photographic surface. The cinematic theme of the torn photograph is also important in Hombre mirando al sudeste, tying the psychoanalytical theme of family romance (since in that case it is the absent father who is torn out of the photograph) to the psychic processes of signification within cinema.

Overall, Boda secreta gives us a devastating portrait, in almost allegorical form, of the psychoses and repressions inherent in Argentine bourgeois society. We see the élite of the town in silent complicity with the fanatical ultra-right-wing priest who imposes a blinkered and repressive morality on the whole town. We see the complicity of capital in the repressive moral apparatus, in the person of Don Amílcar, owner of a national fruit company. The implicit message is that the military régime's sphere of operations was in a deep sense libidinal, establishing a series of psychic controls through a climate of censored fear. The control of desire and sexuality by the Church - parodied in a hilarious confession scene - becomes the main symbol of this within the film.


The final psychoanalytical parallel I wish to draw here is that of compulsive repetition, which as is well known concerns the symbolic re-enactment and re-repression by the patient of a particularly traumatic event which has been psychically repressed, creating a vicious circle from which it is difficult for the patient to escape. The priest in Boda secreta starts a campaign of ostracization against Fermín or Alberto which culminates in Alberto murdering the priest and running off with Tota who has now fallen in love with him, although she still does not accept him as Fermín. This is their 'secret wedding', doomed to remain forever secret, unacknowledged. When the police catch the couple, the devastating circle of compulsive repetition is almost complete, for it is clear that Alberto is going to be taken away to prison in Buenos Aires, just as he was abducted one night thirteen years earlier. And as for Tota, well, perhaps another thirteen-year wait for another Alberto…?

In Hombre mirando al sudeste, the Christian parallels also suggest a process of compulsive repetition whereby the 'paternal' forces of social repression feed off the ritualized sacrifice of the wayward 'sons', re-writing the military violence back into the 'family romance'. After the death of Rantés, Julio sits in his armchair, saxophone on his knee, contemplating the torn photograph he had stolen from Beatriz's handbag, showing Rantés and Beatriz, some years younger, with, he speculates, the father torn out of the picture:

Narrative voice-over: Si eran hermanos, Dios era, para mí, a partir de ese momento, un alcohólico desconocido que había tenido dos hijos, estas dos caras de una misma moneda. [Curtains of open window billow in breeze] Quizás todos fuéramos eso, los hijos idiota o locos de un padre al que de cualquier manera costaba mucho olvidar. [Last shot of photo, with saxophone music, over which credits roll.]

Julio's own incipient alcoholism, his own impoverished relationship to his children, suggest, as in Boda secreta, that the chain of repression and violence will not be so easy to break.

I conclude with the final scene from Boda secreta. Alberto, handcuffed, bundled into the bus that brought him to Mendieta, manages to smash one of the windows as the bus pulls off, and amid the noise and dust he shouts out to Tota, who is running after the bus: "Tota, Tota… Yo soy Fermín, yo soy Fermín… Tota, te quiero". We do not know whether she has heard this, but her screaming reply is "Yo te voy a esperar Alberto, te voy a esperar Alberto … Te voy a esperar … Alberto, te voy a esperar …". Once more the screen blacks out while on the audio track Tota's fading, repetitive screams continue for a few seconds until the credits roll, sustaining to the very end the film's linking of the repressed signifiers of Argentine identity to the absence and lack which we must disavow within cinema's field of vision.


[1] I use the Freudian term 'family romance' intentionally; the concept of 'national romance' in relation to nineteenth-century Latin American narrative has been fully developed by Doris Sommer in her Foundational Fictions.

[2] See Jacques Lacan, 'Le stade du miroir'.

[3] The reference to Proust is not gratuitous, since the theme of mémoire involontaire is carefully worked into the film, although filtered through surrealism.

[4] This is something of an in-joke, since "Julio Denis" was the pseudonym adopted by the surrealist-influenced Argentine writer Julio Cortázar for his first book.

[5] Doors and windows opening onto unexpected vistas is a constant of Magritte's work, whilst Cortázar powerfully undermines the dualistic hierarchies of this side and that side, reason and madness, in a work such as Rayuela.

Works Cited

Agresti, Alejandro. Boda secreta. Argentina/Netherlands: 1989. 95 mins.

Bemberg, María Luisa. Camila. Argentina: 1984. 105 mins.

Bioy Casares, Adolfo. La invención de Morel. Madrid: Cátedra, 1984 (1940).

Cortázar, Julio. Rayuela. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1963.

Doane, Mary Ann. 'Misrecognition and Identity'. Cine-tracts 11 (Fall, 1980): 25-32 (28).

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. The Pelican Freud Library #4. Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican Books, 1976.

Heath and Lauretis: Stephen Heath and Teresa de Lauretis, eds. The Cinematic Apparatus. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Lacan, Jacques. 'Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Jeu'. Écrits. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966. 93-100.

Magritte, René. Les Amants. Oil on canvas. 54.2 x 73 cm. 1928. Brussels, private collection.

Metz, Christian. 'The Imaginary Signifier'. Screen 16.2 (Summer, 1975): 14-76.

Puenzo, Luis. La historia oficial. Argentina: 1985. 115 mins.

Quintín. 'Elefantes blancos y francotiradores'.

Reati, Fernando. 'Argentine Political Violence and Artistic Representation in Films of the 1980s'. Latin American Literary Review 17.34 (July-December 1989): 24-39.

Rulfo, Juan. El llano en llamas. México: Fondo de Cultura Económico, 1953.

Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Stam et al., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992.

Subiela, Eliseo. Hombre mirando al sudeste. Argentina: Cinequannon, 1986. 110 mins.


© Geoffrey Kantaris, 1998

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