Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: El Sol

El Sol (2010, Ayar Blasco)
*Warning: The following review contains foul language.

Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, those are the names of but some of the studios which create the world’s most well known and beloved feature-length animation pictures. Each individual studio releases one or possibly multiple films per year, to the delight of not only families who enjoy each subsequent zany, heartfelt adventure. The world of animated films however is arguably the trickiest in which one can find interesting, non-mainstream fare. The sheer dominance of the studios mentioned above goes a long way in explaining exactly why many animated films not emanating from huge studios go entirely unnoticed with very few exceptions (one thinks of last year’s Secret of the Kells). Festivals can be a prime venue to discover new, unknown talents in the genre. Such was the case last week with a screening of an incredibly quirky, audacious and unabashedly vulgar little movie called El Sol (The Sun), from Argentinean director Ayar Blasco.

Drawn cheaply, episodic in nature and unafraid to barrel through its running time with flamboyant eccentricity, Blasco’s El Sol explores the lives of people who have survived a nuclear holocaust. The country no longer has any sort of legitimate government even though the former president poses as the de facto leader of a semi-organized society from within an old, decrepit building, survivors band together in small groups, trying to avoid the burning sun as well as whatever strange mutants roam the mostly desolate Argentinean landscape. The film features a series of adventures and misadventures of some of these survivors, how they relate to one another and reveals the overall status of post-apocalyptic Argentina.

The plot synopsis for El Sol really need not be any longer than that, for there exists no overarching plot that ties all the narratives together in any significant manner. Blasco is content to invite the willing viewer into an over-the-top vision of what the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse would be like. Of course, I use the term ‘over-the-top’ and yet we have never lived in a post-apocalyptic world, so who really knows what how normal or not our lives would be in actuality. For all we know, Blasco’s hysterical and uncompromising vulgarity may very well be a spot on assumption of how human civilization would behave under the wild circumstances. Regardless, El Sol treats the vast majority of its characters like miscreants. Even the opening prologue which briefly elaborates on what life was like just prior to the explosion does not shy away from how general human behaviour, certainly in terms of common decency, had degraded to a level of shamelessness most would be appalled by. Things do not get any better throughout the film, as characters consistently refer to one another as ‘faggots’ ‘bitches’ ‘mother fuckers’ and sometimes worse. Little sympathy is shown towards people in need of help, and mistrust has spread its wings vast and wide to negatively influence all societies. Virtually no single character in the movie possesses the slightest amount of decency, which in many ways can make the film rather difficult to follow and digest. Why spend so much time with these people if their behaviour exudes nothing but the worst in humanity?

The answer is not necessarily easy to find in the case of El Sol, but there is always a reason why a film is made in a certain way, regardless of how crass the picture may be. First and arguably easier of the two answers the author can think of is that the film, for all its darkness, is a comedy. That statement might come across as incompatible with everything written above, but it is no lie. Things need to be set into context course. When arguing that El Sol is a comedy, it is not implied that most people will join in on the laughter to be had while watching it. A very particular brand of humour is championed by director Blasco, one that practically challenges the viewer to discover how funny or possibly unfunny the movie is and, by extension, how much humour can be found in mankind’s lowest level of decadence and depravity. Clearly, if vulgarity and crassness are not the viewer’s cup of tea, then they should be strongly urged to avoid El Sol. For those who can accept that almost anything can be funny, that comedy can be mined out of not merely vulgarity but also absurdity, the bizarre and even movie mistakes (there is a short segment when the film actually stops to tell us that during the recording session one the actors involved in the scene found the dialogue exchange so good he just kept on reading the lines for multiple characters...and so the scene plays out with several characters speaking with the same voice!), then by all means they should take a chance on El Sol. There are no guarantees that each single moment contains brilliant comedy for there are at least some scenes that do not strive for comedic effect, but despite the major caveat mentioned above, it can be argued that El Sol is hilarious.

A few other things crossed the author’s mind while watching the movie. The characters in the movie are pitiful, absolutely pitiful. Rare, if perhaps even nonexistent, are the moments when anybody at all succeeds at earning sympathy from the viewers. The only sympathy possible could be elicited out of their sheer stupidity. The world as we know it today is filled with silly, power hungry and of course vulgar people, some of whom unfortunately hold a lot of power. This may be stretching things a little bit, but El Sol seemed to play out as an exploration of what would happen if humanity’s worst features took over and destroyed the world. There are no moments when people band together to fight alongside one another to stave off some sort of threat. These characters are egotistical, sex-crazed and unforgiving punks. Just as the people inhabiting this forsaken have no pity for one another, neither does the director have any pity for the audience. Naturally he wants you to watch the film, but he does not care if what you hoped for is not at all what you get. In need of a redemptive moment when some ‘heart’ is felt? Forget it, these are humans (and mutants) who are living by their own laws, laws dictated by Man’s most unenviable instincts and qualities. El Sol is the movie that develops that idea of an Earth ruled by misfits. It may be likened to the world of Mad Max but without the titular protagonist, just the crazy people.

One other thing that hit me, and this may easily come across as blasphemous to many serious film and animation fans, El Sol felt like a dark version of a Miyazaki film, where the imagination of the filmmakers takes over, setting aside certain rules and creating others for the sake of an experience that is as immersive as possible. Having not seen many Miyazaki movies (Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle), the comparison may be broken due to my limited experience with them, but watching them I get the sense that Miyazaki is throwing a lot of traditional story telling rules to the garbage bin and just doing what he feels is right for a satisfying emotional journey. El Sol does that as well, only that instead of digging for the right path to create an emotionally satisfying journey, it wants to demonstrate the worst if us as excessively as possible.

Recommending El Sol is not something one can do just because he or she thought it was good. This movie will not please everybody and judging by its tone, it almost feels as if Ayar Blasco made it with that very intention in mind: not pleasing everybody. If you do happen to catch it, just remember that Between the Seats warned you...

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