Thursday, February 20, 2014

Film Atlas (Colombia): A Man of Principle

Country: Colombia
Title: A Man of Principle / Cóndores no entierran todos los días (1984)
A Man of Principle is set between 1946-1958, during the period of political attack and reprisal known as The Violence, during which more than 200,000 were killed. The title refers to Leon Maria Lozano, an unassuming conservative in the liberal-dominated town of Tulua, Colombia. Most of the town openly disdains him, but even-handed local matriarch Gertrude Potes, though a passionate liberal, gets Lozano a job at a cheese shop. After the death of liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan triggers rioting, Lozano steps up to defend the conservative-leaning church from a mob and finds himself an overnight hero. He capitalizes on his popularity to strengthen his connection with party leadership in Bogota and receives support, including money, weapons and protection. He sends his daughter to an expensive reform school to preempt her budding romance with a young liberal and begins to violently assert his control over the city.

Soon Lozano is known as The Condor, the most feared of the Colombian assassins known as Pajaros, or birds, willing to kill all who oppose them. Only Gertrude is spared, and though an old lady, she struggles bravely for peace. Liberals attempt to poison Leon Maria Lozano and as he receives the last rites a spontaneous carnival celebrates outside his window. But Lozano recovers, and the musicians from the festivities are found dead the next day. Eventually even the Condor loses control and the systematic killings give way to unbridled chaos, with torture, rape and wholesale massacres sweeping the countryside. When political power shifts back to the liberals, Lozano accepts a pension and goes into hiding, but he cannot escape his reoccurring nightmare: to die alone in the streets.

A Man of Principle is a curious biopic. It works as a chronicle of a notorious assassin, but without offering much in the way of psychological insight or polemic condemnation. We see, primarily, the way in which a ‘principled’ man, embittered by discrimination and disrespect, leverages the opportunities that come his way to solidify a power base. The fact that murder becomes his stock in trade is almost morally inconsequential to the outwardly plain and unremarkable Lozano; it is simply the most effective tool at his disposal. Unusual for a gangster saga, most of the violence is off-screen (Lozano himself rarely gets his hands dirty) with the focus, instead on the machinations, manipulations and intimidation. Lozano’s inevitable fall is portrayed less as a result of reach exceeding grasp than of letting the genie out of the bottle and not being able to put it back in. The film can be occasionally hard to follow; the abstruse political minutia and the rather too coolly detached directing require the viewer to connect a lot of the dots themselves, but for those interested in the legacy of pre-cartel Colombian crime or fans of history without histrionics, this is essential viewing.

For a less grim Colombian film try The Snail's Strategy, a comedy about tenants who find a creative way to avoid eviction, or a recent guilty-pleasure favorite, The Hidden Face, a sexy thriller whose twists and turns would've been spoiled if I'd written a review. (If you are interested, don't even watch the trailer!) Easily the best Colombian film I've seen is the recent Embrace of the Serpent. In fact, I may replace this review with one for that film.

My Favorites:
Embrace of the Serpent
Birds of Passage
The Hidden Face
Maria Full of Grace
A Man of Principle
The Snail's Strategy

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