WESTERN-MADE films have done little to dissolve the mists of ignorance fogging the minds of North Americans in their attitude toward their Latin neighbors. Like the North American press, which usually gives coverage only to coups and the death of caudillos, the commercial film industry produces only infrequent glimpses of Latin America--usually more harmful than helpful. Perhaps many people in this country, when they think of Latin America, picture Woody Allen blowing off his hand with a grenade as a bungling guerrilla in a banana republic, where revolutions are such regular happenings that Howard Cosell interviews the deposed leader as he dies on the palace steps.
But even serious efforts by European and North American filmmakers are governed by a cultural perspective that results in a fragmentary portrayal of a Latin American life. A film like State of Siege by Costa-Gavras, however urgent the moral questions it poses, so completely lacks a human, social context that its political presentation collapses in a lifeless vacuum. At the other extreme, a director like Marcel Ophuls is Black Orpheus is so adept at capturing the vibrant rhythm and undulating color of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro that his audiences are numbed to the excruciating reality of Brazil's urban poverty.
The Traitors (Los Traidores) is the third film released here in the past year that was written, acted, and directed by Latin Americans. Like the Cuban films, Memories of Underdevelopment and Lucia, The Traitors can be expected to present a more integrated, more involved picture of life to the south. Unlike the two others, however, which were directed by independent filmmakers interested as much in cinematography as in politics, this film--a product of the Grupo Cine de la Base, a revolutionary collective of Argentine filmmakers, actors, workers, and students--is unmistakably political in purpose: Educating Argentine workers about the corruption of their union leadership.
At this point many people would reject the movie as another element in a familiar series of unyielding exhortations by doctrinaire Marxists. That the film is more than mere polemics, however, is apparent from the opening scene, in which we are confronted by a slow-motion close-up of a brutal beating by vicious grunting thugs wielding chains and pipes. The violence, excerpted from a later sequence in the movie, immediately propels us into the career of Roberto Barrera, a national union leader who makes himself the subject of a mock kidnapping so as to elicit worker sympathy for himself at the upcoming union elections. Through a series of flashbacks, that film shows Barrera's rise from bomb-throwing revolutionary to corrupt union boss, from a principled, uncompromising factory worker to a power broker whose only interest is to fill his own pockets by playing off worker against employer. The engrossing story of Barrera's meteoric rise to power, combined with the suspense of the election campaign, is so well presented that the audience cannot help but be outraged at the machiavellian deceit perpetrated against the unsuspecting workers.
MUCH OF THE appeal of The Traitors stems from its straightforward story line. The brutality of the opening scene pervades the movie, though usually not through such outright violence but through the blatant rapacity and selfishness of Barrera's motives. After seeing the young, sincere Barrera win his first election as leader of a local union, we are shocked at the off-handed manner in which he suggests to other union officials that they take over an illegal numbers game conducted in the factory in order to fill the union's coffers. The scenes of each passing year chronicle increasing corruption with a similar candid brutality which, while seeming wholly characteristic, never fails to exasperate and anger.
For the Argentine worker, whom the makers of The Traitors are addressing, Barrera's story is sufficient in itself to make him recognize how miserably workers can be exploited by his supposed leaders. It is a common knowledge in Argentina that, beginning with the rule of Gen. Juan D. Peron in 1945, when workers received a wide array of economic and social benefits, trade unions became increasingly conservative until they were virtually at the beck and call of the government. Throughout the spectacularly popular decade of Peron's regime, and throughout the military rule that followed, Argentine workers lost their autonomous leaders, many of whom made personal fortunes through their secret agreements with frightened employers searching for a tamed workforce. Roberto Barrera could be one of any number of present-day labor leaders in Buenos Aires, a number of whom have been assassinated in the last several years by urban guerrillas denouncing them as "traitors." So, for the average Argentine, the fact of corruption is nothing shocking. Rather, it is the dramatic mode of presentation of a commonplace situation that makes the film so impressive for him.
For the North American, too, the reader of sketchy newspaper stories about the internecine strife among Argentine labor's right and left wings, the story of Barrera helps give a fuller understanding of the tensions involved. But the film offers more to the American viewer, an added dimension to which the native Latin American would probably be oblivious. It is the same quality, though more muted, that is so impressive in the vibrant scenes of Brazilian life in Black Orpheus. The Traitors, with its filmed scenes in the crowded neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, captures the struggle of life waged by these impoverished workers so exploited by their leaders. Whether through a scene explicitly intended to demonstrate the plight of the lower class, or through the unconscious eloquence of Argentine faces and ramshackle urban dwellings, The Traitors conveys the unmistakable texture of Latin American poverty.
WHAT IS perhaps the most striking scene in the movie does at deal with Barrera at all, but rather with a middle-aged couple walking down a narrow street gray with afternoon shadows cast by deteriorating tenement houses. The wife has long sagging brown hair and dark tired eyes. She wears a beaten skirt and a plain white blouse. The husband, his paunch hanging over his belt, talks with a gusto that tries to hide the hardships so apparent in the lines of his face. He waits outside as his wife enters a factory for a job interview. Inside a doctor's office for a medical examination, she and another, younger, woman stand stripped and defenseless as they suffer the mindless prods of an unctuous company doctor. Her eyes fill with tears when the doctor notices the scars of childbirth on her stomach and notifies her that they want only unmarried women for the job. She rejoins her husband outside and the two walk back slowly in the direction from which they came.
The toll taken by the deprivations of lower-class life is conveyed in more subtle ways, through the grave note in an old man's voice, through the stark interior of a working man's kitchen, through the whiskered, burnt faces of workers discussing politics in a bar. Even Barrera's face seems to change with the chronological shifts in the movie, from the full-boned, clean-shaven, clear-eyed vigor of his revolutionary days to the meticulously-combed, vainly-mustachioed, narrow-eyed shiftiness of his union leadership. Such details help the film to capture a mood of quiet despair, a despair that speaks all the more eloquently because it is woven into the film's texture free of any staging or any rehearsed utterances.
The movie ends with a group of workers organizing themselves according to revolutionary principles and asserting their demands by forcing their way into Barrera's victory celebration and machine-gunning him. This is something of a piece of wishful fantasy on the part of the filmmakers, who certainly are aware that radical agitation in Argentina, as in the U.S., stems not from workers but from middle-class students and intellectuals, much like themselves. The Montoneros, the Marxist guerrilla group responsible for the assassination of union chiefs in Argentina, includes few workers.
But class composition of the revolutionaries is really besides the point. The film is a call to action, and it ends with an address to the Argentine laborers: "Only the people's war will liberate the people," says a voice while scenes of demonstrating workers flash by on the screen. It is a tribute to The Traitors' engrossing plot and to its humanistic cinematography that such a class war seems not only justifiable but necessary. It seems the only way out of the oppressive poverty and unending exploitation the Argentine worker suffers.
With last week's death of Peron, the fragile equilibrium in Argentina will very probably explode and the violence escalate. The Traitors helps us understand why.