, Edwardsville Illinois University
violence in films, one immediately thinks of the excessive and often
mayhem that is customary fare in
The mise-en-scène of many of these films grounded in a diegetic present exposes power struggles, but not as the result of diverging political views as was the case in the cinema of previous decades. Rather, these power struggles posit tensions that derive from the pursuit of economic profit at the expense of legality. Within this context, violence is largely perpetrated to eliminate those who stand for moral values and respect for the law. These victims are seen as obstacles by criminal characters who are unable and/or unwilling to restrain themselves in their search for financial gain. In depicting a society where profit-seeking prevails at the expense of the rule of law, many Argentine films showcase the implications of rule-breaking as a form of violence that not only targets individuals, but also and more importantly, affects the public sphere and the nation as a civilized space. Therefore, what many of these films present is the disintegration of the social fabric and the severance of ties among different members of the national community.
In this regard, the centrality of the representation of violence in Argentine society in the films of the 1990s is particularly disturbing, for it problematizes the validity of the State not only as a guarantor of certain basic rights for its members, but also as an entity that embodies and disseminates civilization. (1) While the civilization-versus-barbarism dichotomy has been present in the Argentine cultural and political imagination since the nineteenth century, I am not referring here to Domingo F. Sarmiento’s concepts.(2) I am, however, interested in the tension of individual and society outlined by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), and the conceptualization of civilization by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (1939). These works are complementary in theorizing individual and social causes of violence in modern societies and are particularly relevant to my discussion of violence in Argentine cinema of the 1990s. In what follows, I briefly present Freud’s and Elias’ concepts.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud explained the tension between individual and society, death and Eros, as well as the motivation for human aggression and the ways in which societies have sought to curtail the eruption and production of violence. In this work, Freud first contended that men are propelled into action by drives. Among these, the “death instinct,” present in all human beings, makes them prone to aggression and destruction. In certain individuals, the death instinct lures and prevails over the desire to live and let others live. This instinct also evinces the frail foundation on which human communities are built. If men carry the propensity to generate violence, how can the development and existence of societies be ensured? Freud answered this question in Civilization and Its Discontents. For him, civilization not only makes possible the enjoyment of fundamental rights, but also helps curb human’s tendency to resort to brute force. Nonetheless, for rights to be effective, the foundation of civilized societies needs to rest upon the penalization of criminality, or in Freud’s words: “The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice” (41). Freud recognized that failure to impart justice both threatens individual and social life and also endangers the viability of civilized nations.
Drawing on Freud’s
sociologist Norbert Elias examined the emergence of civilization in the
world. For Elias, the civilized ways of pre-World War II Europe could
understood by examining the development of certain customs since the
Ages. For example, Elias posited that the constitution of a central
came about to mediate among feuding parties and this led to the
formation of a
monopoly of physical power in which,
not every strong man can afford the pleasure of physical attack. This is now reserved to those few legitimized by the central authority (e.g., the police against the criminal), and to larger numbers only in exceptional times of war or revolution, in the socially legitimated struggle against internal or external enemies. (202)
Monopolies of physical power are, then, seen as a resource for groups to establish their own brand of leadership in a given society. What is particularly pertinent to my analysis is the fact that even within these monopolies of physical power that represent a civilized stage in the development of societies, those who resort to physical violence either have the support of authorities, or have to be punished for their acts. Consequently, if central authorities exercising the monopoly of physical force cannot fully eradicate acts of violence, they have to maintain their legitimacy by rejecting those acts that defy the rule of law.
Interestingly, the inability to sanction those who employ violence presents a serious challenge to the development and continuity of a civilized nation. Law-breaking without sanctions proves to be particularly damaging for those who monopolize physical force in the sense that their very raison d’être as arbiters of civilization is interrogated. Indeed, the fictions that help bind the different groups or members of a given society around the recognition of authorities who monopolize the use of force lose their efficacy. This, in turn, leads citizens to question the efficiency of those who exercise the monopoly of physical force to use Elias’ terms, or their capacity to lead the State. As the State faces the interrogation of its own legitimacy by its citizens, another implication of the failure to penalize undue violence surfaces.
Lack of justice and due process crucially disavows male hegemony in society. The breakdown of social order is inextricably linked to changes in gender roles. When “man is a wolf to man” to borrow the expression used by Freud (58), some men are more powerful than others. And, if some men are able to use force or violence without any moral or legal constraints, others feel weak and defenseless, and thus, need institutions to protect them and mediate in social life. But, what happens when institutions are unable to effectively impart rewards and punishments? In this case, lack of justice comes to stand as a kind of violence that civilized society deliberately inflicts upon its members—particularly men—, if we follow Freud literally. The unequal status of men, in turn, exposes a moment of crisis in which masculinity, as a social construct, is diminished, assailed and challenged. Thus, the crisis of masculinity is engendered by the inability on the part of some men to abide by society’s laws in order to resolve their conflicts. The disregard that some men show for society’s laws also influences the masculine role of those who abide by them. In the absence of clear punishment for those who carry out criminal acts, law-abiding men also stand to lose, for their adherence to principles is ignored by authorities, giving way to the emergence of barbarism, or the law of the strongest.
These films depict
Argentine men by other Argentine men. The repetition of the adjective
“Argentine” may seem superfluous, but I want to emphasize the
unresolved conflicts between groups within the same society. Unlike
war or science fiction movies, where the presence of foreign/nonhuman
legitimizes the use of violence, the movies that I have chosen La
(The Fury, 1997) and Cenizas
Both released in 1997, La
It is a daily thing in this painful present of Argentines. Mafias have left their marks in events that no one can clarify; state officials and guardians of the law are involved in all types of crimes; judges are either separated from their cases, linked to numerous suspicious, or directly impeached; the shadow of corruption is everywhere as is the disturbing feeling that impunity reigns. (5)
Thus, in both films violence is deployed to highlight a crisis of masculinity stemming from the failure of the State to provide justice and penalize criminal acts. What these films have in common, therefore, is the victimization of middle-class men who adhere to the rule of law and the ensuing success of criminals who are involved in corrupt dealings.
La furia begins
investigation of a crime: a plane carrying a hefty drug shipment is
Marcos’ arrest at the border, a space that represents the jurisdictional limits of the national state, indicates a departure from civilized society and the realm of national laws. Indeed, the thriller will follow this character—whose innocence is cued to the audience—through his descent into hell and his encounter with police brutality and judiciary corruption. What appears more distressing is that the corruption that acts as a breeding ground for physical violence in this film is not only confined to the margins of the nation, but also stretches to the center of the national state. As news of Marcos’ arrest reaches his father, a stern judge in Buenos Aires, the thriller—will justice be carried out and how?— overlaps with a drama in which the strained father-son relationship is presented.
Also using the
Both La furia
When Judge Lombardi finds out that his only son has been arrested for drug possession, he fails to perform his role as a father. Although he travels to visit Marcos in prison, he is so convinced that Marcos is guilty that he acts more as a judge than as a caring and concerned father. This fact does not go unnoticed by Marcos, who admonishes his father saying, “Do not interrogate me. Ask me questions as a father would do, not as a judge.” Judge Lombardi, however, appears unmoved by his son’s plea for support and compassion. Lombardi’s failure to perform as a father is further illustrated when he visits his colleague, the judge who oversees his son’s case and makes it clear that he does not expect any kind of privileges for Marcos. Quite the contrary, he states his confidence that justice will be carried out to the fullest. Judge Lombardi’s actions not only reveal his naiveté regarding the way justice is enforced in remote areas, but also signal a terrible blow to the viability of the family unit.
In the first part of La furia, the physical distance between father and son alludes to their ideological differences as well as to a familial tension between them. When Marcos reproaches his father for his professional demeanor and detachment in view of his plight, he also mentions something that belongs to the pre-history of the film. He blames his father for his mother’s suicide and hints that it may have been caused by his father’s inability to listen and empathize with others. This accusation allows us to consider two complementary insights. First, it shows that Lombardi’s dedication to this profession was carried out at the expense of his family life and his roles of husband and father. Lombardi’s failure to be a supportive partner triggered his wife’s self-inflicted violence in the realm of his family when she committed suicide. Therefore, while working outside the familial space to ostensibly maintain law and order in his country, Lombardi could not maintain peace and harmony in his own household. The second insight is related to Lombardi’s lack of empathy towards others. Lombardi’s lacks of feelings suggest a type of masculinity in crisis that is stressed by his dysfunctional family life.
The failure to satisfactorily perform his role within the family is further highlighted by his overconfidence in the way that justice is enforced. By failing to connect the dots of Marcos’ crime to his own role as a judge, Lombardi seems unaware that the violence that has reached his son is ultimately intended for him. In this regard, Lombardi’s character appears as one who fails to grasp the changing coordinates of the society in which he lives, a fact that further stresses the problematic performance of his masculinity, both in the private and public realms.
Judge Lombardi’s crisis
masculinity is emphasized by the fact that the younger Lombardi’s
been meticulously planned by a group, that the judge is investigating.
the group’s illegal political and economic interests have been
the judge’s strict probity and integrity. When Paula discloses the
between a drug operation that has been assigned to Lombardi’s office
Marcos’ kidnapping, it is apparent that Marcos is an innocent victim of
his father’s short-sightedness and the physical and mental abuse
his father’s enemies while in prison. This last development further
Lombardi’s diminished influence within his family. Although he
attempts to save Marcos, his help comes almost too late, after Marcos
suffered from physical and sexual abuse in prison. If we consider Pierre Bourdieu’s
the relation between sexuality and power when he states that “the worst
humiliation for a man is to be turned into a woman” (22), we can
Marcos’ off screen rape as an action intended to inscribe violence in
as well as to mark his father’s lack of power and authority. Thus, as a
who cannot fully protect his son, Judge Lombardi bears the stigma of a
diminished masculinity. I will return to the implications of this kind
masculinity within the nation after I analyze Cenizas
Similar to La furia,
Judge Makantasis’ murder is witnessed by Muro’s daughter, Ana. Minutes before Makantasis’ murder, Ana learns that her caring and doting father was involved in illegal transactions and was responsible for a series of murders among fellow businessmen. Unable to betray her father even when all evidence points to his culpability, Ana remains silent, only to be the witness of yet another act triggered by her father’s greed and criminality. After this, Ana rebels against her father’s use of violence by accusing him publicly and calling him a murderer. She herself contributes to the bloodshed caused by her father by committing suicide.
Ana’s rebellion highlights Muro’s inadequacy as a male, one who fails to perform his assigned role in his family. Instead of protecting his family and serving as a respectable role model, Muro repeatedly violates the laws of coexistence and civilized life, as he pursues financial gain and power—no matter the costs. Nonetheless, the fact that his crimes go unpunished by the legal system strengthens his hegemonic role in a society where rules are easily discarded. As the perpetrator of violence against an innocent man, Muro also poses a challenge to Makantasis’ ability to perform his own roles as both husband and father. Muro first appears as an affectionate father until both his daughter and the viewers discover his controlling personality, his manipulation of information, and the possessive nature of his love for Ana. Thus, Muro’s performance as a father is guided by his desire for power. The fact that Ana seeks to distance herself from her domineering father by moving out of his house points to a certain degree of disfunctionality in their relationship, and emphasizes Muro’s less–than–satisfactory role as a father. Muro’s violence against Makantasis can be read both as a failure to curb his own possessive drive as well as his inability to establish a healthy relationship with his only daughter.
For his part, Makantasis
and respected by his three sons. Although he does not share the same
them, he strives to stay involved in their familial and professional
Because of his common professional interest with Pablo, Makantasis
to this son and appears lenient and benevolent towards his other sons.
arrives at their home, however, the normalcy of the family life is
disrupted. As Ana moves in, she slowly sets in motion the breaking of
rules under the permissive stance of the father. Aware that Ana is
the daughter of the man he is investigating, the judge prefers to
coincidences, allowing her to remain in his home instead of foreseeing
possible conflict of interests.
The judge’s mistaken assumption about Ana’s innocence and her presence within his family points to Makantasis’ failure as a father. He fails to realize that Ana slowly seduces all of his sons, pitting brother against brother and undermining the unity and well-being of his family. As Ana’s seduction progresses and feels more comfortable in the Makantasis home, she gains influence over the brothers while the father’s authority recedes to a secondary position. This reversal of influence within the family shows a strain in the performance of the judge’s masculine role as a father, and also reveals a weakening of family ties among the sons and brothers.
So far I have been
consequences of the crisis of masculinity that the fathers exhibit in La
furia and Cenizas
In the final part of La furia, Judge Lombardi’s masculinity experiences a series of blows. First, he is told that he is no longer in charge of the investigation of drug smuggling. Although he is not given concrete reasons for his separation from the case, it is clear that his probity and desire to enforce laws have made his superiors uncomfortable. This challenge to his professional judgment underscores a masculinity in crisis, now in the realm of his professional life. Curiously, it also makes him more receptive to reconsider his son’s plight. It is in these circumstances that Lombardi, with the help of Marcos’ girlfriend, confronts the true causes of his son’s imprisonment and sets out to free him. He realizes that his investigation of drug routes prompted those in charge of illegal trafficking to retaliate against Marcos as a means to pressure him to collaborate. Lombardi’s second trip to the border, then, is the reverse of his first: he travels with the mission of rescuing his son and making amends for the suffering he has indirectly inflicted on him—even if that means tampering with the law.
By finally assuming his role as a father, Lombardi attempts to restore his diminished masculinity only to face the fact that justice is not the panacea he thought it was; if he wants to be effective in freeing Marcos, he has to engage in the same illegal dealings as his opponents. Thus, while asserting his role as a concerned father, he uses his authority to violate the laws that he is supposed to defend and uphold. As he stages Marcos’ rescue, he has to cross the divide between the legal and the illegal, symbolically shown when he orders the prison guard to escape by breaking the prison’s gate. The momentary success that he attains while managing to take Marcos to meet his girlfriend is jeopardized by the fiery persecution of police, who are both corrupt and unaware of the plot that had put Marcos in jail. This chase forces Lombardi to realize that in order to ensure Marcos’ survival there has to be a scapegoat to take his place. It is at this moment that he decides to surrender himself to save his son.
The final images of La furia stress Lombardi’s diminished masculinity as a result of violence and the ensuing rule of barbarism in the nation. Marcos and his girlfriend flee to a neighboring country and are able to elude the chase. The bird’s-eye shot of Lombardi standing alone on the Argentine side of the border is a powerful scene as it encapsulates his helplessness next to the criminal thugs. This scene allows viewers to infer the terrible fate that the powerless judge will find at his enemy’s hands. Lombardi’s defeat is not only personal; rather, it stands as a setback to the civilization that was supposed to prevail in the nation as a result of the rule of law. When the legal side that Lombardi represents is overwhelmed by those who are violent, civilization recedes in the nation while barbarism takes over. The failure of the legal system unleashes basic instincts of aggression between men. This impacts society as family bonds are severed, and justice, the bedrock upon which civilization is built, disappears.
The ending of Cenizas
The death of Judge Makantasis leaves his sons fatherless and constitutes a terrible loss for the family: his disappearance stands in stark contrast to his nemesis’ freedom. As Judge Teller, the person in charge of the investigation into Ana’s death gets closer to reaching the truth, threats and warnings curtail her freedom of action and remind her that she, too, could face a violent end. Consequently, Muro’s untouchable status signals that impunity reigns and justice cannot touch powerful men. Even though Muro suffers a severe loss when Ana commits suicide, his kind of masculinity based on power and control remains unchallenged by the institutions and officials that represent the State. With a limited scope of action to take to trial those suspected, civilization recedes. Hence, brute force prevails over the laws that guarantee and regulate peaceful coexistence in Argentine society.
The depiction of
in La furia and Cenizas
(1). Laura Martins presents an example of the withdrawal of the State from public life in “Bodies at Risk: On the State of Exception. (Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga [The Swamp])” in Argentinian Cultural Production during the Neoliberal Years (1989-2001), ed. Hugo Hortiguera and Carolina Rocha (2007), p 205-215.
(2). I refer to Sarmiento’s dichotomy when analyzing Marcelo Piñyero’s Caballos Salvajes (Wild Horses 1995) in Riding against the Wave? Caballos salvajes and its critique of neoliberal cultural. (Rocha 2007)
(3). Grimson and
Kessler have described these tensions as follows: “One is the tension
the state (
(5). “Es cosa de todos los días en esta penosa actualidad de los argentinos. Mafias que han dejado su huella en episodios que nadie termina de esclarecer; funcionarios públicos y guardianes de la ley involucrados en toda clase de delitos; jueces separados de sus causas, envueltos en una maraña de sospechas o directamente sometidos a juicio político; la sombra de la corrupción por todas partes y la inquitante sensación de que reina la impunidad.”
In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith
reflects on the consequences of September 11th, 2001.
Norbert. The Civilizing Process. The History of Manners.
Translated by Edmund Jephcott.
and Its Discontents.
López, Fernando. “Un justiciero en la piel de un juez” La Nación 2005. Accessed on May 9th, 2007. www.lanación.com.ar/97/06/05/s05.htm
Laura. “Bodies at Risk: On the State of
Rocha, Carolina. “Crímen/es irresuelto/s en Cenizas del paraíso de Marcelo Piñeyro” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 41 (2007): 117-134.
----. “Riding against the Wave? Caballos salvajes and its critique of neoliberal cultural” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. 26 (2007): 167-177.
The Fury.. Dir Juan Bautista Stagnaro. Argentina Sono Film SACI, 1997.