Man Facing Southeast

March 14, 2012

The new Argentine film Man Facing Southeast has been compared to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and called “an adult E.T.” Both of those allusions seem inadequate, because I’ve not seen another movie quite like this one.

The film begins, and largely remains, in an insane asylum. The frayed, burned-out Dr. Denis is surprised one morning to discover an extra person responding to roll call: a gaunt man with soulful eyes who calls himself Rantes.

When Rantes is asked to explain his presence, he says that he’s from another planet, and was sent to Earth to investigate and transmit messages. The doctor is unfazed; he sees a few would-be extra-terrestrials a week, so he lets the stranger stay around. Mostly Rantes stands in the hospital courtyard, staring intently to the southeast.

It doesn’t take long for the doctor and the other patients to realize that Rantes is…well, different, “a very special lunatic,” as someone says. He genuinely has no history on file. He can occasionally move objects about with his mind. The other patients follow him around. Soon, he’s being referred to as a “Cybernetic Christ.”

And it doesn’t take too long to realize that writer-director Eliseo Subiela is working another variation on the Second Coming. But he embroiders the movie with such a beguiling sense of mystery and ambiguity that it never becomes a facile sci-fi Jesus story. Rantes might be plain crazy.

Like the doctor, we begin skeptically, but succumb to the tantalizing possibility that Rantes may be touched by the supernatural. Subiela draws us into this web by weaving lyrical and peculiar happenings into his story that have a haunting cumulative effect. Sometimes a throwaway line of dialogue will suddenly soar, as when Rantes picks up a human brain—he’s gotten work in the pathology department of the hospital—and points to a spot on the grooves of the brain, earnestly wondering about the physical location of human memory: “Where is that afternoon where he first fell in love?”

This climaxes in an extraordinary scene at an outdoor concert to which the doctor has escorted Rantes and a friend. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” inspires an unexpected and utterly magical reaction from Rantes, who establishes his power as a mystical leader. It’s one of the great scenes in any movie this year.

Man Facing Southeast is a triumph for this new Argentinian filmmaker, but he couldn’t have done it without two exceptional performances. Lorenzo Quinteros plays the doctor with a totally convincing degree of world-weariness, and, later, just the barest glimmerings of hope. Hugo Soto as Rantes maintains an awesome spirituality throughout; starved and magnetic, he seems as focused as a New Age Joan of Arc.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

An impressive movie. As far as I can tell, I have never seen another movie by Subiela. Quinteros is still working in films; Soto died of AIDS-related issues in 1994.