Friday, July 08, 2005

Javier Torres's Vereda Tropical (2004)

I don't remember Vereda Tropical, Javier Torres's 2004 fictional depiction of the late, gay experimental Argentinian writer Manuel Puig's exile in Rio de Janeiro being in the theaters or festivals last year, but as soon as I came across it on Netflix, I added it to my queue and recently got an opportunity to watch it.
Vereda Tropical
Though it's not a great film and at a few points it left me cold, I would recommend it for two reasons: Fabio Aste, the attractive lead, turns in a strong and determined performance, and the film captures in entertaining fashion the experiences of one of Latin America's major authors at the nexus of several interesting, at least to me, historical moments--the waning period of the military dictatorships in Latin America, and the dawning of the AIDS era.

Puig was an effeminate gay man from the sticks who ended up studying cinema in Europe (Cinecittà in Rome to be exact) and living there, published his first books at the end of the 1960s, and by the mid-1970s had to leave Argentina because his fiction, which had gained him international acclaim and which was for the most part not overtly political, drew the ire of former president and strongman's Juan Perón's widow and successor Isabelita (she was overthrown in 1976 by a military coup). Also driving his exile was his refusal to live in the closet and conform to a macho conception of masculinity.

Brazil, though under a military dictatorship during this period, did not consider Puig, a foreign, famous gay author, to be a threat, and Rio then as now offered a more open sexual environment, as the film demonstrates. For Puig, the city, with its beaches, discos and opportunities for casual sexual liaisons provided a space of social and, at first at least, considerable aesthetic liberation. Yet this was also the period during which the AIDS pandemic emerged, and the film portrays Puig's great fear that he too might succumb to the disease as did a number of his most notable Latin American literary peers, including the fellow Argentinian writer Néstor Perlóngher, who is briefly depicted in almost caricature form, and the Cubans Severo Sarduy and Reinaldo Arenas.

I've read Suzanne Jill Levine's excellent biography of Puig and almost all of his translated books (my favorites being The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Tropical Night Falling, Pubis Angelical, Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), so I approached the movie with a lot of background, but as with most biographically based films, I accept that the filmmaker is going to alter the life story in various ways, and Torre does, though to no ill effect. Despite the temporal modifications, he keeps the focus on Puig's main documented relationships, at times combining and collaging them to improve the dramatic impact. We see Puig's struggles with his married boyfriend, a working-class man from Brazil's poor Northeast, whom the author wants to abandon his wife and family so that they can set up house; his appointments with his wealthy, female society friends; his collaborations with a female scholar who eventually would travel with him to a conference in Texas (Puig later lived in New York and had such an excellent command of English that he wrote one of his best novels in it); a few sexual assignations; and his partying side with a visiting more libertine female pal from Argentina.

Where the movie definitely succeeds, in addition to Aste's and Mimí Ardú's performances, is in its depictions of the brightness and openness Rio, especially through color, scenery, and setting. It looks like a light-filled, almost paradisiacal place where both lovemaking and artmaking are truly possible (and it is). Yet what Torres also shows us is how the presence of so much beauty and possibility, and the seeming open but in reality set mores of another culture, can also become a torment, as it did for Puig. Aste's large, expressive eyes alone often perfectly semaphore the longing, thwarted desire and loneliness that are consuming this author who has emerged victorious from many of his past battles yet still has so many more to face.

Where the film stumbles, in addition to some choppy editing, the stilted acting by some of the bit players, and Aste's occasional overmincing before the camera, is in its inability to embody for the viewer the deepest sense of what motivated Puig's writing, which I would suggest was his fascination with films as a mode of escape and reality, and how it connected to his life. Torres does capture one of Puig's creepy and carnivorous techniques, which involved audiotaping his lovers, often secretly, and transposing their words into his texts, to brilliant effect. (Eternal Curse, for example, is almost completely written in razor-sharp, highly nuanced dialogue.) Torres shows how two lovers, including his long-term boyfriend, call him out on this, fearing that their words and lives have been cannibalized, that they are going to be exposed, and Puig's pleading explanations fall flat; it was at this point that I wished Torres, who does employ a few fantasy sequences, had utilized a technique similar to Puig's in the Kiss of the Spider Woman, merging the real-time recorded dialogue of the lovers into fictional sequences, which would have made the author's secretive and disturbing practice clearer.

The film suggests that Puig didn't really high intellectual aspirations (and writers who knew him commented on this), nor really does it convey his profound artistic and aesthetic ones, which are evident in the texts themselves. Despite the dwindling appeal of post-modernism, the novels still show great formal and content originality, especially in how they fuse an insistently cinematic consciousness with a novelistic one. Yet the film doesn't really give us this, and we don't get the sense that it was fame exactly either that motivated Puig. Instead, Torres seems to suggest that the yearning for domestic and emotional stability, as well as for unrequited sexual tricks (and we get one in the form of a handsome and young working-class Brazilian housepainter whom Puig repeatedly and unsuccessfully woos), were his spurs.

I'm not sure that Levine's biography or the works themselves fully validate this reading. At times the film felt like it was verging on cliché, though more than a kernel of truth certainly lies in what's portrayed of Puig's suffering, which eventually drove him to his final resting place of Cuernavaca (by way, if I recall correctly, of New York). But I do wonder whether Torres might not have striven a bit harder to show--and perhaps it is too difficult to do with writers, for whom so much occurs within the mind--more of Puig's artistic vicissitudes and particular texts' intersections with his lived experience, especially his love of films. Because cinema, more than anything else, sparked his writing, and as the biography makes clear, his unique synthesis certain offers a number of options to an inventive and talented filmmaker. What also might have been interesting was to see, even briefly, the moment of artistic achievement--the concept becoming text, the movie dialogue slowly being transformed into something new in a given novel--yet I who have zero filmmaking experience would imagine that this might be among the most difficult things of all to capture on screen. I just wish Torres had pushed and played a bit more--certainly Puig would have appreciated it.

All in all, however, Vereda Tropical is a fascinating film, and worth the few hours it takes to watch it.


  1. Thanks for this John. I'm definitely going to have to check out this film. I've recently become fascinated with biopics again. I had an opportunity to co-teach a course on them once, but have since become even more interested. Keith and I recently watched Bill Condon's films "Kinsey" and "Gods and Monsters" (on James Whale). What's interesting me about biopics now are the challenges of representing speculation, or what has to be speculated to be understood. Your thoughts about representing the relationship of film to writing here is part of that. Maybe I'll blog on these things soon.

  2. Mendi, I appreciate your response, and I love that you taught a course on biopics. I go back and forth; sometimes I think they're an easy out for filmmakers, but then I consider how difficult *writing* biography is and how many of them falter by taking the easy route and succumbing to clichés, and then I really appreciate ones that try to go a bit further. I haven't seen "Kinsey," but I did enjoy "Gods and Monsters." Biopics of artists, especially writers, are among the most difficult, because how do you represent dramatically the process of literary composition, which is often done in isolation, quiet, and over a long period. Puig's work is uniquely suited, however, to filmic treatment, since it draws so extensively from films. Please do blog on this--I'd love to read what you have to say!