Pino Solanas’ 1988 film is a microcosm of the relationship between a person and their country which tells the story of persecution in Argentina during the 1976-83 military junta.

If El Exilio de Gardel (The Exile of Gardel) is Fernando ‘Pino’ Solanas’ film about his own exile and the agony of those who had to leave their homeland following the 1976 coup which installed Argentina’s military junta, the focus of his next film, 1988’s Sur (South), is the exile of those who stayed in Argentina; those political activists, strikers and union workers, cast out from their homes and imprisoned by General Videla’s regime.

The year is 1983; the dictatorship has fallen. Banners with political slogans hang from windows, balconies and power cables in every street. A mysterious shroud of mist envelops Buenos Aires. We sense a great demonstration has taken place, where thousands have marched in the now-deserted streets. It is in this obscure atmosphere that Solanas sets the epic journey of Floreal, imprisoned for five years, and now, at last, returning home to his wife and kid – a moment he has both feared and greatly anticipated. But before returning to his estranged Penelope, Floreal takes a moment to stroll around the city he once knew so well. Sur is the story of this stroll, in which he meets the ghost of an old friend, El Negro, who died while Floreal was in prison. El Negro brings a message of hope and love, and begins to narrate Floreal’s own story. Revelations about the past are brought forth, to both Floreal and the audience, who gradually start making sense of the magnificent fresco Solanas paints before us.

The street becomes a stage where his memories, the characters of his life – some of them apparitions, some of them ghosts – come to materialise. This permeability of the street, at night, drenched in darkness, brings Sur close to the mise-en-scène of a stage play, with the emotional beats of the film guided musical intervals from the great tango partnership of Ástor Piazzolla’s and Roberto Goyeneche. A grand message for revolutionary hope, Sur belongs to a movement of relentless political cinema, but Solanas’ film is also revolutionary from a purely formal standpoint. The film presents itself like a sumptuous mosaic which ties the personal to the political.

The influence of playwright Bertolt Brecht is notable, not only for the inspiration this artist had on political art in general, but also in the formal aesthetics of Sur. Solanas takes the Brechtian ‘quotation device’, used when characters narrate and re-live an experience or an anecdote on stage (thus ‘quoting’ a moment from their own life) to an entirely new cinematic level, when El Negro tells Floreal about his own death. The scene of his death materialises before Floreal’s eyes as El Negro narrates and, at the same time, falls victim to a policeman’s gunshot. The standard flashback would have separated the different ‘time-frames’, with El Negro’s voiceover narration unifying the two, but Solanas here fuses both time-frames into one, the street becoming a void where the multiple frames of reality intermingle.

Tinted in oneiric beauty, Sur is deeply grounded in the emotions of its characters, who Solanas films with profound admiration; we understand the relationships, the friendships, the family ties, the frustration and the anger. Although Solanas is not concerned with representing reality, per se, he gives us unreality, but he does so by creating a feel so natural and authentic that it can only affect the viewer’s most real emotions. The human interactions are portrayed with such care and, for lack of a better word, emotional realism, that one would even want to become part of this group of friends, who find strength within the confines of each other’s affection.

Floreal’s frustration comes to signify the angst of the man who has lost control over his life. His subconscious fears are betrayed when, in a hallucination, he sees his wife, Rosi, and Roberto, the lover with whom she found shelter while waiting for her husband, riding away on a motorbike. For love is a daily labour and what happens when one’s love is taken away by force? How can one nurture this love and keep it from deteriorating? How can one find the strength to combat solitariness?                              

Sur is about the night of Floreal’s return, the return to love, to the metaphysical Desire. The word is used repeatedly in the film to translate Solanas’ concept of the will of a people to pursue the dream of an independent and free South America which has found its collective identity, both politically and artistically. The lyrics of Piazzolla’s tango, ‘Vuelvo al Sur, como se vuelve siempre al Amor…’ (I return to el Sur, as one always returns to love), sang in the opening and closing tangos, are designed to draw a parallel between Floreal’s relationship to his wife and his relationship to Argentina. Indeed, their matrimony is a microcosm of the relationship between a human being and their country; Floreal understands what Rosi has been through, what the country has been through and, with the help of El Negro, finds the courage to go back to his previous life and continue fighting for the ever-effacing dream of el Sur. Solanas’ film represents that utopia and reminds us never to stop desiring.

Where to Watch:

DVD / 8 Films by Solanas

YouTube (without subtitles)

Further reading:

Interview with Fernando Solanas hosted by Pablo Iglesias (La Tuerka, 2016, 50:06 mins)

Sur: Regreso Al Amor‘ (South: Return To Love), a song from Sur’s Soundtrack, composed by Ástor Piazzolla.