The film begins with a color-saturated Polaroid that fills the screen. It’s of someone crouched next to what appears to be an archeological dig, pointing into a shallow pit and smiling, as if he had just unearthed an artifact. He looks to be of college age, or maybe a little older. He’s in a desert, and the light is yellow. His dark hair is wind blown. The picture is accompanied by this voice over:
“Diego was into the distribution of goods, and the acquisition of labor. In this way he acquired slaves, used them to produce distributable goods, and acquired more slaves.”
It’s voiced by a woman — Diego’s girlfriend or wife? — who has a slight southern accent. You picture her telling this story sitting on the back stoop of some remote cabin, smoking a cigarette, as an owl watches her from the woods. The way she says slaves, it sounds like slayves, the ay coming from the very back of her throat. Then the screen goes black for few seconds before the Polaroid appears again, this time blown up so that what Diego’s pointing at is at the center of the screen. What he’s pointing at doesn’t matter though because it’s his finger that draws our attention, bent at a weird angle, an impossible and painful angle, as if broken. And tattooed on the back of his hand is what appears to be a small black star.
At least that’s how I remember it. I saw the film only once, on late-night cable, in a distant country where I didn’t speak the language. It was the first English I had heard in days, and so I watched it straight through. The story was convoluted and hard to follow but just when it verged on the ridiculous some small dark moment kept the film frightening enough to keep watching.
It turns out that the kid in the Polaroid — Diego — has been sent to Mexico to live with an aunt after his parents were killed in an auto accident and then, after his aunt, a former model, tries to seduce him he runs away, working various jobs at the tourist hotels up and down the coast of Zihuatenejo, and where he eventually befriends a rich, childless couple from Germany whom he manages to con, after an elaborate weeks-long performance that begins innocently enough but that ends with something close to murder. Just how he escape their hotel room with over one-hundred thousand dollars isn’t exactly clear but I do remember that in the next scene he’s in disguise, or else time is supposed to have passed and he’s grown older. He’s gone deeper south yet into the remote mountains north of Tarija, Bolivia.
Years pass in the movie. Maybe a decade. The transitions don’t seem to work right. It’s as if the movie was edited by people who have a mixed-up sense of time. Next thing you know, Diego is the owner of three indigenous Bolivians — two men and a woman — who look like their costumes (such as they are) were designed by someone with a poor memory of those anthropological photos of tribesmen and women from 1970s issues of National Geographic. We assume Diego has purchased with the money filched from the German couple. The movie uses English subtitles when the slaves talk in what sounds like a made-up, mixed-up language of Spanish, Quechua, and Tacana, but the subtitles are riddled with spelling errors, and Diego’s name is spelled at least three different ways. There is a quickly edited, heavy-handed sequence that I think is supposed to depict the slaves’ increasing love and devotion to Diego, although maybe it’s intended as a metaphor for hegemony itself: how the oppressed often internalize the very values of the oppressors thus becoming compliant in their own disastrous fates. In one shot, a naked slave smashes his iron ankle chains with a stolen hammer and instead of fleeing or using the hammer on the unarmed Diego, instead drops it and embraces Diego with tears in his eyes. “My master, mi padre,” he says, sobbing.
One morning, Diego — who has gown a full beard and looks like you’d imagine a character might in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel — wakes up to find a letter pinned to his nightshirt. The letter — shown in close-up and read in voice-over by the same woman’s voice that first introduced us to Diego — is, in effect, a ransom note for a kidnapped German priest who had been in Bolivia to establish an orphanage. Diego has no idea who delivered the letter and, worse yet, has never heard of the priest. He goes outside and hears a terrible screech in the forest trees and watches as an enormous bird attacks what appears to be a brown sloth which, after a struggle tumbles crashing through the branches to the forest floor. Diego understands, we are made to see, that to use his slaves to rescue a priest would be the sort of culminating paradox that his life had tilted toward and the particulars of such a rescue-action would make his mark on history. The next morning, swatting away the flies, he inspects the base of the tree and finds the sloth’s body, already shredded and mostly devoured.
The movie switches gears yet again. We are shown, via flashback, that the priest had been kidnapped by the splintered remnants of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army which, the film suggests, probably amounted to no more than five or six delusional, authoritarian men, unshaven in the Guevera-Ginsberg fashion, whose obsession with the Nico phrase “you’re number 37 in her book, have a look” from that first Velvet Underground album was, in fact, a decoy. For in truth, the Tupac Katari Guerilla Army despised what they perceived as the weak, narcissistic indulgences of “the sixties.” Diego understands that the ransom note has nothing to do with ransom. Instead, it’s the priest’s death sentence, delivered to Diego by the priest’s captors in order to entice Diego to stage a rescue operation that will, of course, result in the death of the priest. That way, his captives won’t have to do the dirty work of killing him themselves, as they are Catholics.
“Kill them all, including the priest.” That was the deal, as Diego understood it, “them all” referring to the nameless others who had also been kidnapped so as it make it look as if the failed rescue operation that would result in the indiscriminate death of everyone including the priest who was, in fact, the real target. And how to recognize the priest? The slaves would recognize him, the slaves in the aluminum canoe pulling across the river in strokes. The priest scarred by acne and humbled by one leg shorter than the other, from childhood polio, his pretext for a life of martyrdom.
The movie goes quiet as Diego and his three slaves navigate the wide, glassy, green river deeper into the hot jungle. The river current pulling time itself downward into the river-bottom muck. The necessary adjustments, against current. The peeling bark on the shore. The film turning into a nightmare, a real nightmare, pushing itself against the TV screen and leaking out. The metal and twig hut where the priest and the others are held. The images on the screen burst forth like explosions. The camera, which had functioned like a neutral, documentary observer, now becomes a character itself, getting into the assault. The cabin, of course, is not well-guarded, as the whole point of the plan was for the kidnappers to allow the priest and the other hostages to be murdered during the “assault.”
Everything seems to be going as planned. Diego and his slaves surround the cabin and then storm it after Diego gives the signal. Inside, the priest and several others are tied to chairs. But the hostage-takers aren’t anywhere in sight. In fact, not a shot has been fired. Diego stands in front of the priest, holding a gun, and next to Diego stands his most devoted slave. “If you murder me,” the priest says, “they will kill you, and say they did it trying to stop you from killing me.”
“Who is they?” asks Diego.
“The ones who sent you,” says the priest. “The ones watching you out there.”
“There’s no one out there. There’s no one here to protect you. You’re bluffing.”
“If they wanted you to see them, you’d see them,” says the priest.
By this time the movie has slowed down to a Henry James pace and you get the feeling that what’s being talked about isn’t really what’s being talked about. Everything’s at a standstill, but time is still flowing. In fact, you can almost see it moving across the screen from left to right and for second after second and maybe even minute after minute no one says a word.
Then, in a spasm of violence, there’s a sharp noise outside, like a gunshot, and Diego shoots the priest in the head, as if these had always been his instructions. There is no dialog or screaming or swelling music, just the sound of the gunshot. Almost at the same time, the slave who had embraced Diego turns to face him and, with a rough and worn hand axe that he must have been holding all along at his side but that we didn’t see or refused to see, strikes the unsuspecting Diego with one heavy blow to the side of the head. Diego falls where he stands, and the slave kneels down and strikes him again.
There is the distant but approaching sound of a helicopter. The remaining two slaves untie the other hostages and the camera (there is a fleck of blood or mud or brain matter on the lens) follows them out and back into the jungle as someone barks instructions or warnings from a speaker on the helicopter. The jungle trees blow and shake violently either from a storm or from the helicopter as the slaves and hostages disappear into the trees.
Then the screen is filled with that same Polaroid from the beginning and it’s clear that the film is about to end. This time, however, there’s no voiceover. The camera slowly pulls back and it’s revealed gradually that the Polaroid of Diego at the archeological dig is taped to a wall along with other, many other, Polaroids. As the camera keeps pulling out it becomes clear that we are in something like a police station, or a room where detectives are at work. They criss-cross on front of the camera, in white shirts with sleeves rolled up, some of them wearing their gun holsters, a few of them even smoking like in the old days. There must be six or seven of then, in this large room with wooden desks and file cabinets and the wall of Polaroids, so indistinct now that Diego’s face is no longer discernable.
The movie ends just like that, though I’ve often wondered if it was edited for TV. Is there a different ending, one that at least tries to explain what has just happened? Is Diego’s picture on the police wall because he’s a victim, or a suspect? And why, as the camera pulls back and away from the room, does it linger, for just a moment, over some official documents on a detective’s desk, one of which has embossed, on its letterhead, a black star, the same black star tattooed on the back of Diego’s hand?