Film Review: Iluminados Por el Fuego

Andy Newman

Iluminados Por el Fuego (Enlightened by Fire) held its UK premiere recently in Manchester, attended by Director, Tristán Bauer, who himself is a veteran of the Malvinas War (sometimes known as the 1982 Falklands Conflict).

This first fictional film about the war from Argentina has been showered with awards in the Spanish speaking world, and has hit Argentina like a meteor, with over 400000 seeing it in cinemas, as well as being the most popular rental DVD by a country mile, and is now being shown in schools, and even by the military themselves.

The core of the film is a truly remarkable depiction of the war itself. Poorly trained and brutalised young conscripts, abused, freezing and malnourished, defending a wind blasted, rain lashed wilderness. Just enough time is allotted to the tedious waiting, discomfort, gross military bullying and developing friendships between the young soldiers, before Hell bursts upon them on Mount Tumbledown.

I have heard from British veterans their utter chilled shock when they were told they were going to take the hill in the dark with a surprise bayonet charge.

The carnage and terror is portrayed brilliantly as the Argentinean soldiers are overwhelmed, and despite individual bravery and solidarity from the boy conscripts their line breaks and their army becomes a fleeing rabble. We are shown brutal atrocities, and glimpses of broken corpses suddenly snatched from the darkness by the flash bursts of fire and explosion, while cacophony and broken continuity prevents us making any narrative sense of the events. This is all the more surreal on a cold pointless rock grazed by sheep, with the haunting calls of seagulls heard among the rumbling artillery.

The later regroupment and retreat to Port Stanley (Puerta Argentina) where the army ultimately surrenders further shows the chasm between the self-deluded, puffed up officers and the shockingly young and ill prepared conscripts. The point is brilliantly made that the war was inevitably lost by the incompetence and moral corruption of the officers who at that time had ruled Argentina for 6 years of bloody, inhuman terror. Despite the heroism and technical brilliance of the Argentinean Air Force, the army had no self belief, and no cause worth fighting for. In a back yard of a Port Stanley house a small group of defeated soldiers rebuild some shared humanity with a game of football.

Fictional portrayals of the chaos and trauma of defeat are surprisingly rare. Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Atonement” is an only partially successful recent example, but Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant dark comedy of the British defeat in Crete in the “Sword of Honour” trilogy, has closer echoes with this film. Though Waugh, in a typically English way, prefers to play it for humour.

In Iluminados Por el Fuego, the narrative of the war is framed as flashback from the central character, Estaban, who has been called to the bedside of a former comrade who has attempted suicide. This allows the film to have a much stronger contemporary resonance as suicides by the ignored veterans of the war have now overtaken the numbers killed in the three month long conflict. At the end of the film Estaban returns to the Islands: an autobiographical episode from the life of the Director Tristán Bauer, in an attempt to bury his own ghosts. How bizarre it seems to encounter the anachronistic normality of Port Stanley and its surrounding hills, for all the world like a small village in Cumbria, as the canvas that his nightmares were painted on.

Although this was a stylistically conventional ending, further emphasised by an unnecessarily sentimental song, the contextualising of the war from the viewpoint of the veterans now in their forties increases the emotional power. Not because of the suicides, or the more dramatically failed lives, but because Estaban himself is shown as having held himself together, and become a successful TV journalist with a stable family, but the demons are just quiet in him, not still or gone. It reminded me very strongly of the subtle, hard to describe, but oh so obvious, damage of my father and so many of his generation who left the bodies of their young friends behind them at El Alamein, and Monte Casino, or in the jungles of Burma, the deserts of Iraq or the forests of the Ardennes, but have carried with them the memories of those dead boys ever since. I cried at the end of the film, not for the dead, but for Estaban who survived, and for my father.




March 2006

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