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¡Viva! Film Notes – Los Sonámbulos

Dr Ignacio Aguiló, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Latin American Cultural Studies at The University of Manchester, explores Paula Hernández’s Los Sonámbulos, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2020.

Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers) is Paula Hernández’s fourth fiction film, after Herencia (Inheritance, 2001), La Lluvia (Rain, 2008) and Un amor (One Love, 2011). Although to an extent it can be considered a choral film, the story tends to centre on two female characters: firstly, Luisa – a discontented mother and wife to Emilio, an oppressive publisher for whom she also works. Secondly, Ana, Luisa and Emilio’s pubescent teen daughter, who suffers from somnambulism. The two women travel to spend a New Year’s holiday with three generations of extended family from Emilio’s side in their country house. During these hot summer days, tensions between the family members will escalate, with ominous consequences.

This film marks a departure from Hernández’s previous films, which used a more conventional cinematographic and narrative approach. She released her first film in 2001, at time of the New Argentinian Cinema, a movement of young filmmakers who were renovating the language of national cinema and rejecting the protocols and aesthetics of previous Argentinian directors. Hernández is generationally connected with these auteurs, and she even participated in Historias breves (Short Stories), a 1996 feature film composed of shorts by first-time directors that included many of the key names that would, later on, form the New Argentinian Cinema. Yet, Hernández’s works have been strongly rooted in the kind of Argentinian high- and middle-brow melodrama produced in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly that of Eduardo Mignogna, for whom Hernández worked as an assistant before becoming a director.

Los Sonámbulos marks a drastic change with these more conventional aesthetics and storytelling. In fact, many will instantly see the connections between this film and La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001), Lucrecia Martell’s debut film – ironically, one of the leading names behind the New Argentinian Cinema of the early 2000s. There are many common elements: the summer, the asphyxiating heat, a swimming pool, a run-down country house, teenage desire and incest, extremely dysfunctional family dynamics, the shaky handheld camerawork that resembles the characters’ intoxicated state, and a tension that is continuously building up. Some might also find similarities with L’Heure d’eté (Summer Hours, 2008) by French director Olivier Assayas.

Beyond these contemporary references, the film also cites – though, I presume, unwittingly – La Casa del ángel by Leopoldo Torre Nilson, a forgotten classic of Latin American cinema. This film, from 1957, and based on the homonym novel by Beatriz Guido (Torre’s partner) not only modernised Argentinian cinema at the time in which the studio system was in evident decline and the national filmography discredited internationally, it is also considered the movie that introduced a female gaze in Argentinian cinema. There are many parallels with Los Sonámbulos: the depictions of the sexual awakening of a middle-class teenager, who in both cases is named Ana; the centrality of a large house in the story (presented as a symbol of decaying patriarchy); and the eventual impossibility of this desire to unfold satisfactorily due to the sexist context where it manifests. However, there is a clear difference in both films. While in La Casa del ángel the girl ends up a prisoner of patriarchal violence, Los Sonámbulos points at the possibility of escaping this circle of gender-based brutality and decadence.

Although it may be coincidence, it is tempting to see the divergence in terms of endings, and the slightly more optimistic outlook of Hernández’s work, within the current context of growing feminist and women’s activism in Argentina. In its present expression, the women’s movement in the country started with the #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) campaign, which was created in 2015 to combat femicides, domestic violence and sexual abuse. In particular, #NiUnaMenos was ignited by the rape and murder of a teenage girl named Lucía Pérez by her boyfriend, who then buried her in his garden with the help of his parents. Femicides and violence against women is an endemic problem in Argentina, which has been exacerbated by the lockdown introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. #NiUnaMenos includes celebrities, politicians and intellectuals, but more importantly, many young women. It has organised several large-scale marches and women’s strikes, and has been an inspiration for similar movements in other countries.

It has also played a central role, along with other feminist organisations, in pushing for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina. In 2018, over a million women marched to put pressure on Congress to pass a bill to legalise abortion. The bill was eventually approved by the Lower Chamber but not confirmed by the Senate. Though disappointing in the end, it nonetheless constituted a milestone in Argentinian feminism. Everything indicates that soon abortion will be legalised – such is the strength of women’s activism in Argentina now.

Another important recent development that has exposed and challenged gender-based violence is the Argentinian #MeToo movement. This campaign gained significant visibility when, in 2018, actor Thelma Fardín made public a complaint against her colleague Juan Darthés for allegedly raping her while they were on tour with a children’s program in Nicaragua. She was 16, and he was 45.

This brief contextualisation is intended to indicate that the film is infused by a specific sentiment in sectors of Argentinian society. It is by no means a political film in the traditional sense, and cleverly avoids any denunciatory overtones or moralising discourses. But it definitively participates in an atmosphere of change that is affecting national society and the place of women in it. Therefore, although it is a film inscribed in a tradition of Argentinian film and fiction centred on the female coming of age in a decadent bourgeois setting, it is also a work permeated by very current social dynamics in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. In that sense, it is simultaneously timeless and timely.