¡Viva! Film Notes – Tiempos futuros

Dr Ignacio Aguiló, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at The University of Manchester, explores Víctor Checa’s Tiempos futuros, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2023 on 17 and 28 Mar.

Tiempos futuros, or The Shape of Things to Come, as it has been translated into English, is the first feature film of Peruvian director Víctor Checa. The film has earned rave reviews at numerous international film festivals, including the Beijing International Film Festival, where it won the Jury Award in the Forward Tomorrow section, devoted to emerging directors. It was also warmly received in Peru, where it won Best Film at the Huanuco Film Festival and a mention at the Trujillo Film Festival.

This is the story of an engineer, Luis, and his son Teo, who are building a machine to produce rain. People familiar with Peruvian cinema might recognise Fernando Bacilio, who plays Luis, from films like the 2013 film El Mudo or the 2021 adaptation of Bryce Echenique’s novel Un Mundo para Julius (A World for Julius). The rest are primarily non-professional and first-time actors, including Lorenzo Molina, who is impressive as Teo.

Besides Teo and Luis, a key protagonist of Tiempos futuros is the machine the two are building. Its construction for the film took four months and required the work of twenty technicians, plus the advice of a meteorologist and a mechatronic engineer. The idea of a story centred on a machine was partly inspired by the director’s father, who was himself engaged in a failed attempt to build an apparatus to multiply energy. You can see a short clip of him at the end, so please stay for the credits. Unfortunately, Checa’s father died before the film was completed. According to Checa, while going through his father’s library, he came across a book he had read when he was a child: the novel The Shape of Things to Come (translated as Esquema de tiempos futuros), published in 1933 by British science fiction author H. G. Wells. Wells is known for his obsession with fantastical devices, including the time machine, an idea that he helped popularise in his 1895 novel. At one point in the novel The Shape of Things to Come, the narrator states: ‘the sanest thing left for intelligent men to do was to set about upon some sort of Noah’s Ark to salvage whatever was salvageable of civilisation, so that there should be a new beginning after the rising deluge of misfortune had spent itself’. This line served as a catalyst for the director (who at that point was toying with the idea of a machine without knowing the type) to write the script about a device to make rain. This seemed particularly suited for Lima, a very humid city, but one in which it rarely rains.

Coincidentally, Wells’ work also inspired what is usually considered one of the first pieces of science fiction or, more accurately, fantastical fiction, in Latin America: La Invención de Morel, or The Invention of Morel, as it is known in English. This short novel by Argentine Adolfo Bioy Casares, from 1941, tells the story of a fugitive hidden on a Polynesian island who invents a machine capable of reproducing reality. The Invention of Morel was highly influential in Latin America and beyond. It inspired such manifold things as the TV series Lost and, some say, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. As the title and plot indicate, The Invention of Morel pays tribute to Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Many Latin American authors have also expressed this fascination with machines and inventors, particularly in the first half of the 20th century; writers as dissimilar as Roberto Arlt, Mário de Andrade, Leopoldo Lugones and, in Peru, vanguardists like Juan Parra del Riego and Alberto Hidalgo have written about fantastical devices and deranged inventors. In this sense, though Tiempos futuros converses with multiple cinematographic influences like Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children, Andrei Tarkovsky and noir cinema, it is also profoundly Latin American and, moreover, Peruvian, without relapsing into folkloric or exoticised stereotypes that cater to international audiences’ expectations of Peruvian or Latin American-ness.

The machine we see in this film has a lot in common with the one imagined and dreamt by early 20th century authors: it is not a digital, state-of-the-art device: on the contrary, it is a mechanical, old-fashioned, noisy and bulky appliance – the opposite of a modern machine. Its anachronistic design and technology mirror its inventor, Luis, a figure from another time who exists almost as a spectre. Inventors, engineers and machinery are usually associated with the future, modernisation, innovation; yet, in this film, they are melancholic figures of a past irreversibly lost. This extends to the city of Lima, which is much more than a setting or background. The Lima depicted in Tiempos futuros is hardly recognisable for those familiar with it: rather than a busy, crowded, hectic place, it is completely empty, its pace painfully slow. It is surreal, ghostly, and yet hyperreal, as it brings eerie recollections of cities under lockdown during the Covid pandemic. Checa chose to film on location, mostly at night, picking derelict and abandoned places, adding to the lyrical, atmospheric dimension of the film. This is also enhanced by the use of sound and music, which has some elements in common with the recent version of All Quiet on the Western Front – although they are quite different films. The film’s poetic and laconic features remind us of the beauty of experiencing a film in the cinema, and I am delighted that it has been included in this year’s ¡Viva! selection, so we can enjoy it on the big screen, with a proper sound system.

Despite being catalogued as science fiction, there is nothing futurist in Tiempos futuros. It is, and this makes it much more interesting, a film about bygone things and times. It is an ode to these places, characters and things that have been lost, only to survive in our recollections – and in fiction and art, which are the best expressions of human memory.