Mobility coming out of immobility, out of something still: isn’t that the original fascination of the movies? Isn’t that what Muybridge’s horse is supposed to remind us of? That when things are stuck, just push them together, and we don’t just get something meaningful (that’s montage), but movement, a propelling forward? It almost makes you wonder about our adolescent hang-ups, about why we’re so often told to look away from the movies: as though they didn’t give us the very image of how to move on. Cut the stuff together. Add music (if you have to). And, it’s…alive.
Federico Veiroj makes films about all that. His most recent film The Apostate (Uruguay/Spain, 2015) gives us someone who’s almost nothing but adolescent hang-ups. Gonzalo’s in his late 30s and he nearly insistently fails his classes. (It’s not because he’s dumb. He isn’t.) He’s replaying early sexual fantasies about his cousin. (Does she reciprocate, for a time, or is it all just a dream?) And, yes, he wets his bed.
So what propels him to make this grand gesture, the one at the center of the film, that of formally repudiating his baptism in the Catholic Church? Might it have something to do with the movies? Well, we have to locate his reasons for apostatizing. It’s not because he’s militantly atheistic, or because he’s found something else to believe in. In fact, he gives enormous weight to the church’s rituals, and even to that of apostatizing. He wants to repudiate the priests in their way, in a way that they’ll get, but also in a way that he can share with them.
He’s also haunted by his family’s having imposed something on him against his will. It’s not an uncommon anxiety, though it’s perhaps less acute in baptism than in circumcision. (Veiroj grew up Jewish in Uruguay, though he based the film’s story on the real-life attempts at apostatizing of his Catholic friend Álvaro Ogalla, who also plays Gonzalo.) And anxiety about forced circumcision suggests anxiety about castration, but also about (via the psychoanalytic concept of "symbolic castration") losing one’s particular voice. So it’s not surprising that, at the beginning of the film, Gonzalo is threatened to find that an altar boy he meets has taken a vow of silence. (When it dawns on him that that’s why the latter won’t speak, his look is one of both resignation and horror. In one way or another, he knows what such a vow is like.) As for his tutee, Antonio, the boy whose life Gonzalo participates in, not at all in horror, but happily, as though rewriting his own life: Gonzalo’s gift to him is a dictionary. Words.
So it would be too pat to say, as one might, that Gonzalo’s obsession with his own baptism is just another instance of his being stuck in childhood. Reclaiming his baptism certificate, it seems, is his way of reclaiming his voice. But that still doesn’t answer the original question: if it’s his voice that’s at issue, what moves this otherwise mostly arrested man to reclaim it? Even if all these associations are somehow present or salient for him, how is his apostatizing not just another one of his idle fantasies?
And maybe it is. (It’s never really clear what in the film is, or is not, just in his mind.) But Veiroj seems to offer another, more interesting possibility: that movies themselves give us an image of a kind of a movement coming out of repetition, and that it’s in film music, in the parts of movies that we can hum to ourselves, that we can recall to ourselves what it is to move.
This is declared, more or less, in Veiroj’s previous film, A Useful Life (2010), when the director of a cinematheque, in a radio interview, discusses Eisenstein’s "Battle on the Ice" scene in Alexander Nevsky:
How do you explain the way [a film] echoes in a spectator? Maybe we can call them an educated spectator, but that’s the wrong term. It’s an alert, sensitive spectator. Let’s say ... Alexander Nevsky’s Battle of the Ice. Sergei Eisenstein’s movie with music by Sergei Prokofiev. What we have is an apparently cold, formal exercise, where the camera doesn’t move but there seems to be motion, and there are 6 or 7 melody lines from Shostakovich, I mean Prokofiev, and the relationship between the framing of each image. To such an extent that, if you compare the music sheet, and its movements to the images, the movements coincide. This is to explain how it is made and why that sequence has such an overwhelming impact on the spectator. It is explained in that manner.
Coldly, formally he’s trying to explain this exercise (just as he might be asked to explain why the cinematheque, on its walls, memorializes another “apparently cold, formal” exercise, Muybridge’s galloping horse). He speaks ploddingly, as though he’s had to say this a thousand times. Jorge, a film programmer and the protagonist of A Useful Life, listens coldly, and gestures to his boss to wrap it up. No, this isn’t some magical or cumulative effect coming out of something cold and formal: the invocation of Eisenstein offers an ironic contrast with what we’re watching (and listening to), a contrast with the monotonous (but sweet and heavenly, because unchanging) character of life inside the Montevideo film archive. (When things change for Jorge, when he begins to direct his own life, it’s only because of an arbitrary cut: the cinematheque’s closing.)
With Gonzalo, who’s younger and more colorful than Jorge (though that doesn’t account for everything), things are different. He embodies Prokofiev’s Nevsky score, and twice: it plays (non-diegetically) when he goes to battle against the priests who won’t let him formally apostatize. It’s all his fantasy, of course. But it’s hard to escape the impression that this music is (contributes to? gives expression to?) the motive force propelling him along. It doesn’t come from outside him, any more than non-diegetic music comes from outside a film. And no one who hums this sort of thing to himself could really be stuck. With Gonzalo, we get to experience the effect of those “cold, formal” exercises in film history: not mere repetition, but a centrifugal force coming out of repetition, a spinning away.
But, in the end, is Gonzalo just spinning away, unanchored? It’s hard to say. Yet if he’s really got his baptism certificate (again, who knows what in this film is real?), then he’s also got his voice (or he's made an impression on Antonio, who never lost his voice, or on the altar boy, who did). It reminds us that when Eisenstein’s films couldn’t be silent anymore, they still moved, and also sang. And even when Gonzalo’s movie’s just in his head, its music is very real to him, and it still moves him; it still moves us.