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La Frontera (1991) follows Ramiro, a math teacher who is forced into internal exile after denouncing the disappearance of a colleague. There, he encounters strange townspeople and falls in love with a headstrong Spanish emigre, Maite.
La Frontera was the first really successful movie in the Post-Pinochet era as it was a critical hit and broke records at the box office. On its face, it’s hard to understand why. It is not a political thriller with unexpected twists and turns, nor does it focus overtly on the torture and human rights violations of the regime. But it is not an apolitical crowd-pleasing film either. The film exists between these two spaces. The entire movie is about connecting otherwise alien planes. It situates itself between two Chilean legends, that of la Frontera and internal exile. La Frontera is the region in southern Chile that was the last to fall to Spanish control and still contains a lot of Mapuche culture and influence. That old legend mixes with the new, internal exile, the practice of punishing dissidents by banishing them to the most uninhabitable parts of the country. This is what makes the film unique. It connects these legends, different time periods, and people under the same wave of fascism.
Being a story of national legends, its beginning is extremely intense, seeming to set off a mythological tale of heroism. Our hero, Ramiro, is transported to exile via car with two talkative policemen. The idea of who and what should be celebrated in Chile is discussed at length. They stop at a monument with the Chilean flag built out of flowers on the corner of O’Higgins and Prat, two heroes in Chile’s struggle for independence. They later discuss the flag and how the anthem falls in the list of the greatest in the world. It’s the most superficial, nationalistic road trip. The entire endeavor ends with a journey across a misty river with a drunken guide as if Ramiro were a Homeric hero traveling across the River Styx. When he finally crosses over, he is referred to by the superintendent of the town as a dangerous terrorist.
After his odyssey to the town, he is introduced to the legend of the previous tidal wave and the nearby ocean which gives an air of mystery and danger to the town. Representative of both the sudden rise of fascism as well as a kind of biblical flood, it merges the fears of God’s wrath with humanity’s own political evil. The water which holds a strong power for destruction also holds the history and legends of the nation. When Ramiro goes diving in the ocean, he finds a statue of the ‘Abrazo de Maipú’, a Mapuche artifact. The water’s metaphorical mysteries have real consequences as well. Maite’s father Ignacio hasn’t been the same since the last tidal wave and suffers illusions from it. He believes he can still visit Spain and “travels” there regularly.
Thus, the legend of the ocean is connected to real and epic politics. These two countries are also connected by a legendary but very real Chilean figure, Pablo Neruda. This famous Chilean poet was marked by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War which made him a lifelong communist. He was also politically outspoken in his own country and it is said that he died of a broken heart soon after the establishment of the Pinochet government. He is an unseen but important player in this story as well since he was the one to finance the travel for Maite, her father, and many other refugees from Spain. The symbolism of the water may only point out the unyielding presence of fascism, but Neruda asks for more: solidarity with the other loser in the fight against authoritarianism as well as a continuation of the left wing struggle across the world.
This continuity is carried out by Ignacio as well. The basement of his house is filled with relics of the war. He has a painting of “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso and newspaper clippings from the time. He is also accompanied by the constant, agonizing memory of the Battle of Durango, one of the most devastating losses to the Spanish Republican army. This connection needs to be honored, but it also must be done in the right way as this constant devotion can lead to madness. We see it with Ignacio and his illusory travels to Spain i.e. the edge of the cliffs and with the drunken diver’s assistant who drinks himself to death. Even Maite does everything she can to protect the idyllic nature of the past by tending to her and her father’s old home, which has been destroyed by the tidal wave.
Though, this film is not just about the wild nature of legends. La Frontera shows that up close, legends appear very different. Between the deep mist and the loud winds, we can see the ordinary nature of this giant wave of oppression. The superintendents, the all-powerful and odious guardians of our hero, are in fact hilariously incompetent. Rather than the keepers of the underworld, they more closely resemble the Three Stooges with their insane obsession with having Ramiro sign in every day even when he has a fever and the two suffer a collective panic attack. They are representative of the overarching misuse of state power as well as the more subtle forms of torture. Every traumatic event is seen on a comically small scale. Their ineptitude reaches a boiling point when Ramiro’s family visits but the superintendents don’t allow them to cross over into a town so they yell to each other across the river and then end up in a screaming match, showing how forced separation leads to family dysfunction.
Not only are the superintendents far less horrifying, but Ramiro is also far less heroic. He is very honest about the fact that he is not a committed dissident fighter, but merely a math teacher who signed a petition. Does that make him dangerous? According to the superintendent, he is a terrorist and according to Ignacio, it would have been enough for Franco to shoot him, so who’s to say? Even when traveling with Chilean police officers, his confrontations are pointed but small as he corrects them when they call him a professor of “math” and not “matemáticas,” thus going against the increasing American influence hailed by Pinochet. Ramiro is a subtle hero partly because of outside circumstances.
Though Pinochet had lost the referendum in 1990, he still held significant political power at the time of this film’s release. Therefore Ramiro’s fight remains subtle… until the end. Having suffered a storm that killed both Maite and Ignacio on the eve of his departure from internal exile, he’s got nothing to lose. It’s at that moment that a film crew from Santiago recognizes him and asks him for an interview. He explains why he was forced into internal exile and restates his dissent. This is viewed by the audience through the lens of a digital camera, a machine of the new age, both technologically and politically. This New World will hopefully reinvent its relationship with legends and find bravery in the ordinary.