El Viaje: The Search for Latin America’s Soul

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


El Viaje (1992) follows Martín, a teenager from the South of Argentina who decides to embark on a journey across Latin America in search of his father. Along the way, he encounters strange people, odd weather, oppressive governments, and beautiful landscapes.

1992, the year El Viaje was released, was a contentious year for Latin America and more specifically Argentina. 1992 was the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage to America. 500 years later, Latin America was a much different place than he had found. Years of celebrations of this mythical man with “Dia de la Raza” or “Day of the Race” celebrated the criollo men that came to rule over many of the independent nations of the continent. By 1992, the continent had already experienced decades of blowback to that idea as a reaction to disastrous dictatorships, coups, and economic systems which simply kept inept, but strong leaders in power and left indigenous communities to fend for themselves. More changes were also in store for Argentina. In 1991, the Argentine peso was pegged to the US dollar in a now infamous decision. It would lead to the economic crisis of 1999 which the country has still not been able to fully recover from. 

El Viaje

With so much at stake for the way Latin America viewed its past and its future, Solanas had to make a movie that questioned and recontextualized Latin America’s history and contemporary woes. Solanas created a transnational story featuring several languages (Spanish, Quechua, & English) as well as a range of dialects and landscapes to reflect this diverse continent which remained connected by a shared past. Through this small and seemingly traditional coming-of-age story, Solanas made a magical realist masterpiece about the search for the continent’s soul as well as a search for an absent father. The need to find a more reliable father for Martín as well as the nation comes up early. 

In Martín’s strict but decaying school, a statue of Jose de San Martín, regarded as the founding father of independent Argentina, has his horse stolen. When it is restored in a town-wide ceremony, the entire statue blows away in the wind and becomes lost to time like his own father who has virtually disappeared since his parents divorced during the dictatorship and his mother married a far lesser replacement, a perpetually annoyed yuppie. Looking down his own familial line, Martín remembers his immigrant ancestors who came from Asturias in search of gold and a first-class ticket home and never earned enough to leave. We can choose to look for a flawed, but simple father or we can accept the story is much more complicated. Solanas questions the powers and reality of our father figures. When Martín meets Américo Inconcluso, an Afro-Caribbean truck driver and character in Martín’s father’s comic books, Martín exclaims that he has read about him in his father’s books. Américo Inconcluso replies that he invented his father.

The search for Latin America’s soul and Martín’s father does not fall on a straight and narrow path. Instead, Martín zigzags through the country. He is certain he’ll find his father in Buenos Aires, then he travels to Brazil, and finally reaches him on his way back from Mexico. Our climatic first meeting with his father finds him driving a truck called the Plumed Serpent or Quetzalcoatl which is a sacred Aztec God. Solanas connects him to San Martín in the beginning and now to the lost Aztec society, making a foggy image of the father figure. Likewise, as Martín’s father asks him to come with him and start a journey together, Martín’s answer is unclear. We see him accept the request and go off with his father and then we see him resting his head on the dashboard as if it were all a dream. Martín declares that he no longer looks for his father because he is with him all the time and that the trip gave him everything he was looking for in his father.

El Viaje

These connections make Martín’s story have larger consequences for the continent at large. Martín no longer needs to look for unsatisfying father figures and Latin America should not either. From the start, Solanas shows us figures that he believes need to be thrown out. In Martín’s school, giant paintings of Argentina’s heroes are constantly crashing and falling to the ground including those like Faustino Domingo Sarmiento, the author of Civilizacion y Barbarie (1845) which advocated the espousal of western values over Amerindian values. In general, we should stop looking towards foreign influences and those that allow them to become the only ones. Our first encounter with a foreigner comes early in Martín’s journey. An alarm with an English voice informs him he is trespassing and he meets British drillers assigned to find oil not in the Falklands, but in New Patagonia, a new English colony where the number of Argentines will be restricted. It’s the history of foreign occupation in the continent. Martín laments how Bolivian forests became deserts and Argentina’s plains were turned into centers of toxic waste.

Foreign influence is so strong that foreign debt trucks ride through indigenous communities to give them weighted blocks so they can bear the burden of their country’s external debt. Third-world citizens always pay for the stability of other countries. This is all allowed by a state that puts elite foreign interests first. In El Viaje, Latin America’s problems manifest in a giant flood that engulfs Buenos Aires but leads to no action from the country’s leaders. The meanings of the floods are twofold. At one point, Martín is told that the floods were brought in 1973 from Chile alluding to the fact the floods are representative of the dictatorships that engulfed the continent in the 1970s. But a conversation with Martín’s grandmother in her flooded house tells a different story. She warns him not to drop anything as it will be swallowed up and lost forever. The wealth of the individual in Argentina is taken by the state to feed the monster of foreign debt.

El Viaje

The president, Dr. Frog, and his associates wear flippers and have amphibious characteristics. They will be able to survive the flood, unlike regular human citizens. In one scene, he triumphantly exits the Casa Rosada declaring that the flood will not be drained but that a new sewage system will be installed by foreign investors. Solanas has said, “Dr. Frog is the symbol of a governing class… frivolous and contemptuous of the people, advised by experts who plan the ruin of our democratic societies, but they offer apparently seductive recipes.” He, along with other South American leaders worship foreign leaders over their own citizens as comically shown in the meeting of the OPA (Organización de Países Arrodillados) or the Organization of Nations on their Knees where Latin American leaders are gladly forced to kneel before the leaders of more “advanced” countries.

Solanas does not stop at the continent’s political leaders. He also vehemently criticizes what he views as the complacency of the media. He shows several news reports across the continent in which newscasters simply regurgitate the state’s new authoritarian and downright strange pronouncements. The most hilarious of these reports occurs in Brazil where the newscasters appear wearing several belts and inform the public that they will need to tighten their belts by two holes to encourage less consumption and then less debt. This is followed by a belt fashion show sponsored by the World Economic Forum.

Solanas’ answer to this complex quest is as elusive as Martín’s quest for love in which he has visions, real or unreal, of a silent woman in red across the many countries in the continent. As with Martín’s quest, the continent’s road to stability is confusing and somewhat fantastical. Perhaps, we have to treat its history with the same fantastical fervor as Américo Inconcluso, the Afro-Caribbean truck driver. Always jovial, Américo sees things differently. He measures his age by how many dictatorships he’s seen and he drives without looking at the road saying he can do it with faith alone. He even looks at his past through the resources of the continent. His parents worked the sugar and coffee fields while he worked the bananas.

El Viaje

Of Solanas’ films, this one seems to be the most prescient and maybe his most dangerous. Fervently anti-Menem, he nearly lost his life in post-production for the film when an assassination attempt left him in a wheelchair. Though cheerful, Américo does seem like the most knowledgeable but dangerous character for authoritarian leaders anywhere. Américo looks to the resources of the continent and their connection with dictatorships. Strange climate activities seem to follow Martín wherever he goes. It snows in his classroom and he finds Buenos Aires entirely flooded. His teacher warns of the ozone layer depleting but his classmates don’t pay attention. And in one of the more surreal moments in the film, the world starts rocking back and forth like a boat and no one questions anything. Today, the Amazon catches fire. The fight for Latin American autonomy won’t be easy, but our best bet might be to take a ride with Américo and learn about the history of the land.

2 responses to “El Viaje: The Search for Latin America’s Soul”

  1. Can I simply say what a relief to uncover somebody who actually knows what they’re discussing online. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people must check this out and understand this side of your story. It’s surprising you are not more popular given that you surely have the gift.


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