Latin America’s political turmoil has often been fertile ground for its filmmakers, whether it is part of the canvas that the main story is painted on (Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, for instance) or the actual focal point of the film (a prime recent example being Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona). Chilean director Andrés Wood’s latest effort Araña falls in the former category. Using the run-up to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état of Salvador Allende’s socialist government as backdrop to a complicated love triangle between three members of a nationalist paramilitary group, Wood makes Araña a study of idealism and fanaticism, and how a cocktail of the two can have dangerous consequences. Paired with an undercurrent of the violence of the past catching up with the affluence of the present that was made possible by it, and a timely connection to the rise of authoritarianism in our world today, Araña is another worthy addition to the genre of political Latin American cinema.
Santiago, this century. An old man stops a purse snatcher in an unorthodox way by pinning him to a wall with his car. After the police find some heavy weaponry in the boot he is taken into custody. Reports of his arrest are brought to the attention of a wealthy businesswoman by her husband. Her desperate attempts to get in touch with the man are fended off by the police, who have by now determined that he is a former right-wing militia member.
Santiago, the early ’70s. Inés (María Valverde) and Justo (Gabriel Urzúa), students at a prestigious university, are young members of Santiago’s upper class. By chance they meet Gerardo (Pedro Fontaine), a young man prone to rugged violence. Each in their own way, they both are immediately attracted to him, and a tense love triangle develops. The two adopt their new friend into Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Freedom, whose logo gives the film its title), a right-wing group formed by fellow students with strong anti-communist and anti-Allende tendencies. The group engages with leftists in street brawls, and the inflammable nature of the brooding Gerardo proves itself quickly. As the opposition against Allende intensifies (through CIA funding, among other things) the group moves from brawls to sabotage and a political assassination attempt, while Inés and Gerardo’s relationship moves from friendship to sex and a love affair.
Back to 40 years later, where Inés (Mercedes Morán) has left her revolutionary life behind and has become a wealthy and respectable businesswoman. The resurfacing of Gerardo (Marcelo Alonso) has Inés shaking in her expensive boots, afraid that Gerardo will expose her secret past and bring her comfortable world tumbling down. Justo (Felipe Armas), now her husband, is drowning his past in alcohol and unable to support her in any way, as Gerardo emerges from a decades-long shadow of betrayal to exact revenge and wage his right-wing wars once more, immigrants instead of Marxists now his target.
Even though the film circles around the trio of lovers and fighters, the focus lies on the cat-and-mouse game between Inés and Gerardo. While her younger version seems to wind his tightly around her finger, as Gerardo turns up again decades later the tables are turned. Their tense love affair is what drives the film, while the mildly psychopathic Justo is the proverbial third wheel on the wagon, even if he is the one Inés is stuck with her whole life. The danger of obsession is a key theme, even if Inés’ obsession (for Gerardo) is different from Gerardo’s (for violence). The way Wood weaves his country’s political past and its influence on the present around their obsessions is cleverly done. Inés has clearly benefited most from her past even if she has distanced herself from it, but while revolution was almost like a game to her and Justo, Araña shows that the games of the bourgeoisie can stir darker souls that keep on playing after the game has stopped.
The effects clearly interest Wood more than the causes, as flashbacks to the earlier days often rattle off events in quick succession, brushing off historic incidents in broad strokes where a bit more depth would have been welcome. Similarly, a second mouse that is thrown to Gerardo’s cat in the form of a psychiatric nurse (Maria Gracia Omegna) is left dangling by its tail. But as a study of how the seeds of hatred can grow into uncontrollable weeds Araña is a film that does a lot of things right. With powerful turns by Morán and Alonso, this political thriller that builds to a final confrontation between two former lovers and compadres is tense when it has to be and loose when it can afford to be. The politics play a part but the psychology is at the forefront, and Araña convinces as a look into what evil political games can breed. The chilling coda (and in hindsight, the chilling opening) is a powerful underlining of this theme, as an idea tied to a specific place and time is suddenly turned into something universal and of all times, not in the least our current one.