Visions du Réel 2023 review: Taxibol (Tommaso Santambrogio)

“Santambrogio, curiously silent through all of this, is left in the ambiguous position of putting a film together out of all these fragments, as he remains outside the frame and acts as a spectator inside his own movie.”

More than half of Tommaso Santambrogio’s hybrid documentary Taxibol is dedicated to a fictional exercise about an old man living alone in a dreamy scenario full of trees, livestock, and people working to keep the place running in a silent repetition of days and nights. A silence that is broken only by some indistinguishable screams and cries – human and animal – during what seem to be his frequent nightmares. Yet he wakes up without ever seeming to be bothered, takes a sip of water, and goes back to sleep. As if nothing had happened. And so the sun rises and the repetition begins again. However, this is not the beginning of Santambrogio’s film. In fact, it is its ending. For all the roads that lead us to this strange scene are travelled by the director while shooting the Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz and his conversations with Gustavo Flecha, a Cuban taxi driver who is showing them around.

Diaz talks about his former wife. “I managed to bring my family to America after working for a Filipino newspaper, I was a journalist back then. Once I brought my family to New York I started doing cinema again.” But eventually she handed him their divorce papers, saying only, “Sign it. You love cinema so much, then go do cinema.” And that was it. No hard feelings, says Diaz in English to Flecha who, in Spanish, tells him about a woman whom he loved very much but who left him after two years to go to America. She’s interested in things now, not in people, Flecha explains.

Hence Diaz and Flecha bond with each other as the Filipino director talks about how cinema should focus on people, and on finding what is left of humanity. It may kill, it may be a tool that helps them, it may be many things but not art for art’s sake. Echoing the words of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who said “Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?” Something that seems to be close to Diaz’s argument. Perhaps art provides a translation, a context, a show that might be able to gather an audience. And that is a start, an achievable goal, even if nothing comes out of it. Flecha on the other hand likes talking to people who travel to Cuba from across the globe, for they get to exchange a bit of their respective cultures. Both men are interested in people. Both men had their hearts broken. Both men have people they love living in America, although America might mean different things for them. And then, the truth comes out.

Diaz allows himself to cut to the chase and be honest about his intentions. One of Ferdinand Marcos’ former generals lives in Cuba, and Diaz wants, in his own words, to find him, shoot him, and eat his brains. His plan is to shoot a film and hope that the news that a Filipino director is working in Cuba is enough to get this man’s attention. He is a monster Diaz needs to find. This monster has a name, as all of them do: Juan Mijares Cruz. He is Chile’s Pinochet. He is Portugal’s Salazar, and Spain’s Franco. But more precisely, Diaz’s monster is closer to Brazil’s Brilhante Ustra who despite all the killing and torture during the country’s dictatorship years, died of old age and left his daughters and widow an undeserved and obscenely large pension. Here, all the roads lead us back to that old man living peacefully in a beautiful Cuban estate, and as his staff slaughters a pig to cook a meal, the silence is broken once again, but this time Santambrogio lets historical footage from Marcos’ years do all the talking.

Diaz’s “fuck art for art’s sake” now becomes clearer, for he knows that history forgives and forgets, and the dead remain silent, not able to tell their own stories anymore. So he will shoot as many films as it takes for him to shoot a dictator and his generals. And Santambrogio, curiously silent through all of this, is left in the ambiguous position of putting a film together out of all these fragments, as he remains outside the frame and acts as a spectator inside his own movie.