Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Copa America 2011: Peru

Entry #12 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Conversations in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

A few years ago, I came across the 601 page Conversations in the Cathedral, a book that I had not seen mentioned in the few critiques of Mario Vargas Llosa's works that I had read. Since I had previously enjoyed reading two books by Llosa, I bought Conversations in the Cathedral. Although I should point out that the book's back cover description played no part in my decision:

Conversation in The Cathedral takes place in 1950s Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría. Over beers and a sea of freely spoken words, the conversation flows between two individuals, Santiago and Ambrosia, who talk of their tormented lives and of the overall degradation and frustration that has slowly taken over their town.

Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it. More than a historic analysis, Conversation in The Cathedral is a groundbreaking novel that tackles identity as well as the role of a citizen and how a lack of personal freedom can forever scar a people and a nation.

However, I never got around to reading the book and it sat for years on my shelf. Then a chance encounter with an acquaintance last year at a cafe suddenly brought the book back in my memory. Over coffee, I chatted with him about his journalism days back in Peru. After he mentioned that he covered the 1982 World Cup for a local newspaper, I remarked that Mario Vargas Llosa also covered that Spanish World Cup for a Peruvian newspaper. He then said something along the lines of “yes we were there together for the same paper.” His causal remark left me stunned and after a few queries, he revealed that he and Llosa were good friends as well. I could not resist asking him what his favourite Llosa book was. Without any hesitation, he replied Conversations in the Cathedral. I finally had to read the book so it naturally become the first book choice for my Copa America spotlight.

Conversations in the Cathedral is indeed remarkable but more than the story the book’s writing style is what stands out. The book dives into the past at various points in the story but there are no real markers which indicate when the story has left the present and has entered the past. When new characters first enter the story, it appears that these new characters are in the same room as Santiago and Ambrosia or that the story has shifted focus to a different location in Lima. However, after a while it becomes apparent that the present story mostly involves only a series of conversations between Santiago and Ambrosia in a bar named The Cathedral (hence the title). As beers loosen up their tongues, their memories dig deep into the past to uncover the corruption, crime and violence that enveloped their lives. So everytime other characters are mentioned, they are in the past (with some exceptions). The past and present is beautifully woven and once a reader figures out the pattern, it is a pleasure to sit back enjoy the gripping narrative which gives an insight into sinister political games and how those political decisions can lead to a revolution.

Film: Milk of Sorrow (2009, Claudia Llosa)

As the film’s opening credits appear, a soothing voice sings. However, the lyrics do not convey happiness but instead describe a horrible act of rape and violence committed against the singer. As the credits fade, the singer’s face becomes visible and her daughter Fausta (Magaly Solier) slowly leans over her, singing as well. As the camera follows Fausta against the backdrop of an open window, the mother passes away. The film’s title then appears. Very films manage such a contrasting set of emotions in such a short time. The soothing voice calms a person while the lyrics are shocking.

The film turns up another surprize shortly afterwards when Fausta has to go the doctor for a check-up. And questioning by a doctor reveals the meaning of the film title which refers to a belief that sorrow is an illness passed on from a mother’s breast milk to the child. In this regard, tragedy is given through an essential nutrient necessary for nourishing a newborn. Can a person recover from such an illness that is flowing through their veins? Claudia Llosa’s incredibly shot and thoughtful film tries to answer this question by following Fausta’s attempts to uproot her past and plant new roots elsewhere. The film allows enough time and space to observe not only Fausta but all the characters against eye-catching surroundings.

Bonus Film: Madeinusa (2006, Claudia Llosa)

Claudia Llosa’s stunning debut takes place in a Peruvian town literally at the end of the road, thereby signifying a location cut-off from the rest of Peru and even the world. Occasionally, visitors arrive but those arrivals are so few that their presence become a major town event. The town residents are eagerly awaiting the Easter weekend celebrations because the residents believe they can commit whatever sin they want in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday because the Lord is asleep during this time and won’t see the resident’s indiscretions. No one is awaiting this sin-free time more than Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman), the town’s mayor and father of two girls because he wants to deflower his youngest daughter Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) during the holy weekend. Cayo’s plans are in danger of getting ruined when Madeinusa falls for the lone visitor trapped in the town. The visitor, all the way from Lima, opens up a new world for Madeinusa, including telling the young girl that her name is not really a name but instead something one finds on product tags "Made In USA". The fact that the film is set outside of Lima means we get to see a different side of Peru than normally seen on cinema. Also, the film has a keen eye for the town’s rituals (minus the sins, of course) and celebrations.

A Family Affair

All the three Peruvian entries originate from one family tree as Claudia Llosa is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa. The selections were not designed as such because the film and book entries were picked separately. Still, Peru was well represented by the Llosa family for this particular spotlight.

Peru’s Copa America Campaign

Peru’s third-place finish at this year's Copa America is remarkable given that less than two years ago they finished bottom of the South American 2010 World Cup qualifying group registering only three wins and four draws out of 18 games to earn just 13 points. One of those wins came on the final day of qualifying against Bolivia who finished just two points ahead of Peru in 9th place with 15 points. Peru earned all their points at home and lost every one of their nine away games. Basically, they had hit rock bottom so last year’s hiring of Sergio Markarian has certainly aided in the Peruvian national team’s transformation. The Uruguayan Markarian has given the Peruvian team a new belief by infusing them with enough tactical intelligence so they can organize themselves to get results. Peru started off the Copa America in impressive fashion with a 1-1 tie with Uruguay and a 1-0 win over Mexico as Paolo Guerrero got both goals. Their final game vs Chile was meaningless but Peru were unfortunate to score an own goal in the 92nd minute thereby handing all three points to Chile. Peru had a tough task against Colombia in the quarters and were lucky to get to extra-time 0-0 when Falcao missed a 65th minute penalty. In extra-time, Peru truly shone and scored two amazing goals to set up a rematch with Markarian's native Uruguay in the semis. The Peru-Uruguay semi was pitched as a master vs pupil game because Markaian had once coached Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach only two years younger than Markarian. The first half was as tactical as expected with no goals but Uruguay wrapped up the game with two goals five minutes apart early in the second half. Peru's high defensive line was always risky and Uruguay exploited that for the second goal as Suarez ran free after a long ball from Alvaro Pereira. The Peruvian captain Vargas got himself sent off for a silly elbow but amazingly 10 men Peru played much better in the final 20 min and came close to grabbing a goal that might have led to a tense finish. However, that Peruvian goal never came and Uruguay reached the final. Still, Peru secured third place with a 4-1 win over Venezuela. The score-line was a bit flattering because Peru got two goals in the final 2 minutes. The Third place game meant a lot to Peru especially to Guerrero who notched a hat-trick to end as the tournament's top goal-scorer with 5 goals.

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