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Review: "Hamaca paraguaya" (Encina, Paraguay)

While gore-fests may get the most attention in the realm of horror films, perhaps not enough is given to that darkness of art-house cinema, the secret repose for the most suggestive kind of horror: the ghost story. The line is easy to trace, for when Jacques Tourneur perfected the notion of fright and irrationality existing off-screen instead of on, he was pointing towards a cinema of intelligence, of obliqueness, of subtlety, of dread rather than fright, and above all else, one of horror. A genre-straddler like Kurosawa Kiyoshi points the right way: as one moves away from action and more towards formal and narrative minimalism, on-screen absence can be a powerfully haunting evocation of what is feared.
Paz Encica's New Crowned Hope entry, Hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock) is an excellent example, where-in what is nominally dubbed a pretentious or at the very least plodding aesthetic and focus is really just looking at the same picture the wrong way. Vaguely set in 1935 during Paraguay's Chaco War with Bolivia, Encica's film is made up of a small handful of long takes in long and medium shots of an aging couple waiting for their son, who left to join the war, to return home to his plantation. The eponymous hammock is the couple's meeting place before and after work, as well as during siestas; they split up so that the man, Ramón (Ramon del Rio), can work in the fields and his wife Candida (Georgina Genes) can clean the laundry.
Together, the married couple just barely relax, fidgeting and fretting about their son and everything else, finding their worry about their son expressing itself in a continual discomfort and restlessness, a combined result of Ramón's hope and Candida's fatalistic pessimism. Apart, their son is stilling haunting them, absent in the frame but vocal on the soundtrack.
In fact, Encica's soundtrack is Hamaca paraguaya's most haunting element: no words are spoken on-screen. Instead, we hear dialog only in voice-over, and even from long shot it is clear no one is actually speaking out loud. When Ramon is clearing his field and we hear the dialog between him and his son discussing breaking the news of his departure to his mother, or when Candida is washing by a stream and we hear her talk to her son about him leaving, it is clear that memories and ghosts are on the couple's mind—if not in the land as well.
When the couple comes together for what should be some mutual solace—and instead forever wait for the rain, like the son, to return, or comically be angry when the boy's dog won't shut up, only to become worried when it finally does—we still hear them talking only on the soundtrack. And the way the soundtrack is engineered there is no attempt to make it sound like the voices are coming from what is on-screen. Most haunting of all, the voices seem like a commentary track, a rambling, forlorn conversation being held after the events on-screen have occurred, the remembrances and talks of the dead.
So it is true—the more one removes from a film the more haunted it is by what is left out. The more disconnected the image and the audio are, the stronger the longing for union. Paz Encica's film is one of a most vigorous restraint, almost unbearable. But unlike the purpose of a horror film, Encica's is not to scare or to disturb; it moves in a more melancholy vein. What is left out is not something to fear, it is something for which to long. Remarkably, beautifully simple cut-aways to a stormy, overcast sky which seems always on the brink of rain is the film's ultimate expression: haunted by what's not there, we are always hoping that which is missing will appear, that which is longed for will be relieved.

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