Pitched somewhere between the bone-dry absurdism of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and the minimalist drone of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos, Diego Mondaca’s Chaco refashions the war picture as an existential journey through a barren, purgatorial landscape that ends in annihilation. An introductory title card offers some brief contextual information: the year is 1934, and a retired (or perhaps exiled) German captain is leading a small band of indigenous Bolivian soldiers in the country’s war with neighboring Paraguay over the disputed Chaco region. Captain Aleman (Fabián Arenillas) can barely conceal his contempt for the men under his charge, nor be bothered to muster enthusiasm for their mission. Acting as a valet of sorts for Aleman is Liboro (Raimundo Ramos), who is despised by his fellow soldiers for currying favor with the Captain. Liboro seems to be friends, or at least friendly, with Jacinto (Fausto Castellón), who is eventually tortured for attempted desertion. But no other details about the conflict are given, nor is there any traditional character development. Instead, we are given an elemental story about man vs. nature.
Mondaca films scenes in largely static master shots, with minimal camera movement and infrequent edits. There’s a languid quality to the film, as this group of men trudge through the harsh, unforgiving landscape, desperate for food and water. Mondaca occasionally highlights the ridiculousness of upholding regimented authority in such an environment — the soldiers unenthusiastically hoist the Bolivian flag on makeshift poles whenever they stop to make camp, and in one darkly comic scene, three men go through the motions of a formal changing of the guard in the middle of the night, even though there’s no one else in sight. Eventually admitting that the squad is lost, Aleman breaks his group into two, with himself and a few others venturing onward in the hopes of encountering the enemy or finding supplies. No Paraguayans are ever seen in the film, existing only as a kind of phantom threat, but the men do stumble upon an abandoned campsite and begin attempting to dig out a dried-up well. Their efforts are for naught, and the group descends further and further into madness, succumbing to heat and the pangs of hunger. A cryptic ending seems to suggest that the real horror of war is dying alone, in the middle of nowhere, fighting over useless, desolate land (unremarked upon is how much of the conflict was stoked by outside imperialist forces, with large European- and US-based companies jockeying for presumed oil reserves in the region). Mondaca dedicates the film to his grandfather, whose stories about the war the film is loosely based on, and Chaco frequently and fittingly plays like a half-remembered fever dream. These men are specters, anonymous pawns in a long-ago war, disappearing back into the land. In Mondaca’s hands, then, Chaco becomes an act and document of haunting remembrance.
Published as part of Neighboring Scenes 2021.