Vitín Luna is a young police officer who aspires to be a respected member of the armed forces. In order to achieve this promotion, he volunteers to go to Chuspi, a village in the Andes which has been badly affected by the violence of the Shining Path insurgency group. There he first encounters Lieutenant Basulto, who is assassinated by the insurgents and replaced by Roca, a much more authoritative figure. Tensions arise between the soldiers and the villagers who are all suspected of terrorism, resulting in a massacre of many innocent people. Vitín refuses to cooperate in the bloodbath, is accused of cowardice and is detained. He challenges Roca to a game of Russian roulette, and the film ends with his departure into the mountainside.
The politically motivated conflict between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state that started in 1980 and formally ended with the arrest of the insurgent group’s leader in 1992, resulted in close to 70,000 victims – dead or ‘disappeared’ – at a time when the country was also in the throes of socio-political and economic collapse. Peru’s filmmakers generally avoided tackling the potentially fertile but sensitive topic of political violence during most of the 1980s, perhaps mindful of the anti-terrorism legislation restricting public debate that might be perceived as arousing sympathy for the Shining Path cause.1 They may also have been affected by a desire to put a minimum degree of distance between past and present – between real events and their cultural representation – perhaps to give time for reflection as well as to establish the individual and collective mechanisms required to cope with such trauma (Jelin 2003: xvii).
Nevertheless, in 1988, the release of Francisco Lombardi’s La boca del lobo brought the violence that threatened at that time to engulf the entire nation to cinema screens in the form of a fiction feature film that enjoyed critical acclaim and a warm reception from domestic and international audiences. This groundbreaking cinematic work explores the emotions and actions of soldiers sent from Lima to fight the insurgents. It draws critical attention to their encounters with the Andean inhabitants they have come to defend, as well as to the varied responses to the violence they are forced to confront. Indeed, it was the first Peruvian film to deal with one of the most serious issues faced by Peru to this day. Despite sparking controversy, it was an enormous success with audiences, and provided a benchmark for those directors in Peru who thereafter chose to offer their own cinematic responses to the worst political conflict and social crisis to affect the nation in decades.
This analysis unravels the approach of Lombardi’s film to the representation of physical and psychological conflict, addressing the ways in which it explores the complex relationship between violence and national identity in Peru, including the interconnections between masculinity and institutional violence. In common with his earlier films, La boca explores the various effects of fear, claustrophobia and confinement on the collective and individual human psyche, and these perennial themes will be discussed with regard to the way they impact upon and interweave with the film’s more topical concerns. It is likewise important to note that this was the first film made by Lombardi to be located in the Andes. Hence, it is useful to consider how the director deploys the rural landscape to emphasise the gradual subordination of a group of soldiers whose only experience is of an urban way of life and who assume a certain cultural superiority on their arrival in the village they are sent to defend. Throughout, the film highlights and critiques the dominant position of Lima (culturally, politically, socially and economically) in terms of defining and framing the image of the nation, and the subordinate position of the Andean region. It also draws attention to the misunderstandings between the soldiers and the villagers, and considers their failure to comprehend each other as at least part of the motivation for much of the violence portrayed.
In terms of what the filmmaker set out to do, he was forced to articulate this on several occasions in order to defend his work against charges of terrorist sympathies. In an interview published in 1989, Lombardi states that:
“I wanted to make others reflect upon the problem of violence that our country has suffered in recent years. As usual, I’ve drawn on reality in order to explore a theme that unites us all. Violence is with us every day and I think we are getting too accustomed to assimilating it more easily. The essence of the film is linked to this idea that the media, in particular the TV and the press, have led us to believe that this violence is somehow distant. I wanted to make those who live in the cities acutely aware of the violence taking place in the mountain villages that we know little about.” (cited by Bedoya 1997)
Having debated the film before making a decision about its commercial release, the Peruvian military finally insisted only upon a slight modification to the text that is placed over the images of the prologue sequence. Hence, Lombardi was forced to remove his preferred opening title, ‘Massacre at Soccos’, which referred explicitly to the real attack by the military on the Andean village of Soccos in 1983, during which about 40 people – mostly innocent civilians, including women and children – were executed, without trial, on apparent suspicion of collaboration with the ‘enemy’. The rest of the text remains unchanged, informing its audience that the drama is set in 1983, by which time the central Andean region of the nation had already suffered three years of violent repression. The text is fairly lengthy, mindful no doubt of the need to inform its audience of the key details of a complex conflict. It relates the main developments that led to the beginning of the so-called ‘dirty war’ when the military became actively involved in putting an end to the groundswell of insurgency that at first was largely dismissed by the state as the acts of mindless delinquents.
However benign it might appear, by agreeing to remove those three words that refer specifically to the real tragedy suffered by the village of Soccos, Lombardi conferred upon his film a broader metaphorical dimension that is suggestive of the brutality faced by many such communities located in remote rural areas of Peru. Rather than simply reconstruct the specific events leading up to one act of slaughter and its consequences, the film instead confronts the general terrorist phenomenon of the Shining Path. It draws attention to the intense pressure on the military to bring the escalating violence across the central sierra to a swift end, at all costs. In the event, it seems that such pressure led to a merciless campaign of repression. As a result, more inhabitants of the mountain villages were killed by both sides during 1983 and 1984 than at any other stage of the conflict as the military’s strategy was based on an indiscriminate use of terror that for a while was difficult to distinguish from the tactics of the Shining Path.