Felipe Guerrero's directorial debut Oscuro Animal is a slow, poignant, and meditated examination of the effects of a long-standing civil conflict on the rural population of Colombia. Weaving together narrative threads that track the lives of three women interpellated in different contexts within the conflict, Oscuro Animalstraddles the line between direct and observational cinema in bringing the harsh reality of the countryside to a broader audience.
Rocío returns one day from doing laundry to find her village in ruins. With just the clothes on her back she leaves for the city, surviving an attack on the bus on which she travels and finally finding some solace in the company of a young girl orphaned in the attack. Mona is pregnant and held captive by a band of paramilitary soldiers. She endures their abuse until one day she viciously stabs her aggressor to death. Like Rocío, she flees the campsite for the city. Nelsa's arc shows the other side of the coin, that is, she is a paramilitary officer responsible for analogous acts of violence that have resulted in the other two women being exiled from their homes. She is unhappy, as she seemingly cannot have a relationship with her male patrol partner being the sexual toy of a superior officer. She, too, leaves all this behind as she makes her way to the big city.
Colombian cinema is a relative newcomer to Latin American critical studies and arthouse fare. Several scholars have traced the thematic roots of films produced and directed by Colombian filmmakers, offering a foundation for understanding and, more importantly, locating newer films. As they have underlined in monographs and articles, the thematics of Colombian cinema can largely be understood following the violence that has afflicted the country. The civil conflict traces to 1948 in what is known as the "Bogotazo" that resulted from the assassination of a popular presidential candidate from the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Other internal struggles between the liberal and conservative factions of government and society led to further clashes, including the armed resistance of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that lasted until a 2017 ceasefire. Embroiled in the civil conflict was the escalation of the drug trade and the collateral rise of several cartels that engaged in acts of extreme violence to maintain their hegemony (see any of the popular television series set in Colombia).
Oscuro Animalis thus situated within a corpus of Colombian audiovisual media that seeks to represent, problematize, and work through the many violences that have harmed its society. The film's aesthetics and tenor complement other features such as William Vega's La sirga (2012), but Guerrero takes this a step further by almost completely eschewing narrative dialogue. The acoustics of the film are evident from the very first scene, as it opens in darkness as the viewer is met with the cacophonic symphony of the jungle. Anybody who has ventured deep into the selva knows that there is never silence in the wilderness—even though it is deeply sheltered from the chaos of urban life—and that danger and mystery can arrive at any turn. A sensation of fear and awe is instilled in the viewer; watching this film involves a full sensorial immersion in rural life, in a context where various threats may be looming around the corner.
The phenomenology of the jungle leads the viewer to meditate on the title of Guerrero's film, as we begin to question who or what is the animal or beast. Rocío may be one such animal, as the camera tracks her movements as she gingerly returns to her house. A slow camera pans from left to right, immersing the audience in the space, providing us with a visual inventory of (whatever is left of) her abode and her life. Importantly, the noise of jungle permeates this space, its omnipresence impossible to ignore. Guerrero delicately juxtaposes images of calm and violence— of Rocío lying pensively on a hammock versus her being walloped by a cold stream of water in a bath, jarring her and us into the reality of what has transpired. Violence is unseen, as we are directed to reckon with its aftermath by the guiding gaze and expressive emotions of Rocío's visage.
Guerrero's careful montage of semantic extremes underlines the visual exercise of the film, evidenced later in the images of Mona and her captors in the second thread. She is almost always indoors, bathed in darkness, while the men swim freely outside in a river. The kinesthetics of their bodies in these contrasting shots adds symbolic depth to their depiction, encouraging the viewer to stitch together character compositions and narrative plot points through their own imagination rather than through the traditional filmic crutch of dialogue.
Nelsa's storyline brings the viewer to the non-civilian side of things, as we follow her in a truck with blaring death metal playing at all times as she goes about her duties, which include burying and burning the bodies of farmers in an unmarked grave, visiting injured and maimed soldiers, and serving as a sexual peon of a superior in command who once recruited her as a younger child.
Through its visual style, dark rural spaces, and sparse dialogue, the film encourages a rumination on its title. As viewers familiar with the Spanish language would know, adjectives typically follow their nouns, that is, the title would normally read as "Animal oscuro," or "dark animal" or "dark beast." By inverting its syntax, Guerrero's title morphs into something else— the adjective before the noun placement is used for descriptors that stress an essential quality of the referent. In other words, darkness is ontological to the animal or beast described, leading us to question what exactly this is. Is it the many women impacted by the conflict, or the rural population decimated by undifferentiated acts of violence? Or perhaps it is violence itself? I believe the animal in the film is metaphoric and not literal; it is a stealthy beast that moves through the geography of the country often undetected and unacknowledged. By this I mean the internal migration undertaken by each female character as they flee violence, making their way to the urban megalopolis.
In a stark image almost at the end of the film, Rocío walks with the child in her harms passed a security checkpoint. The armed guards do not even recognize her presence, as though she were a ghostly entity moving along the road. In another image, she sits at a bus stop with the young girl, and the camera undertakes a slow pan of other women like her, equally alone and pensive, suggesting that hers is a common story, just another iteration of the lived experience of thousands of internally displaced persons in Colombia's long civil war. I suspect that that is the dark animal that Guerrero wants us to see in this slow, beautiful film, an animal that he brings to the spotlight through the heartbreaking stories of its three protagonists.