Review: Jackal of Nahueltoro

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

“Do you know the Infant Jesus?” a voice barks. José des Carmen Valenzuela Torres, 6, huddles farther into his dirty rags. The Corporal, who has just hauled this homeless kid off the road, looks on. Wham! A big bale slams full force into little José’s right cheek. From child vagrant to child laborer, in one cut. Fait accompli. The economy is typical of Littin’s 1969 film, made in Chile, at its disturbing best. And its best coincides—unfortunately, I think—with the most debased and dehumanized phase of the hapless José’s short, unhappy life. A caption declares that Jackal is a film about “the childhood, regeneration, and death” of José Torres. What, between “childhood” and “regeneration,” no “maturity,” nothing at all?

You watch the grownup “adult” José shamble dull-eyed and passive, intermittently violent, through the aleatory series of events that pass for his personal history, and the omission makes sense. There isn’t any affect even in José’s own voice—blurred, slurry, uneducated—as he recalls those events in voiceover. We see him stumble across some railroad tracks, late at night, dead drunk; raucous dance music is heard. The image hits a middle-class viewer with a punch and apparent veracity reminiscent of Los olvidados. In another early scene, José discovers cuts around his hands. Vaguely, he remembers an argument, a stabbing. And the brutality of the system is shown as equally casual. When footloose, unemployed José teams up—if, in this brutalized ambience, you can call it teaming up—with a poor widow, Rosa, a wild, rapidly edited flashback recalls her eviction. Her husband’s body is scarcely cold; but she and her five children, and their measly household possessions, have got to go, pronto, got to make room for somebody productive to move in and work the master’s land, no matter how long they’ve been there; no appeal. The soldiers carry out their orders, viciously. It’s only one extra, alcohol-clouded step from the drunken snarling quarrel (seen but soundless) between the peripatetic “couple” José and Rosa, to the slaughter of Rosa and José’s chilling climactic act of disorientation, his pursuit and murder of each of her five small children.

Now José—aka “Carmen,” aka “Canaca,” an individual belonging generically to “los de abajo,” his actual given name as uncertain as his precarious and still-unformed identity—now José has achieved a new alias, “The Jackal of Nahueltoro”; and he’s ready at last, ironically, for Phase Two: ”regeneration.” It’s a powerful irony, of course. José emerges gradually into the light of “civilization.” He gains consciousness: the ability to read and write, to make guitars, and baskets, and … choices: and he’s promptly shot to death by a firing squad. There are affecting moments: the freezeframe when some soccer players kick the ball towards him in the prison yard and he finally stops trudging and, with the first fully human expression we’ve seen so far crossing his face, takes the comradely point and, grinning, kicks it; the offhand transmutation by fellow prisoners of his classbound contemptuous nickname “Canaca” into the affectionate diminutive “Canaquita.” Too bad that much of the force of these concluding sequences is dissipated by repetition, slowness. prison-movie cliché, and broadness (ah, those familiar vultures of the press!). Still, Jackal makes a strong impact, and its widespread exhibition in Vancouver during the past couple of years (at the universities, at the Pacific Cinémathèque, as part of a “socialist film series”) represents one of the strengths of the local film scene: the beginnings of contact with Third World filmmaking.

Littin, head of Chile’s nationalized film studio under the late Salvador Allende, is in exile now, living and teaching in Mexico City. While the CIA was dedicatedly dispensing dollars to help “de-stabilize” Allende’s government, Littin was following up The Jackal of Nahueltoro with Compañero Presidente (1971), a filmed conversation with Allende and Regis Debray, and The Promised Land (1973), an epical story of the founding of the peasants’ community of Palmilla, Littin’s birthplace, and of the failure of that and other popular revolts in Chile. “A country makes the revolution,” Littin is reported to have said, “when it becomes convinced that potentially it has such values as beauty, lyrical ability, the capacity for self-expression; when the individual stops being an object and becomes a subject.” His statement casts light on the painful yet ambiguous memory of “El Chacal” (Nelson Villagra) massacring the innocents, in a drunken stupor, “so they wouldn’t have to suffer” and then mysteriously, sacramentally scouring the area for heavy stones to place in their outspread palms.

THE JACKAL OF NAHUELTORO
Screenplay and Direction: Miguel Littin. Cinematography: Héctor Rios. Editing: Piedro Chaskel. Music: Sergio Ortega.
The Players: Nelson Villagra, Shenda Román, and children from Nahueltoro.

Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler