During the Cold War, aliens in cinema reflected deep fear over the invasion of a ideology different than capitalism. The alien ‘other’ is shown to be free from inhibitions and emotionless so as to succeed in the mission to cleanse earth of human stain. The aliens became friendlier with Spielberg’s Sci-fi adventures. The visit of cinematic aliens became less frequent and they also appeared in non-threatening forms. These gentler aliens were much more than devices for entertainment. Their on-screen study of humans addressed our species’ corruption, stupidity, and demonstrated the human dread over technology and ever-changing reality. If the alien in Robert Wise’ The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) brought a very didactic message to human race, the later era cinematic aliens in John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), and John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) profoundly orchestrated the meditation on human existence in the whole-wide universe.
In the same vein, Argentinian film-maker Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast (Hombre Mirando, al Sudeste, 1986) possesses the most ambiguous humanoid alien in cinema. The visitor from the space is named Rantes (Hugo Soto), who propagates altruism: to assuage the suffering of the poor, dispossessed, and mentally challenged. He mysteriously shows up during a bed-check in a Buenos Aires insane asylum and the narrative unfurls from the point of view of head psychiatrist Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros). Unlike the other precisely defined cinematic humanoid aliens, Rantes could simply be afflicted by delusions and has probably sought the asylum to escape from his bruised past. Nevertheless, his enigmatic nature is maintained throughout the narrative, giving enough weight to his otherworldly attributes.
The basic story line of Man Facing Southeast was replicated in the American sci-fi drama K-Pax (2001) starring Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. The Hollywood movie was based on Gene Brewer’s 1995 novel and the stacks of similarities between the novel and Subiela’s script led to the suing of Universal Studios. Mr. Gene Brewer maintains that he knew about the Argentinian film only after writing the novel and that the similarities are purely coincidental. But beyond the basic plot structure, even the philosophical crux of Man Facing Southeast remains the same in K-Pax. So, Brewer’s claim isn’t very believable. Those who are confused about which is the better version can without hesitation go for the Argentinian film. It’s more thought-provoking, less melodramatic, and a visually superior feature than K-Pax.
Dr. Julio Denis is already living in his personal hell when the film starts. A traumatized, mentally-challenged patient pours over his emotional malaise, although Denis drifts apart, submerged in the swamp of his depressed existence. Dr. Denis has lost interest for his profession. He has come to a conclusion that there’s no possibility of cure for the asylum patients. From the asylum, he goes back to the empty apartment, passionately playing the saxophone and passively listening to the voice messages of his longing kids. It seems Denis is recently divorced and mostly ignores answering his children’s calls. He takes them out in the weekend, but he prefers watching the old film stock footage of his happy family than really spending time with them. To put it simply, Denis is a man living in the past consumed by existential boredom. Dr. Denis is awakened from the figurative slumber by the arrival of a mysterious inmate who calls himself Rantes. He claims that he is coming from a different planet and that he doesn’t have any human feelings. Rantes further adds that he is only a hologram projection sent from another planet to study humanity and alleviate their torment.
Denis couldn’t trace Rantes’ alleged past. His finger-prints don’t yield any records. And, to everyone’s surprise, Rantes possess genius abilities. He is a brilliant organist whose divine music soothes the volatile patients. He shows interest in studying pathology, to investigate the stupidity & complexity of human race and exudes greater self-confidence which is absent even among the doctors. Although Rantes rarely betrays his emotions, at one circumstance he touches the forehead of a catatonic patient and the patient responds when Rantes places a jacket around his shoulders. Denis confronts Rantes why he emotionally responded to the guy despite his claims to have no feelings. Rantes responds, “I am merely programmed to respond to stimuli. I’m more rational than you. I respond rationally to stimulus. If someone suffers I console him. If someone needs my help I give it”. While none of the patients are miraculously cured, Rantes’ compassion brings about a change in the blank faces of the inmates. Everyday he stands in a trance for hours in the yard, facing Southeast direction. Rantes says that’s the efficient method to transmit and receive messages from his planet.
Day by day, Denis becomes more fascinated by Rantes (his interest in life is kindled). He declares him insane, but doesn’t conduct painful treatment methods to break the alleged delusion. Gradually, the other professionals in the asylum lose interest in Rantes which allows him to wade outside the campus to meet other people. On one such occasion, Rantes displays his telekinesis powers to feed an impoverished mother and three daughters, forlornly sitting in a diner. Later, a beautiful and equally mysterious woman named Beatriz (Ines Vernengo) who identifies herself as Evangelist visits Rantes, asserting to Dr. Denis that he has helped the slum kids and even delivered babies like a doctor. At an earlier point, Denis teasingly compares Rantes to Christ figure after considering the charisma he displays among the patients. Moreover, Denis compares himself to Pontius Pilate. The ever-deepening friendship between Denis and Rantes, however, doesn’t prevail over this earlier, prophetic comparison.
Eliseo Subiela’s script is different from the usual politically-charged Argentinian films of the era. Yet, fitting political parallels could be found in the narrative. For example, despite Rantes’ claim that he can’t feel, his level of awareness is much higher than the cognizing abilities of experienced psychiatrists. It’s considered as a metaphor for the stupidity and cruelty during Argentina’s brutal military junta (between 1976 and 1983). Rantes’ comment on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (“There are torturers who love Beethoven, who love their children….”) also traces the relationship between the seminal music and Latin American dictatorships. Apart from these little political touches, Man Facing Southeast is largely a universal tale of mankind’s alienation and imbecilic attitude.
Writer/director Subiela raises deep philosophical questions about the confines of our reality, the boundaries separating rational and irrational behavior (inquires whether mankind’s greatest virtues like compassion originates from rational or irrational thoughts). Most importantly, the film reflects on our rigid societal values, which harshly judges and labels those who are different (as Rantes asks to Denis that if they have the same kind of brain, then why one is called ‘doctor’ and the other ‘insane’). The definition of insanity is particularly confusing in a world that’s led by bunch of power-hungry lunatics, who are elected to office by indifferent herds of population. “If God is in you, you murder God every day” tells Rantes to Denis, the truest expression from the person labelled ‘insane’.
Director Subiela adds fine complex layers to the characters of Denis and Rantes. Initially, Denis aims to break Rantes’ alleged delusion. But the dynamics between them changes once the doctor understands that his patient is much more superior to him. Rantes connects with Denis’ children in a way the father never could. After Beatriz’s arrival and comprehending the unbreakable wise nature of Rantes, Denis feels little envious and becomes complicit in the system’s aim to destroy Rantes. Though Denis can feel emotions unlike Rantes, he is always at a loss to understand other people’s feelings. He is totally baffled by Beatriz’s confession at the end. Like Pontius Pilate (or anyone with authority), he inevitably chooses to dwell in personal hell than search for salvation. Director Subiela cloaks each frames with somber lighting. He opens the film with the shots of empty corridors of mental asylum, focusing on the alienation that’s rampant in the atmosphere. Rantes is introduced with a brilliant close-up shot, indicating his inner radiance. Towards the end, when Denis asks Rantes about an old photography, they both are placed at one corner of the frame, signaling that Rantes’ has become yet another negligible living being of the estranged world.
Like every other gentler cinematic extra-terrestrials with human features, there’s lot of parallels between Rantes and Jesus Christ. Rantes, like a messianic figure perfectly belonged on earth, yet his home is a different, faraway place. The displays of telekinesis powers and the shots of patients touching his shoulders as Rantes passes by have clear parallels to Christ. When Rantes’ conducts Ode to Joy in the huge arena the patients back in the asylum are also strangely overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria. When he lies flat in the bed after being subjected to painful treatment, the shot resemble Jesus crucifixion (Rantes’ cries out ‘Doctor doctor, why have you forsaken me?’). At the very end, the circular gathering of inmates in the open yard resembles the disciples’ waiting for the resurrection. Furthermore, director Subiela lends weight to the popular notion about second coming of Jesus Christ: that the humanity would once again forsake the messiah as before. In the misguided attempts to pursue wealth and desires, human race will keep on crucifying the odd ones, who speak of equality and compassion.
Man Facing Southeast (105 minutes) is one of the important and deeply thoughtful movies in the benign alien sub-genre. The predictable beats of its narrative are easily overcome by robust performances and the meditative imagery.