It’s good to be back, even if briefly. Having been force-fed a diet of Hollywood over the past few months during my infrequent flights – yes, there must be a worldwide conspiracy to trap people into watching a whole bunch of American ‘family’ films, my interest in film had somewhat begun to wane. Besides, I had other things to attend to during my visits. I’m happy to declare though, that German-born writer-director Christoph Behl has successfully reinforced my interest in film with his brilliant début feature, the romantic drama “El desierto” [Eng. Title: The Desert].
There’s a zombie apocalypse going on, and for all intents and purposes, the only survivors left in town are our three protagonists – Jonathan (William Prociuk), Axel (Lautaro Delgado), and Ana (Victoria Almeida). Holed up in a house with improvised fortifications, the armed trio stave off occasional zombie advances that the audience don’t get to see. Ana records their zombie ‘kills’ by giving each of them a classical Greek name. Soon, she will run out of names to use.
Easygoing Jonathan and organised Ana have been a couple ever since she was rescued by the men during one of their scavenging missions. The trio have agreed to abide by a set of rules and code of conduct that they created, one of which was to record their thoughts and feelings in the privacy of a video room. The recorded tapes were meant to be put away in a sealed trunk, but were nevertheless regularly pried open and seen by the others. “If we had met in another place, in another time, in another story – perhaps we could’ve been together”, Ana confesses to Axel in one of her video diaries. But the intense Axel couldn’t stop coveting her; he watches her from afar and leers at her body when she sleeps in Jonathan’s arms in the bed next to his.
The protagonists, while protecting themselves from outside harm, will eventually find living together increasingly difficult amid the tensions in their relationship. Axel wants to move out – he tattoos images of flies all over his body, intending to leave when there is no more space left to tattoo. Jonathan doesn’t want Axel to leave even though he is aware of his desire for Ana, and will go to extraordinary lengths to make him stay – whether it is by conceding defeat in board games, or by facilitating Axel to secretly gaze at Ana’s naked body. Things will only get complicated after the boys capture and bring home a ‘live’ zombie as part of a ‘truth or dare’ game…
What is fascinating about this film is its focus on the protagonists’ characterisation – after all, isn’t this supposed to be a ‘genre’ film! Director Behl invests considerable screen time in building his characters using observation and video confessions, and the simmering tension below the surface is revealed through clever camera, and sound – especially the incessant buzzing of flies. This, combined with the searing heat and sterling performances, elevates it to a higher level of film-making.
Importantly, the film raises questions on ideas we take for granted – that humans would do anything and everything to preserve their species. It’s at its subversive best when it persistently shatters the notion that we’d all, given trying circumstances, altruistically do our utmost to maintain the human race. At once raw, claustrophobic, moving, darkly funny, and steamingly sexy, the thought-provoking film challenges us to look at ourselves as we really are, rather than how we’d like to be. There’s a lot going on with several issues left for the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions. It’s possible that the film might even be considered a cinematic masterpiece of sorts in the future – reason enough for it to be Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Victoria Almeida and Lautaro Delgado
Four scenes feature brief nudity; the first three feature Victoria Almeida where her character is not aware that she is being watched. The final instance is of Lautaro Delgado’s fully tattooed character examining himself in mirror.