Guillermo Casanova’s second feature, a rural comic satire about who controls the political narrative, is Uruguay’s 2018 Oscar submission.
Fake news is shown not to be all bad in the appealing, deceptively barbed satire Another Story of the World, in which a history teacher in a rural town decides to take control of the historical narrative to get a friend out of jail. In its combination of political comment and small-town drama, Guillermo Casanova’s second feature, following a 14-year gap, delivers little that’s new or particularly eye-catching, but that’s no bad thing. Its virtues are instead the quiet, classic ones, and its wit, its bevy of engaging characters and its politically on-the-money message for these troubled times mean that this is one comedy that deserves to resonate beyond its country of origin.
Esmail (Cesar Troncoso) and Milo Striga (Roberto Suarez) are a couple of rebellious-spirited drinking buddies, small-town freedom fighters living in the invented but typical rural Uruguayan town of Mosquitos in the early 1980s. After the family of new military governor Werner (Nestor Guzzini) arrives in town, along with Werner’s striking collection of garden gnomes, Esmail steals four of them in protest, while Milo visits the local radio station and obliges the DJ to read a politically subversive message out over the airwaves.
But the local postman (Gustaf), who’s working for Werner, recognizes Milo’s handwriting on the message, and by the next morning Milo is gone, presumably arrested and imprisoned in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. After the arrest, the tone takes a turn for the darker. Initially beset by grief, Esmail emerges after some days of self-imposed isolation with a plan: as a former history teacher, he’ll give history classes at the local school to a study group led by Werner’s wife, Amelia (Cecilia Cosero). His idea is to mendaciously depict Milo’s ancestors as key figures in world and Uruguayan history and so raise awareness of the injustice of his friend’s arrest, spicing up the story as he does so with sensational scenes of cannibalism. He tells, in other words, an alternative history of the world.
As a satire on political dictatorships, Story conceals its barbs behind gentle, agreeable drama. A scene where Esmail negotiates with Werner the limits of what he’s allowed to discuss or not during the classes is brilliantly done, with the governor establishing the latest date that Esmail can mention as 1492 — “the further we are from recent history, the better for everyone” — and insisting that there’ll be no metaphors, because metaphors are an age-old weapon against censorship. Werner himself, with his moustache, his belly and is gnomes, is a ridiculous and absurd figure, a pawn whose only job is to maintain his own power.
Despite the film’s historical setting, its message about who controls the historical narrative, sometimes brought home with real visual wit — witness for example the surreal masks that Esmail and Milo wear on the night of their “crime” — will feel bang up to date for viewers for whom fake news is a relatively recent concept: Latin American audiences, of course, have been living with the notion for since before the time in which Story is set.
Casanova’s film is also an affectionate portrayal of a rural Uruguayan pueblo, in which it’s the women who too often pay the price for the men’s political games. Milo’s daughters, Beatriz (Natalia Mikeliunas) and Anita (Alfonsina Carocio) also play a part in Esmail’s plan, as indeed does Rina, who’s always suspected that her husband is an idiot. They are the glue that holds Mosquitos together, and on this level the film is a winsomely throwback celebration of the virtues of small-town togetherness against the oppressor.
Troncoso, one of Uruguay’s higher-profile actors, here makes his fourth appearance in a foreign-language Oscars candidate, perhaps the highest-profile of which was 2007’s The Pope’s Toilet. He has an appealing, busy screen presence, his amiability defining much of the film’s tone.
There are a couple of flaws in the plotting, one of them serious, since the storyline depends on it: It would be practically impossible for Milo to be arrested without suspicion falling on Esmail too, because the whole town knows they’re the best of friends. A simple, effective piano score rounds out the use of protest songs from the period to effective, restrained effect. For the record, the “Historia” of the film’s title translates from Spanish as both “story” and “history”, and slightly damagingly, the wrong option has been chosen.
Production companies: Lavoragine Films, Lagarto Cine, Tres Mundos Cine
Cast: Cesar Troncoso, Roberto Suarez, Natalia Mikeliunas, Alfonsina Carocio, Nestor Guzzini, Gustaf, Cecilia Cosero, Nicolas Condito
Director: Guillermo Casanova, based on a novel by Mario Delgado
Screenwriters: Guillermo Casanova, Ines Bortagaray
Producers: Natacha Lopez
Executive producers: Hugo Castro Fau, Isabel Martinez, Kristina Konrad
Director of photography: Gustavo Habda
Art Director: Eduardo Llamas
Editor: Guillermo Casanova, Pablo Riera
Composer: Hugo Fattoruso, Daniel Yafalian
Sales: Lavoragine Films