The Isle of Flowers

by craigepplin

I’m teaching Jorge Furtado’s brilliant film Ilha das flores tomorrow in a class on short fiction in Latin America. Here’s a version of it with English subtitles.

There’s a lot here. Lots of speech for certain. The monologue is rushed, though evenly paced almost throughout. What interests me is the way Furtado traces a chain in which all elements occupy the same plane. It interests me because this amounts to a cinematic rendering of an actor network, a theoretical construct that “has tried to render the social world as flat as possible in order to ensure that the establishment of any new link is clearly visible” (16).

Furtado accomplishes this in numerous ways. For example in the way that the introduction of a new noun in a sentence’s predicate generates a new explanation about what that thing is. He draws links, accumulating as many actors as possible in this account (which, though it has a tomato as its seeming protagonist, is not the story of a tomato; it is the story of a network in which a tomato plays an outsized part).

But this orientation is also visible in the aesthetics of the film, for example in the flatness of the narrator’s voice, which does not really change whether he is explaining money or opposable thumbs or pigs.

That said, there are a few moments toward the end of the film where something seems to change. There is a brief musical pause at around 6:49, when the eponymous dump is first mentioned, and a longer one toward the end (around 11:05), right before we see lots of women and children being let into the dump (ten at a time, for five minutes at a time) to pick up the scraps of food judged unworthy of the pigs. They have, the narrator tells us, neither money nor owners. This is, we hear, because they are free, and the condition of freedom is, along with the possession of a large brain and opposable thumbs, one of the characteristics (in the narrator’s explanation) of humanity. As he tells us that these humans are free, and as he begins to tell us what freedom is, we see a vehicle pushing trash around the dump. Freedom, like everything else in this film, should be subject to an explanation, and he definitely attempts one: “‘Freedom’ is a word that feeds the dream of humanity, that no one can explain, but everyone understands.” Here is where the actor network stops–runs up against a black box, in Latour’s terms–as the film ends with a word whose meaning cannot be traced.

And that is why this film is powerful to me. It dates from 1989, a year that saw the triumph of one particular view of freedom, a vision that is by now (if not then) a fetish set in stone and wielded against dissenters. Furtado reveals it for what it is: a nut that needs to be cracked open in the same way that he’s cracked open nearly every other noun in the film. The image of a woman crossing the dump with a bag of garbage in tow is the image of this fetishized freedom. It’s up to us, Furtado seems to suggest, to draw this connection–and then, I would add, to draw new ones.