The Rewards of Risk

Taking risks can be a scary prospect, and the bigger the risk, the greater the potential peril. However, the same is true when it comes to the prospective rewards involved. Of course, it takes considerable resolve to face such conditions, but that’s entirely possible, as showcased in the inspiring new period piece drama, “Papicha” (web site, trailer).

For those who lived through the perils of the 1990s Algerian Civil War – a time that came to be called “the dirty war” or “the black decade” – the fallout from the struggle affected virtually every aspect of daily life. For some, that included implications whose impact was felt in highly personal ways, often involving things that bore little or no connection to the kinds of matters that typically come up for contention during armed conflict and sociopolitical debates. And, in this case, some of the worst torment was borne by the nation’s women.

After winning a nearly eight-year War of Independence in 1962, the former French colony emerged as a largely secular state with socialist leanings. Over time, though, the North African nation began to push for a return to the Islamist roots of its predominantly Arab population. And, by the 1990s, powerful fundamentalist factions fought to obtain political control, eventually pitting strict Muslim traditionalists against their more liberal Westernized counterparts. As the two sides vied for power, a brutal civil war broke out that killed upwards of 150,000 (some say more) and displaced countless refugees.

As the war raged internally, fundamentalists placed extreme coercive pressure on their secularized counterparts to conform to traditional Islamic dictates. Again, the greatest coercion was imposed on women, especially those who embraced the “decadent” and “immoral” ways of the West and who openly defied the far more restrictive doctrinal conventions that were supposed to be accepted without question. The euphemistically characterized requirement that women dress and carry themselves “modestly” was, in fact, an orchestrated effort to place them under the thumb of a male-dominated power structure that treated them like property, and those seeking to assert control often did whatever they believed was necessary to make this possible, employing the services of both male and female followers. Yet, for all the strong-arm tactics inflicted upon the women of Algeria, there were those who would have none of it, despite the dangers involved in openly resisting such efforts.

That’s where the papicha segment of society came into play. “Papicha” is an Algerian term used to describe an intelligent, confident, liberated, often-stylish and attractive woman. For all practical purposes, one could consider papichas the feminists of this North African nation, and that is how many have typically viewed themselves. However, during the Civil War, fundamentalists often used the term in a less flattering way, almost on par with “harlot” or “whore.” Nevertheless, many women who saw themselves in the more traditional sense of the term tended to let the derogatory label slide off their backs, taking pride in their self-assurance and courageously asserting themselves in their convictions.

Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri, center), a budding fashion designer, seeks to make a statement with her creations during the tyranny of the 1990s Algerian Civil War in the inspiring new period piece drama, “Papicha.” Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

That kind of strident confidence characterizes the young women in this story, nearly all of them students at an all-female university in Algiers, the nation’s capital. The most outspoken among them is Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), a budding fashion designer who comes up with stylish creations for women who frequent the city’s nightclubs. Working with her friend, Wassila (Shirine Boutella), Nedjma’s underground dressmaking operation grows popular and develops quite a reputation.

However, carrying out this venture has more than its share of risks. Getting to the clubs is often an ordeal in itself; Nedjma and Wassila must disguise themselves in traditional garb, and their rides to the nightspots frequently take them through military checkpoints. Then there’s the matter of even being able to leave the university premises; to gain access to the outside world after dark, Nedjma must pay off the college’s seedy gatekeeper, Mokhtar (Samir El Hakim), to keep him from talking, a fee that he keeps raising, even suggesting that it can be paid with more than just money. And, of course, there are probing questions from fabric suppliers who wonder what Nedjma needs with all of the bright and fancy cloth she buys – materials that she couldn’t possibly be using to sew the traditional black hijabs worn by compliant Muslim women. Still, Nedjma believes in what she’s doing, not only for the fulfillment she gets from designing her creations, but also for the personally defiant statement she makes through her efforts.

Nedjma differs from her classmates in other ways, though. Given the prevailing conditions in Algeria, many of them are looking for ways to leave the country, convinced that things will only deteriorate further. Her friend Kahina (Zahra Doumandji), for example, wants to emigrate to Canada; she sees herself being like the many others who live in “the waiting room” that is Algiers, biding their time until exit visas come through, a situation not unlike that depicted in the title location of the World War II screen classic “Casablanca” (1942). Others hope to marry themselves off to wealthy spouses who will take them away from the conflict and the coercion, either out of the country or in secluded estates where they can sustain their secularized lives out of sight. And some have agreed to capitulate to the winds of change, such as Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), an intelligent but pious young woman who’s already agreed to submit to the will of her husband-to-be in their impending arranged marriage, including giving up the studies she needs to complete her degree program.

Nedjma will have none of that, though. She’s determined to stay in Algeria, the homeland she loves, but without compromising. In fact, in some ways, she’s rather militant about the imposition of fundamentalist rule, unabashedly engaging in such acts as vandalizing publicly plastered posters compelling women to don hijabs, the “proper” garb for outside the home, notices that even detail how they should be worn. She willingly participates in shouting matches with fundamentalist women when they try to tell others – including male university professors – how to behave. And she even refuses to ingest the dining hall food that has been “dosed” with dangerously high levels of the epileptic sedative potassium bromide, a deliberate effort to reduce “female urges.” It’s a substance that can have hazardous side effects over time, and this practice goes on unabated under the oblivious eye of the university’s head mistress, Madame Kamissi (Nadia Kaci).

While visiting her mother, budding fashion designer Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri, left) learns about the tradition of Algerian haiks, garments intended to accentuate feminine beauty, in director Mounia Meddour’s feature film debut, “Papicha.” Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Under these circumstances, Nedjma has much to contend with, but she still manages to find the time to work on her designs. On a visit to see her mother and her sister, Linda (Meriem Medjkrane), she becomes captivated with the design possibilities for creating haiks, a traditional Algerian garment crafted from a single large, rectangular swath of fabric whose distinctive qualities are crafted using different forms of folds and draping. Unlike hijabs, whose intent is to promote modesty and conformity, haiks are designed to celebrate beauty, a form of clothing that flatters, rather than degrades, women. Linda and mom show Nedjma the various ways that haiks can be worn, some of which are purely decorative and others of which are ceremonial. There are even “practical” options, such as haiks fashioned to conceal weapons, a form of the garment that was often worn by female freedom fighters during the Algerian War of Independence.

Clearly, Nedjma lives her personal power. But her confidence in that power is tested when she experiences a family tragedy, one so severe that it nearly saps all of her resolve. Rather than be deterred, however, she redoubles her efforts and makes an important decision: She vows to stage a runway-style fashion show of her designs, all of which are different styles of haiks, with her friends and classmates serving as models. In essence, she seeks to make a fashion statement that makes a statement in itself.

Thus begins Nedjma’s campaign to put on her show. But, as her plans unfold, they nearly derail as she’s met with constant setbacks, challenges that push her to the limits of her ability to carry on. Nevertheless, given how far she’s come thus far, there’s no stopping the papicha from living up to her reputation – and showing the world just what she can do.

Accomplishments like those tackled by Nedjma and her peers are truly inspiring, especially under the conditions they faced. Many may have backed away because they saw the challenges as too daunting, while others may have given up out of intimidation. But not Nedjma; she moved forward because she believed in what she set out to do, and the power of those beliefs helped to make her goals attainable. Such is what happens when we set our minds to our objectives.

When confronted by fundamentalist insurgents critical of her decadent Western ways, fashion design student Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri, center) stands her ground against those seeking to quash her plans for staging a fashion show in “Papicha.” Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

In taking on such a task, Nedjma needed to galvanize herself in her intents. For starters, given the constant threat of insurgents, who often operated clandestinely and launched surprise assaults, Nedjma had to conquer her fears and seek to live heroically, for nothing is gained without the willingness to move forward with confident, unshackled conviction. This was true for her not only in confronting terrorists and their shrill female collaborators, but also in dealing with the many chauvinists and misogynists in her life, such as shady product suppliers and, of course, the oily college gatekeeper. Fortunately, the strength of Nedjma’s convictions, as well as the faith she placed in them, allowed her to overcome these obstacles.

What may have helped Nedjma the most was her belief in making a statement through her creations. Designers nearly always seek to do that when it comes to their clothes, though primarily from an aesthetic standpoint. In Nedjma’s case, however, she sought to come up with designs intended to go beyond mere appearances; she wanted her fashion statement to make a statement of its own. By designing a line of clothes consisting entirely of haiks, garments whose inherent intent had always been to accentuate feminine beauty, she was bucking the trend that fundamentalists were looking to impose on Algerian women by forcing them to wear hijabs, outfits purposely aimed at making them subservient. This symbolic protest was important in light of the power that symbols have in influencing the minds of others, and, at a time when women were being systematically denigrated, Nedjma’s creations provided a powerful backlash against such attempts at organized tyranny.

Of course, it helped that Nedjma had a great deal of help from those around her. Mutual undertakings like this often result in successful outcomes because of the combined power of like minds (and beliefs). Acts of co-creation frequently lead to success, even if only fleeting, in the face of dire conditions, making an impact that ripples outward into other segments of society – especially those most in need of hearing the message that’s being conveyed.

With her friends by her side, fashion design student Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri, right) seeks to put on a fashion show during the 1990s Algerian Civil War in “Papicha,” now available for first-run online streaming. Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

“Papicha” offers viewers an engaging tale about a conflict that’s received little cinematic attention, told from a unique narrative perspective. This fact-based dramatic feature film debut from director Mounia Meddour, based in large part on the filmmaker’s own experiences living in Algeria during the Civil War, tells a compelling and moving story, one whose message is a fiery and inspiring manifesto for women whose rights and very being are under attack by those seeking to subvert the innate individuality that is their birthright. While some elements of the story seem a bit forced, largely due to the lack of a sufficient back story (viewers may want to read up about the conflict somewhat before viewing the film), the film nevertheless raises a variety of intriguing thematic issues using an unlikely but highly inventive form of symbolism, a truly pleasant surprise that emerges from a cinematically innovative premise. Although “Papicha” is just now coming into general release (available through first-run online streaming), the picture has been on the film festival circuit for some time. It has earned its share of recognition as well, including a nomination in the Un Certain Regard competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Standing our ground in the face of oppression requires tremendous courage, conviction and fortitude. Indeed, when our persecutors line up before us, the potential always exists that we may be shaken to our core. But that needn’t be the case if we genuinely believe in ourselves. And, if we do it right, like Nedjma, we just might make a statement in the process.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Dissecting the Creative Process

A Chinese fortune cookie I once cracked open imparted a simple but inspiring message, “There is no greater joy than creation.” Those words have stayed with me for years, and I’m always moved when I see comparable sentiments expressed through other means. And, in that vein, a recently released film echoes that notion through a portrait of an individual whose calling epitomizes that very idea, the central figure profiled in the engaging new documentary, “The New Bauhaus,” available for first-run online streaming (web site, trailer).

László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) isn’t exactly a household name, though there are many who contend that it should be. As one of the most influential yet least known figures in 20th Century art and design, Moholy-Nagy’s imprint can be found in a wide array of artworks, as well as the design of many everyday consumer goods. That’s quite a range for any one person, but not all of these creations come directly from his hand; many are the creations of the students he taught and the peers he influenced over the years. Yet the inspiration, in either case, stems from a brilliant, if underappreciated visionary who accomplished more individually in his scant 51 years than groups of collaboratives produce in their entire lifetimes.

Visionary artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy in a 1925 self-portrait. Photo by László Moholy-Nagy, © Moholy-Nagy Foundation, courtesy of Opendox.

Born in Hungary in 1895 to a largely dysfunctional family, the young László was shuttled off to be raised by extended relatives. Given these conditions, he quickly learned how to look after himself, taking the initiative to attend to his own needs. By his late teens he moved to Budapest and then Berlin, becoming involved in a variety of cutting-edge technology and modern art ventures. He developed a reputation for his innovative works, and, in 1923, was invited to join the faculty of the Bauhaus, a German art and architecture institute known for its leading-edge work. It was quite a coup for a bright young mind full of ideas who had no formal training.

With the rise of the Nazi party, however, conditions changed radically. The Reich’s disapproval of modernist artworks – what came to be known as “degenerate art” – made it difficult for Moholy-Nagy and his peers to get their work into circulation, let alone accepted. What’s more, new laws were enacted restricting the employment of foreigners within Germany, hindering the Hungarian artist to continue working there. He soon left for the Netherlands and then England, though neither location suited him. So, when he had an opportunity to relocate to the U.S. in the 1930s, he jumped at the chance.

Moholy-Nagy landed in the bustling city of Chicago, a metropolis whose freewheeling spirit and boundless energy intrigued him, a perfect fit for an artist seeking to explore his creative leanings and make a name for himself. He found that opportunity in 1937, when the Association of Arts & Industries sought to establish a new school based on the Bauhaus model, and the organization reached out to Moholy-Nagy to head up the venture. Before long, the New Bauhaus was born.

An exterior shot of the New Bauhaus school in Chicago, 1938. Photo courtesy of Opendox.

In launching this effort, Moholy-Nagy had an ambitious agenda in mind. He sought to create an educational environment that went beyond mere vocational training in design. Instead, Moholy-Nagy envisioned an institution where students could learn the mechanics of creativity, becoming immersed in discovering how to fuse art, design and technology in new and creative ways. The intent was to go beyond just coming up with finished products; it was about learning how raw materials could be fashioned in ways that revealed their innate properties, especially discovering qualities and attributes that may never have been dreamed of before, all in the hope of developing goods that were both aesthetically pleasing and successfully fulfilled practical objectives that made life better, easier and more enjoyable for their end users.

Moholy-Nagy’s experiment may have been noble, but it was something of a flop. Many of the students didn’t grasp what the founder was striving for. And the school’s backers were disappointed that this new venture wasn’t yielding the kinds of outcomes they sought. After a year, the New Bauhaus was history, and Moholy-Nagy was looking for his next opportunity.

With the generous backing of Chicago-based Container Corporation of America, a company known for its support of the arts both in its advertising and corporate culture, Moholy-Nagy subsequently launched his own institution, the School of Design in Chicago (later renamed the Institute of Design)  in 1939. Given such a sympathetic sponsor to bankroll his efforts, Moholy-Nagy was free to pursue the establishment of the kind of school he wanted to create. And, this time, the students took to it with tremendous optimism, joy and enthusiasm. They relished the creative freedom this environment afforded, and they happily went about their pursuits, no matter how demanding the work may have been.

Taking a hands-on instruction to his teaching at the School of Design, László Moholy-Nagy worked directly with his students in encouraging them to find their own creative voices. Photo © Moholy-Nagy Foundation, courtesy of Opendox.

Moholy-Nagy became a celebrity of sorts through this enterprise, his school often attracting noted artists who made appearances as guest lecturers and faculty, frequently taking no fees for their contributions. One of the most noteworthy was visionary Buckminster Fuller, who spoke before rapt audiences of design students eager to soak up whatever wisdom and insights he had to offer.

Continuing the approach he used at the New Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy encouraged his students to find their own creative voices. He wanted them to understand the rudimentary aspects of design and material qualities and how they could be transformed into art, regardless of the finished product in question. In essence, this provided students with a creative template or framework from which to operate, showing them that their approach to their efforts was ultimately more important than what resulted from it.

Nonetheless, truly inventive creations came out of these hypothetical endeavors, items that may not have been envisioned were it not for the innovative approach employed in coming up with them. For instance, this approach led to artistically appealing yet practical applications in the area of product design ergonomics. The Dove soap bar, with its distinctive curved shape that perfectly fits both a soap dish and a user’s palm, is a prime example of a consumer good that employed this design technique and became a best seller in the process. The same is true of the whimsical and wildly popular bear-shaped honey dispensers that can be found on many American breakfast tables. And then there’s the clam shell-shaped telephone, which didn’t catch on at the time it was designed but subsequently inspired the look of many handsets to come along in later years.

Moholy-Nagy’s influence touched the works of artists in many other areas, too. For example, he inspired many graphic artists, such as those who went on to design the initial issues of Playboy magazine, the psychedelic advertising materials used by 7 Up in the 1960s and album covers for the Rolling Stones. He even had an impact on those in the movie industry, including the designer of the inventive cinematic montages featured in the opening credits of the James Bond films.

When raw materials were in short supply, such as during World War II, Moholy-Nagy encouraged his students to experiment with alternatives, like wood instead of metal, to determine their viability in design efforts. Photo © Moholy-Nagy Foundation, courtesy of Opendox.

Perhaps one of Moholy-Nagy’s greatest accomplishments was changing how we view photography. At the time he worked with it, photography was seen as a technology, nothing more. However, by employing it in new and different ways, he transformed it into a serious art form, a designation it previously hadn’t enjoyed. Today we take such a notion for granted, but, were it not for Moholy-Nagy’s efforts, that outcome may have never resulted. But then that was typical of how he approached his craft, looking for ways to fuse elements and disciplines in ways that hadn’t been attempted before – and forever changing our world, our perceptions and our art in the process.

Sadly, Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia at age 51 in 1946. Some would say he left us far too soon, but, as his daughter Hattula observes in the film, he produced a wealth of material in an array of milieus during the time he was here. The impact he had on the art world, both seriously and commercially, went underappreciated for decades, but, thanks to recent museum exhibitions and this film, his contributions are finally beginning to receive their just due.

What’s arguably even more important, though, are the insights he imparted about the creative process and how it can be applied to so many assorted endeavors, including those that go beyond what we typically associate with the concept of art. Moholy-Nagy placed as much value on the means and methods by which we create as on what results from them, an idea that was revolutionary for the time (and not always readily accepted). Nevertheless, he firmly believed in what he was doing and drew upon those notions in carrying out his work.

Art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist reads excerpts from the writings of artist and designer László Moholy-Nagy in the engaging new documentary about the prolific visionary, “The New Bauhaus.” Photo by Petter Ringbom, courtesy of Opendox.

A big part of his success is attributable to his focus on the inherent means for bringing all this about. In many instances, we tend to place so much emphasis on the end result that we lose sight of how we get there. Yet the process is what makes the outcome possible, so, if we hope to arrive where we want to be, we should give due consideration to the journey and not just the destination, for the trip will determine the form we end up with.

Paying attention to the details of the direction we take may also help us imbue the outcome with qualities that we might not have otherwise envisioned. Moholy-Nagy believed that what we create should both fulfill the sought-after needs and provide end users with attributes that make their lives more useful and satisfying. Those aspects may not be apparent at the outset, but they could well emerge as the design process unfolds, revealing themselves as the finished item gradually comes into being. Indeed, if one were to wonder how a proverbial better mousetrap might arise, this approach to building it would likely reveal how.

This approach proved valuable to Moholy-Nagy in how he ran his school. For example, during World War II, when finances and materials became more scarce, he had to get creative to come up with new ways to acquire both in adequate supplies. Where money was concerned, for instance, he attracted funding by introducing curricula with practical applications, such as camouflage design. He sought to recruit students (and their tuition money), along with additional funding support, to investigate the means for projects like hiding large buildings and even concealing the entire Chicago lakefront. On the materials side, with metal hard to come by because of the war effort, he looked at alternate resources to work with. Consequently, he and his students began experimenting with wood in ways never thought of, such as using it to provide the support mechanisms in bedding.

To succeed at envelope-pushing endeavors like this, we need to push past the limitations that hold us back. This is positively essential for projects where creativity is a core element of the undertaking, because standard approaches aren’t likely to yield anything new, different or innovative. Fortunately, limitations don’t even appear to have been part of Moholy-Nagy’s thinking; he stridently forged ahead, apparently not giving a second thought to the restraints of convention. And, for both his benefit (and ours), it’s good that they weren’t part of his process; we can only guess what imaginative manifestations would be missing from our reality today if it had been otherwise.

Thanks to events like museum exhibitions, the work of Moholy-Nagy is finally starting to receive the recognition it deserves, as detailed in the new documentary, “The New Bauhaus,” available for first-run online streaming. Photo by Petter Ringbom, courtesy of Opendox.

“The New Bauhaus” is a fitting cinematic tribute to an underrated artist and his work, featuring plenty of examples of his art and that of those he influenced. The film’s extensive archive material shows rare footage of Europe in the days before his immigration, as well as ample still photos from the subject’s time at the New Bauhaus and the School of Design. A wealth of expert commentary is provided by Moholy-Nagy’s daughter, Hattula, along with observations from educators, art curators, historians and former students and quotes from Moholy-Nagy’s writings read by art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist. Aspects of the protagonist’s life chronology could be a little better organized, but the overall portrait painted here provides an in-depth look at the life of someone influential but largely unknown.

As the experience of Moholy-Nagy and his followers illustrates, there is tremendous power and joy in acts of creation. They can take a plethora of forms, too, unfathomably greater than even the phenomenally prolific output of the New Bauhaus and School of Design students and faculty. That in itself should be good cause for the optimism, joy and enthusiasm that came to characterize the attitudes of those enrolled in these remarkable institutions, serving as an uplifting example to the rest of us as we undertake all of our creative endeavors, whether we’re attempting something as ambitious as painting a mural – or simply cooking dinner. 

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Spinning a Troubling Web of Truth

Truth can be a powerful weapon, one that can both avenge wrongs and operate as a force of devastating destruction, sometimes simultaneously. The power associated with it can have tremendous ramifications and in a variety of contexts. And, when evidence of truth in both its aspects surfaces, the implications can be staggering. So it is for three individuals whose stories are rooted in the past and thought forgotten until they’re unexpectedly revived in the present, an intense saga depicted in the taut Chilean political thriller, “Spider” (“Araña”) (web site, trailer).

In 1970, socialist Salvador Allende (1908-1973) became president of Chile, the first Marxist ever democratically elected to a nation’s top office in Latin America, an outcome widely greeted with much popular fanfare. However, not everyone was pleased with the result, most notably right-wing conservatives who opposed the new president’s proposed reforms, some of which included the nationalization of certain industries. Those who stood to lose from such changes organized formal opposition groups, most notably the radical Fatherland and Liberty Nationalist Party. The organization’s aggressive and sometimes-brutal tactics included everything from assaulting leftists in street brawls to formally planning Allende’s ouster (a result that eventually came to pass in a 1973 coup). The FLNP also became somewhat infamous for its distinctive logo, a series of interlocked lines meant to represent the chains of Marxism arranged in a pattern that resembled a spider (as depicted in the accompanying photos).

The FLNP’s membership primarily consisted of upper and middle class college students, and the story in this film follows the exploits of three of them – Inés (María Valverde) and her boyfriend, Justo (Gabriel Urzúa), both of whom recruit a soft-spoken but violent-tempered peer, Gerardo (Pedro Fontaine). The trio is something of an unlikely threesome: Inés, a beauty pageant contestant, and Justo, a product of the Chilean bourgeoisie, are significantly different from Gerardo, a military veteran from a working class background. It’s not clear how solidly Inés and Justo are committed to the cause, but Gerardo is all in, providing their cell with much-needed muscle when called for. Nevertheless, despite their differences, they work together to carry out the organization’s missions and spread its rhetoric.

However, matters grow complicated when Inés starts taking a liking to Gerardo. The passion that swells up between them quickly turns hot and heavy, and their less-than-discreet interactions eventually raise Justo’s suspicions. Consequently, when Justo assigns hazardous tasks to his new recruit, one can’t help but wonder if he’s doing so because he believes Gerardo is the best man for the job or because the dangers involved in these tasks could potentially take him out of the picture – and out of the life of Inés. That notion gets put to the test when the assignment involves a proposed political assassination, an ideal task for a former military man – and one in which having a potential patsy in place could prove valuable to protecting the movement and fulfilling its objectives.

Chilean college students Inés (María Valverde, left) and her boyfriend, Justo (Gabriel Urzúa, right), become active proponents of the right-wing conservative Fatherland and Liberty Nationalist Party in the early 1970s, seeking the ouster of the nation’s democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, as depicted in director Andrés Wood’s latest offering, “Spider” (“Araña”). Photo courtesy of Film Factory.

Skip ahead to the present day. An older Inés (Mercedes Morán) is now an influential and successful businesswoman active in Chilean commerce and politics. She’s married to Justo (Felipe Armas), but time has not been kind to him; he’s an alcoholic shadow of his former self, largely withdrawn and much less in the public eye. Their affluence supports them comfortably, but the secret of their FLNP past forever haunts them, threatening to wipe away their prosperity and destroy the illusion of their so-called respectability if the truth were exposed.

The potential for undoing everything gets amped up with the return of their old colleague, Gerardo (Marcelo Alonso). After a disappearance of more than four decades and believed dead, he returns to Santiago, looking very much like a dissheveled hermit. He’s apparently still committed to taking down those he considers “undesirables,” though he’s not pursuing Marxists any more; he has new targets (most notably thugs and immigrants), and he seems set on going after them.

As Gerardo cruises the streets of Santiago’s seedier neighborhoods, he looks on in anguish. He’s disgusted by the seemingly omnipresent criminal element, surveying the landscape like a vigilante in waiting, a latter-day version of Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” (1976). And, when he witnesses a street robbery, he pounces, chasing down the perpetrator and killing the criminal with his car in an act of what he sincerely believes to be a justifiable citizen’s arrest. However, once taken into custody, authorities lock him up, especially when they learn that he has a huge stockpile of weapons stashed away.

When Inés learns of his arrest, she grows concerned and seeks to call in favors to safeguard her security by keeping him in confinement. But, even with that, many questions linger: Why has Gerardo returned? Will he reveal details about his past that will also implicate Inés and Justo? Is he securely detained, unable to escape his incarceration? And what would happen if he somehow managed to get out? Many potential consequences hang in the balance, including Inés’s criminal history, as well as her current reputation, her personal safety and those 40-year-old unresolved romantic leanings.

As the past and present collide, a great deal of long-accumulating dust is about to be stirred up. Truths will be revealed, and the ramifications associated with them will surface in multiple ways. In the end, though, they can’t be escaped – and neither can their implications.

Violent-tempered military veteran Gerardo (Pedro Fontaine, left) is recuited to provide muscle for the right-wing conservative Fatherland and Liberty Nationalist Party in 1970s Chile by college student Inés (María Valverde, right), a relationship that turns romantic as well as political, in director Andrés Wood’s new thriller, “Spider” (“Araña”). Photo courtesy of Film Factory.

When we’re unable to be truthful about ourselves (or sometimes even with ourselves), we run the risk of spinning a web of deceit, which is why “Spider” is such an aptly fitting title for this film. The protagonists in this story – especially Inés and Justo – have difficulties with this, failings that are apparent both in their past and in their present. In large part, that’s due to their inability to define and understand their authentic selves, an issue that arises from not knowing what to believe about their true nature.

For instance, as noted above, when it comes to their commitment to the FLNP, the younger Inés and Justo seem somewhat unclear about exactly why they’re involved. Is it because they truly believe in the right-wing cause? Is it a power and control move? Or is it a byproduct of their backgrounds, protecting the bourgeois lifestyles they grew up with, maintaining the status quo and playing along with their peers for acceptance and popularity? Such personal ambiguity is potentially volatile in light of the risks involved in a scenario like this, something that one should be clear about with oneself before getting in too deep. And this is important not only for them while in their youth, but also down the road in their adulthood, something that their younger selves apparently aren’t thinking much about.

Failing to give due consideration to the consequences of our actions can be a time bomb whose detonation can occur at any time, both in the short term and well down the road. And that, for example, is where the danger of recruiting an impressionable Gerardo comes into play. Inés and Justo believe that having a strongman on their team would be advantageous to furthering the FLNP’s actions and objectives, and, from a purely goal-driven standpoint, they’re probably right. However, given Gerardo’s history and behavior, he’s obviously loose cannon, one who can be easily influenced and manipulated, especially when he’s called upon to execute the kinds of high-risk party initiatives that align with his particular point of view. By failing to evaluate the wisdom of their actions and beliefs, Inés and Justo are potentially lighting a fuse that could have explosive outcomes associated with it.

Efforts like this are prime examples of what happens when desired outcomes are given priority over any potential side effects or fallout that may occur. The roots of this approach are firmly planted in the pasts of the three protagonists, but that doesn’t mean that their misguided schemes will go dormant or evaporate over time. As the seeds germinate, they can come to life as full-blown manifestations, and, for the lead trio in this story, that can have wide-ranging impact on multiple fronts. For Chilean society at large, for example, the efforts and effects of the FLNP can be seen both during its days of active operation and years in the future, results realized through the overt and covert power amassed by onetime members like Inés and, despite his long absence, Gerardo. Meanwhile, on a personal level, similar ramifications can be seen in the lives of the three former colleagues, most notably their unresolved romantic issues. Indeed, even when we would like to believe that such matters are over and done with, nothing could be further from the truth (there’s that word again).

Under conditions like this, one must often scramble to address undesired outcomes when they arise. The elder Inés, for example, must aggressively call in favors to protect her reputation and personal well-being when she learns that Gerardo may have walked back into her life. Similarly, the elder Justo attempts to deal with his past, both politically and romantically, by escaping into a perpetually inebriated existence to deaden the pain and keep denial at bay. And Gerardo, who no longer has familiar targets to pursue, must come up with new ones to stalk and hunt down to satisfy the drives that have become so ingrained in his being.

An elder Inés (Mercedes Morán), a modern-day successful businesswoman, seeks to keep her radical past under wraps in the new political thriller, “Spider” (“Araña”). Photo courtesy of Film Factory.

In many regards, “Spider” is an important film for all of us these days, for it holds up a undeniable and sparklingly clear mirror, forcing us to take a good look at who we are as a people, perhaps even as a species. It shows us the power inherent in what we create, especially with respect to its persistence over time, including what no longer serves us. Ill effects sometimes have a tendency to hold on, making their presence felt in both big and small ways even when we thought they had become outmoded and had been discarded. Yet there they are, their effects lingering like uninvited party guests who won’t leave, compelling us to take action to address them.

At first glance, one might think that the foregoing is a uniquely American phenomenon, especially in light of recent events. However, as this film illustrates, it’s more widespread than many of us might believe. Indeed, as director Andrés Wood observed during a question-and-answer session after a screening at the Chicago Film Festival, such happenings are occurring outside our borders, even if we hear little to nothing about them, and the intents underlying them have uncanny commonalities linking them. Because of that, then, “Spider” serves as a wake-up call to us, both individually and collectively and around the world, not just in terms of the tangible effects of these considerations, but also with regard to the underlying intangible means that bring them into being in the first place. The truth will out, so, if we want to better understand why it’s materializing as it is, we had better get to know what’s driving it in the first place.

Unfortunately, even though “Spider” is such an important film, finding it may be a bit difficult. It has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, but its general distribution future is unclear. If viewers wish to see this offering, they should push for a general release. The effort would be well worth it. Director Wood delivers an engaging, edge-of-your-seat thriller with a message that’s just as important today as it was in the past, told through a series of flashbacks seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative. The romantic story line doesn’t work quite as well as its political and social counterpart, but the picture’s excellent performances, editing and pacing make this offering a cinematic knock-out, another excellent example of the works coming out of one of the world’s foremost emerging film industries.

Try as we might to keep our secrets from surfacing, they almost assuredly will at some point, and their revelation could expose some painful truths. So we’d be wise to consider the ramifications up front before buying into notions whose consequences we’re unprepared to handle. Like a spider who spins its web, we do the same with the reality we create. But we had better be careful how we do so to avoid being caught in our own trap.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.