Working Life

Following a day in the life of a woodcutter, Misael (Misael Saaverda), La Libertad is a brief portrait of an isolated individual in nature. And that's about it.

Or is it? Captured by Lisandro Alonso's fluid camera, the Maradona of woodcutting performs his tasks just as he would on any other day--chopping, sawing, smoothing, selling. The first line of dialogue appears at the half-hour mark, when Misael meets a truck-driving middleman who transports his wood to be sold. (Minimal action ensues.) Despite an intentional similarity between the character's life and the actor's own, La Libertad is fiction at its purest, with absorbing direction, editing, and sound design. Made for only $70,000, and shot in nine days from a five-page script, it's a movie that André Bazin would have loved to see.

Though Alonso is only 25, he's far too clever to treat the film's title simplemindedly: Misael's sylvan life is never idealized, or exoticized. Yet the character's motions of cutting, washing his hands, and, in the end, routinely killing an armadillo--which echoes the way Misael chops wood--do bring a sort of personal liberty out of an unexceptional daily life. (These tasks also illustrate humankind's compulsion to turn living things into objects of consumption in order to survive.) Although the armadillo's demise is placed in a way that's similar to the shocking murder at the end of Chantal Akerman's hyperrealistic masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, it strikes a different feeling: Here, it's a regular occurrence, something Misael has been doing forever.

The real freedom here is in the viewer's mind. Participatory cinema at its barest, La Libertad is a room without walls, giving its viewers the proper space to explore. (Alonso begs to be called the Argentinean Kiarostami.) Watching Misael's graceful precision as he chops wood, I was struck by the fact that, in film, axes are almost always murder weapons. Indeed, horror-movie tropes abound: Tobe Hooper would be pleased to see Misael rev up his chainsaw; when Misael digs around the base of a trunk, it looks like he's preparing a shallow grave; and, most shocking, when Misael takes a nap, Alonso's camera wanders through the woods with a mind of its own.

But there's no such horrific excitement in the film--and that's what makes it so exciting. La Libertad ends with Misael sitting by a bonfire and gnawing at the grilled armadillo, as bright flashes of lightning illuminate the sky behind him. The cyclical ending enforces the sense that the film has presented a "free" worker at peace with his existence, and dominant over it--while nature readies her revenge. We're content with having witnessed what's "real," the capturing of something both foreign and familiar. Alonso was inspired to make the film after he saw an isolated Misael on the Pampas and thought, "This is how I feel in the city." He also remembers seeing Misael laughing all the time, and couldn't understand why--so he set out to observe how the man lives.

But who has the last laugh? Again, there's more than meets the eye. La Libertad's original denouement--a one-minute scene of the woodcutter laughing directly at the camera, accompanied by some off-screen chortling--was itself chopped off under an ultimatum from curators at the Cannes Film Festival. While amusing, this scene (which I happened to see in Buenos Aires) is the shocker that the censored version lacks: It acts as a Taste of Cherry-like coda, signifying that we've been watching fiction--and that life goes on. Just as crucial, Misael's laughter proves that there's nothing depressing about his surroundings.

All along, La Libertad asks us to look behind the transcendence of nature for, pace Heidegger, a phenomenological investigation of Being in the World. Is Misael's existence authentic or merely everyday? That liberating laugh says it all: He's a woodcutter, and he's okay.

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