Invasion (Hugo Santiago, 1969)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Invasion.

criterion logoIn 1957, a small group of middle-aged men fight a clandestine battle against forces quietly invading and taking control of their city, Aquilea.  Enigmatic in its story-telling, Hugo Santiago’s once-lost film obscures the motivations of either side, leaving only a series of moves and counter-moves that evokes past dictatorial oppression and those still to come.  With stark, spare cinematography by Ricardo Aronovich, a lively and unnerving score by Edgardo Canton, and a screenplay written by Santiago with Argentine literary titans Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion is a tense and timeless portrait of resistance and an unheralded classic of international art house cinema and Latin American filmmaking.

Disc Features:

  • New, digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Richard Peña, program director of New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center
  • New interview with Hugo Santiago
  • Los Contrabandistas (1967) and Los Taitas (1968), two short films by Santiago
  • The Others (1974), Santiago’s follow-up feature to Invasion, also co-written with Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • Profile of a Writer: Jorge Luis Borges, an 80-minute documentary on the writer including dramatized sequences from his stories and interviews with Borges in the author’s home
  • Bioy, a 38-minute interview with the author
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by Argentinian film scholar Maria de los Angeles Sanz

Hugo Santiago’s Invasion holds the pedigree of a far more acclaimed and respected film, yet it is little known outside of Latin America.  Its Argentine director worked in France as an assistant director to Robert Bresson from 1959 to 1966.  Leaving his mentor, Santiago returned to Buenos Aires where he made his first feature, Invasion.  The film started with the idea of a city under siege and eventually invaded and Santiago shared his idea with the acclaimed author Adolfo Bioy Casares, who in turn enlisted literary icon Jorge Luis Borges.  In collaboration with these two pillars of fantastic literature, Santiago produced a script about a small group of men fighting a desperate, losing battle against the infiltration of their city by unknown invaders.  The film makes allusions to Homer’s The Iliad (this time from the perspective of the defending Trojans) and El Eternauta, an Argentine comic strip from the late 1950s where a small band of survivors in Buenos Aires defend themselves against alien invaders.  Released in 1969, Invasion was made following the Argentine Revolution and during a period of military dictatorship and protest that lasted into the 1970s.  With its depictions of violence and assassination, particularly associated with sports fields and stadiums (later an indexical site for political oppression and executions), the film seems to anticipate Argentina’s Dirty War, so much so that Invasion was banned from television airings and 8 reels of original negative were stolen by military authorities in 1978.  Considered lost, a 35mm print was discovered in 2004, allowing the film to be restored and once again assume its place among the masterpieces of Latin American cinema.

The year is 1957 and the city is Aquilea (played by late ’60s Buenos Aires ).  Julián Herrera (Lautaro Murúa) leads a small cell of dark-suited, middle-aged men against light-suited invaders who are quietly infiltrating his city.  He works at the behest of Don Porfirio (Juan Carlos Paz), an older man isolated in his study, directing his agents like game pieces on the checkerboard map of Aquilea that graces his wall.  Herrera works to move supplies and strike at the invaders with little knowledge of Don Porfirio’s greater plan or even the true intentions or consequences of any particular mission.  He has mixed success on his assignments, but there is always a cost and gradually Herrera’s team is killed off one by one.  By the film’s conclusion, Julián is yet another victim, killed at a stadium by dozens of invaders.  His wife Irene (Olga Zubarry), who is depicted as carrying on her own clandestine plots of bombs and arms training, is revealed to be another agent of Don Porfirio, unknown to even Herrera.  The defenders of Aquilea become resistance fighters at the film’s end and Irene and Don Porfirio begin the process of arming a new generation of fighters against the invading forces that have now entered the city on all fronts.

All of the politics and history of Aquilea’s invasion is stripped away in Invasion.  There is virtually no information on the invaders.  Who they are, where they come from, why they pursue Aquilea are all questions left unanswered.  Likewise, who Don Porfirio is and why his agents fight when the rest of Aquilea looks away is also unconsidered except for Don Porfirio’s assertion that “the city is more than its people.”  Against this blank slate, Herrera wages a silent, losing war against the strangers to his city and Invasion becomes an empty vessel for which history’s countless tragedies of colonialism and authoritarianism may be contained.  Aquilea is a near-ghost town.  The occasional vehicle and cafe patron is seen, but by and large it is an empty expanse of urban and industrial spaces where the terrible crunch of gravel and clack of pavement underfoot ominously expresses the isolation of Herrera and the unyielding nature of the games he is playing.  Not merely out of place, Invasion is also out of time, being set in the past (1957), depicted in the present (in 1969, during Argentina’s own period of military dictatorship), and anticipating many of the escalating oppressions that would follow it (the site of the stadium as a locale for collections and mass killings most pointedly presages atrocities still to come).  The film’s conclusion of young people taking up arms and forming resistance forces declares that each generation must successively take up the cause for freedom while making it their own.  Shot in Ricardo Aronovich’s stark, fragmented chiaroscuro and emulating the open-ended, European art house mode, the film maintains a distance, an impermeability, and an aloofness that inspires a sense of hard-boiled cynicism and minimalist reportage comparable to Jean-Pierre Melville.  Part fantasy, part science fiction, part political thriller, Invasion even hints at that most Latin American of genres, magical realism, by the over-determined presence of Don Porfirio’s black cat, Señor Wensceslao N.  With its overly elaborate name and Don Porfirio’s practice of confiding in the animal, one almost feels that the cat is part of the resistance, maybe even a senior participant.  In sum, Invasion is an unsettling, unnerving tribute to those who bravely fight for noble causes in the face of adversity and alienation.

Edgardo Canton’s score stands out, prepared at the Torcuato di Tella Institute, a cultural bastion for Argentina’s avant-garde, and mixing musique concrète, tango, and experimental sound.  It is at times full of dread, yet playful in other instances, often working in counterpoint to the tension-filled missions of Herrera and his team.  Santiago is reported as having claimed that Invasion is musically structured with a lyrical narrative.  Perhaps this emphasis on music might explain the appearance of Juan Carlos Paz in his only onscreen performance as Don Porfirio.  Paz was an acclaimed composer of music and movie soundtracks in Argentina.  For their parts, Lautaro Murúa and Olga Zubarry each had distinguished acting careers, with Zubarry notably appearing in The Black Vampire (Roma Viñoly Barreto, 1953), a first-rate adaptation of Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

InvasionInvasion would be a significant addition to the Criterion Collection with many intersections in its current library of titles.  Santiago was an AD to Robert Bresson and Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel is considered an inspiration for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961).  Further, Invasion seems to occupy a stylistic and philosophical middle-ground between the political realism of The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), the New Wave science fiction of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), and the permeating sense of failure in Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969).  Most importantly however, Invasion would represent the Collection’s first foray into South America.  That’s something of an astonishing realization.  No Third Cinema.  No Cinema Novo.  No South American examples of New Latin American Cinema.  Nothing.  With this significant gap in Criterion’s titles, Invasion would make for a thrilling and stylistically familiar addition to the Collection and raise the profile of a superior film that remains hard-to-find for home-viewing.

Poster art for Invasion predominantly refers to the high-angle image of Herrera entering the stadium on his final mission for Don Porfirio.  With the Collection’s taste for minimalism and negative space, the textless poster above seems ideally suited for adaptation into a Criterion cover treatment.  The canted lines of the image inspire a sense of dynamism and the monochromatic palette could be adapted into another colour scheme (red and white?  blue and white?) to make the design more eye-catching.

Credits:  The biggest debt for this post is owed to Google Translate, as there is unfortunately little written in English on Santiago’s film.  Richard Peña is an established proponent of Invasion and was an easy choice to provide a commentary, especially given his excellent work on other Criterion titles.  Thankfully, Hugo Santiago remains with us and is happy to speak about his work and his experiences, and so an interview seemed only appropriate.  Inclusions of Santiago’s other work, as well as documentaries on Borges and Casares that allow the viewer to become familiar with their work as well as observe them firsthand, were natural choices also.  Maria de los Angeles Sanz was selected as an essay contributor given her publications on the film.  Other influential writings on Invasion included Nathan Rogers-Hancock’s essay “Lost & Found” for Cinespect, Smart’s piece at Bear’s Film Journal, Rubén Redondo’s essay at Cine maldito, and this page.

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