Civilización – VLAFF Film Review

Civilización, directed by Rubén Guzman, screened this Saturday morning at the Latin American Film Festival as part of their Argentinean program. The film, a documentary about controversial Argentinean artist León Ferrari, is more an avant-garde art piece than a typical historical character study. As such, this film is definitely not for everyone, and requires a stomach for abstract soundscapes and a certain understanding of Argentinean history in order to make sense of some of the events in Ferrari’s life. The film, which runs at just under an hour, provides a look at Ferrari’s various works, particularly how his practices and subjects shifted as he focused on various political and social areas close to his heart.

During the opening sequences of the film we see the unveiling of Ferrari’s arguably best-known work, “Western Christian Civilization”, to which the film owes its name. The piece, which features Jesus Christ crucified upon a model of an American fighter jet, is a powerful image, and although we don’t learn more about the work until later in the film, it frames Ferrari’s political motivations and their impact upon his art. The film unfolds in a fairly chronological order, and reveals the artist’s history in bits and pieces. We learn that Ferrari, who was born in 1920, found his childhood experience with Catholic school “hellish”. As a young man, Ferrari married, had 3 children, and moved to Italy where he began working on sculptures. He eventually returned to his home, only to be exiled and flee to Brazil in the 1970’s during Argentina’s Dirty War. He continued sculpting and creating “art for arts sake” until the early 1960’s, where his work took a more political turn.

Ferrari’s work evolved into a critical response to the world around him, and in 1965 he created “Western Christian Civilization” out of protest against the Vietnam War. Ferrari was disgusted with Western societies hypocritical double talk regarding human rights and freedom, while it flaunted the tortured faces of the Vietnamese in their papers and news programs. Ferrari’s work continued in this controversial vein, and he targeted religion in particular, thus raising the ire of the Christian populace. One such work was “Homage to the Condom” which included bottles filled with condoms that had snakes and toads pouring out of them. The piece was a potent criticism of the church’s condemnation of sex and condom use, a stance he saw as working to support the spread of AIDS. Ferrari also found the Christian notion of Judgment Day particularly distasteful, and expressed this by creating a piece that involved caged doves defecating on Michelangelo’s paintings of Doomsday. During a retrospective of his work in 2004, Catholic protestors attempted to ruin the religious section of his show, destroying several pieces and staging a demonstration outside. Ferrari was pleased by this, and felt that the attack ‘completed’ his work.

Civilización offers a closed perspective of Ferrari’s life, as the only information we are given is from 1 TV interview of a religious figure denouncing his work, the narrator and Ferrari himself. Since we have no other perspectives to guide us, the film pulls us in and seems to function as an extension of Ferrari’s work. The narrator’s speech reads like a manifesto, reaffirming Ferrari’s political stances while we are shown images of his art. Music also plays a large part in this film, and helps to amplify not only the context of the art but also the power of the monologue. For instance, during Ferrari’s description of his unpleasant childhood in a Catholic school, the audience is assaulted by abstract and dissonant sounds coupled with imagery of classical Christian paintings depicting man suffering torment at the hands of demons. The music’s role as emotional amplifier is difficult to ignore in this film, and helps to raise this documentary’s status from historical document, to a piece of art in its own right.

I had never heard of Ferrari or his work until this film and although this documentary may not serve as the easiest access point for viewers to Ferrari’s life, it was enlightening. Part manifesto, part testament to Ferrari’s convictions and work, Civilización is a fascinating and challenging film.