Some twenty years ago, Francisco J. Lombardi made a powerful film about a military boys’ school, La ciudad y los perros (The City and the Dogs, 1985), based on a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. In the meantime, he has been prolific; but marketplace censorship being what it is, extremely few Peruvian (or any other international) films reach the United States. Now available on VHS and DVD, however, is another film by Lombardi based on another book by Vargas Llosa: Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Pantaleón and the Visitors), an accomplished, enjoyable satire on the military mentality.
Pantaleón Pantoja (Salvador del Solar, best actor, Gramado, Festróia, and Cartagena film festivals) is a handsome young army captain who is recruited by his commanding officers to execute an important mission. He is charged with establishing a floating brothel to service soldiers posted on remote outposts in the Amazon jungle. Fastidious and prudish, he reluctantly accepts, but his rigorous competence, as well as methodical penchant for facts and figures, turns his efforts, as usual, into great success. Of course, he does not dare disclose the exact nature of the assignment to his wife, who, ignorant of the fact that her spouse is testing out aphrodisiacs, cannot imagine why, suddenly, he is after her for sex three times a day. Pantaleón hopes to raise the consciousness of his harem of “visitors.” He tells the girls, “Remember: Work ennobles and dignifies”—a sentiment they enthusiastically parrot at assembly.
Poor Panta! With his wife pregnant with their “little cadet,” he falls in love with one of the “visitors,” a girl named Olga from Colombia. What’s the boy to do? He gives Olga a “strictly work-related” “quality test,” but this one-time sex of theirs blossoms into a full-fledged affair in which they try out a variety of positions. One suspects that Panta’s bed life with his spouse is far more conventional, far less abandoned. When her husband is “outed” on the air by a vicious local radio personality to whose broadcasts she is addicted, Panta’s wife walks out on him, and General Collazos curtails the Amazon operation, denying it ever existed for the sake of propriety and public consumption. Part of the cover-up requires an end to Panta’s once promising military career, but Panta refuses to resign. He is summarily sent to No Man’s Land, to teach literacy. Panta’s explanation for his tenacious commitment to the military: “I need bosses. When I don’t have them, I don’t know what to do. I need to obey orders.”
The script by Enrique Moncloa and Giovanna Pollarolo, which won the prize at Gramado, is excellent, and Lombardi engineers a fine segue from comedy to heartfelt pathos. It is in the latter phase that the film’s satire becomes especially sharp, but Lombardi has achieved an absorbing, intelligent piece of work from start to finish. (One can apply its insights to a wide range of recent U.S. military behavior and events.) Lombardi was named best director at Gramado, where his film also won the top prize.
Since del Solar resembles the U.S. actor Jim Caviezel, it is all the more startling that he gives such a moving performance.
Pantaleón y las visitadoras is narrative cinema, which is never, really, the most interesting kind. It relies on story and characters. But within this self-imposed limited expressiveness, it gets the job done—like Panta himself.
The film is a joint production of Peru and Spain.