Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to “Porfirio” as the first Colombian film to be screened at Cannes. There have been several others. This version has been corrected.
In his dreams, Porfirio Ramirez says, he pictures himself “running and flying over a mountain.”
“I run, sometimes box, fight,” he says, “but I’m never in a wheelchair.”
But reality sets in: Ramirez is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Felled by the bullet fired by a policeman 20 years ago, he says he feels trapped, serving an eternal sentence in a broken body. Bedridden much of the time, he is finding the life he once had as a small-town bon vivant all but a memory.
Then he hatches an absurdly violent, even ridiculous plot: Driven by anger at the state he blames for his troubles, Ramirez boards a plane with two grenades tucked into his diaper and hijacks the aircraft.
It is a true story, captured in the full-length film “Porfirio,” to be screened Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight, a sidebar of experimental fare.
As if that weren’t surprising enough, Ramirez plays himself in it. Director Alejandro Landes, a Colombian filmmaker making only his second movie, opted to bypass actors to tell the story of a proud man driven to extremes. He found Ramirez in this bustling honky-tonk town on the edge of Colombia’s Amazon, where Ramirez had been serving an eight-year term under house arrest.
The risky move paid off when it turned out that Ramirez, a former pool hall owner from Colombia’s outback, captured the role with the right combination of nuance and melancholy.
“I would just spend time and time and time with him, where I would ask him to repeat phrases and feel comfortable in front of the camera, hoping that and trusting that when the time came, those feelings would be there and they would come out,” Landes says. “And they did.”
“Porfirio” is a minimalist work, its cast drawn from those close to Ramirez. It was made for under $1 million, shot in less than seven weeks by a small team assembled by producer Francisco Aljure, 40, who left his high-finance job on Wall Street to make movies in his native Colombia.
Landes, a 30-year-old filmmaker whose first film, about the rise of the Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, purposefully makes “Porfirio” ambiguous.
There is no narration explaining that Ramirez is the real-life Porfirio, or that his desperation led him to hijack a Florencia-to-Bogota flight in 2005. There is no violence. But there is a growing sense of foreboding as Porfirio’s inability to get the state to respond forces his hand.
The power of the 101-minute film comes with its intense focus on one man’s suffering, serving as a burnishing reminder of how the chaos of the country’s civil conflict touches people far from its big, modern cities.
Much of Ramirez’s adult life was spent in one of Colombia’s most violent corners, a region of cattle ranches and pioneer settlements outside of Florencia. The villagers there have long been whipsawed by a simmering war involving Marxist rebels, Colombia’s army and right-wing death squads. The cocaine trade has helped fuel the conflict.
During a long interview, Ramirez, 55, lying on his bed and propped on his elbows, does not hide his own involvement. Long ago, he explains, he was simply known to all as Don Porfirio, a successful businessman in the hamlet of Playa Rica. He owned a pool hall, a brothel and a gas station. He organized horse races, which made him popular for miles around, and became the local loan shark. He also ran mule trains carrying gasoline deep into the bush, the fuel sold to those who needed the vital ingredient for the most lucrative of the region’s products: cocaine.
“Look, you have to work, and work is indispensable to survive,” Ramirez says. “I had my businesses, and I fed my family by way of my businesses.”
It was Ramirez’s role helping an old friend buy coca paste — the semi-processed compound that is a step away from cocaine — that led a police unit to raid his home in 1991. He says they were out to kill him; the government investigated but did not charge the officers.
Ramirez was hit in the spinal column with a .38-caliber slug. He was told he would never walk again, but still he stayed in Playa Rica, running his businesses until 2004, when he left because of the escalating conflict.
Ramirez joined thousands of other refugees who migrated to Florencia, eking out a living selling calls from his cellular phone while persistently prodding the state for compensation for the 1991 shooting.
“I knocked on many doors — the Red Cross, human rights groups, I sent messages to the president, for them to listen to me,” he says.
“This is a life sentence,” he says, pointing to thin, lifeless legs. “Imagine finding yourself 20 years on your backside, without a chance of recovering, without rehabilitation, without therapy. It is like a living death.”
Landes says he was enthralled by the contradictions of Ramirez’s life.
That life had been changed by a policeman’s bullet, the director says, yet Ramirez resorted to commandeering an airliner with live explosives to resolve his predicament.
“He’s at the same time a victim and a victimizer,” Landes says.
After getting to know Ramirez, the director says, he came to believe that the hijacking was out of character.
“He did something which has a very strong suicidal connotation,” Landes says. “He played his biggest hand — his life. For somebody who really loves life, I think these kind of contradictory elements are what made Porfirio attractive.”
In Landes’s film, the protagonist is gentle, thoughtful, even naive. To capture Porfirio’s growing frustration, the film focuses relentlessly on the trials of everyday life.
Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis intensified that effect by filming in CinemaScope, normally used for widescreen movies, like epics or westerns. In “Porfirio,” that brought the action to Porfirio’s level, his wheelchair, lopping off the upper bodies of those standing around him.
“I tried to do the best I could so it would turn out nicely,” Ramirez recalls. “I would try to be as serene as possible and, as I said, I became more confident and relaxed.”
He had to be, as the camera was unflinching about capturing him doing everything from defecating to scratching his back to making love with a young neighbor. Ramirez has to pull off a range of emotions: resignation as he waits at a lawyer’s office, a glassy stare as he recalls the countryside he left behind, a tired expression as he sits on his porch.
Landes also had to draw out believable performances from Ramirez’s lover in the film, played by Yor Jasbleidy Santos, 24, and from his son, Jarlinsson Ramirez, 22. Script in hand, the director would carefully go over the lines with each.
“They would say it back to me in the way they would say it,” Landes recalls. “That’s how basically I made the language theirs and not mine.”
There were important moments of improvisation, one of the most touching when Santos, making love to Porfirio, asks him why he is crying. He answers: “Because I love you.”
“I never wrote that,” Landes says. “I never planned that. It happened.”
Here in Florencia, some feel a connection with Ramirez.
“No one listened to him,” says Carlos Omar Vanegas, who administers a bingo hall. “He considered his financial troubles and thought, ‘If I take over a plane, they will listen to me.’ And they listened.”
Others, like congressman Luis Antonio Serrano, who was on the hijacked plane, says Ramirez could have killed the two dozen passengers and crew members.
“If one of those grenades had blown up, we would not be here talking,” Serrano says on a recent afternoon. “Nothing justifies violence in an effort to get justice, less so with an act like that one.”
The hijacking ended peacefully after Ramirez permitted the plane to land in Bogota. Government negotiators pretended to give in to his wishes, providing him with the receipt for a $43,000 check they told him had been deposited in his bank account. The receipt was false, of course, and Ramirez was arrested, tried and sentenced.
These days, Ramirez has used the $8,000 he was paid for “Porfirio” to open a small pool hall. (He also received medical care, legal counseling and other services worth $7,700.)
He has not stopped complaining about the state. But he also says he is thinking about another future, perhaps in acting.
Asked who is his favorite actor, he does not hesitate: Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“I like him because he is very agile, very astute, very intelligent,” Ramirez says. “Above all, the agility. I once had that agility, and when I was young I was like that, agile at everything. I ran. I lifted weights. I boxed.”