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'Man Facing Southeast' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1987

How many men must fall to Earth before we get the message that this messianic magnet of a mud ball, ol' planet Earth, is home to some of the baddest life forms in the whole dang universe? The only astronauts who like us are our own guys from the Starship Enterprise when traveling back in time.

We are a lamentable species, it seems, and there is no shortage of galactic do-gooders ready to drop down and show us the way. "Stranger in a Strange Land," as we know, set the pace, followed by "The Brother From Another Planet," "Starman" and, yes, everyone's favorite rubber redeemer, "E.T."

"Man Facing Southeast," a gloomy Argentine variation on this theme, concerns a Christ-like UFP -- "unidentified flying patient" -- who turns up during a bed check at a Buenos Aires asylum. He has taken the traditional route -- beamed down from the mother ship -- and is a perfect human replica except that he can't feel a thing. And like Mr. Spock (or is he a commander these days?) he proves kinder without such pesky emotions as anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and what not.

Our hero Rantes, a hologram capable of telekinesis, has come among us to save the "victims," the homeless and the hungry, in this ever more distant world of ours. A worthy notion certainly, but it's still knee-jerk sci-fi. However, for Argentine moviegoers, "Man Facing Southeast" presents a refreshing alternative to the political cinema that has dominated since the fall of the generals. But, in reality, it's much preachier than the brilliant 1985 drama "The Official Story."

It derides the dictatorship in its dialogue: "There are torturers who love Beethoven, who love their children." And in its jokes: Angry over some bad press, the hospital administrator says the next thing you know there'll be a headline -- "Lunatic Orders Military Attack." The psychiatrist says, "That's already happened, but Rantes {the UFP} wasn't involved."

The story, an exploration of alienation and thus man's inhumanity to man, concerns Rantes' relationship with Dr. Denis, a burned-out psychiatrist who lives alone with his saxophone. Rantes, everything that the doctor is not, is involved in caring for the hospital's patients, shuffling shadow men; in getting food to hungry children; doing odd jobs for the lame and the poor.

Dr. Denis, recently divorced and deadened to the pain of his patients after years of absorbing their horrific psychoses, helps no one, feeds no one. When Rantes arrives at his hospital, Denis becomes interested in life again. He grapples with the mystery of the alien, trembling on the brink of belief, but inevitably recoils from faith for the safer harbor of medicine. It becomes a witty, gritty, intellectual debate between the two.

As the doctor comes back to the living, the alien, now shot full of serious tranquilizers, become ever more psychotic, crying out as he is strapped to his bed, "Doctor, doctor, why have you forsaken me?" But the doctor is carrying out a sentence from above, following orders junta-style. "The Pilate of the galaxies," he calls himself.

All this star-struck mumbo jumbo seems a little naive, as does the supposition that antipsychotic medicines are bad for you. And there's the reiteration of the romantic belief, familiar from the repertory classic "King of Hearts," that the sane are locked up while the real nut cases wear white coats or take over countries. "Man" gets across its point -- that we ought not to be more Christian -- but it does it with the subtlety of a rocket payload.

Its look is institutional ve'rite', cracked-linoleum yellow and light filtered through bars, as director-writer Eliseo A. Subiela shot in a hospital to get that documentary feel. And his extras copied the patients' slumped body language so well they fooled actual personnel.

"Man Facing Southeast" is only Subiela's second feature film -- the director survived by making commercials during the dictatorship. But it shows huge promise -- its mystery, its patient pace and its eerie resonance sometimes transcend its didactics.

And its actors always do. Lorenzo Quinteros, a theatrical actor and director, plays Dr. Denis with convincing exhaustion. A craggy cross between Carl Jung and Tom Conti, Quinteros proves a likable Everyman. He's weary and wary, unable to trust Rantes or his companion called the Saint.

Ines Vernengo, a ballerina, plays a benign but seductive being who spits up a blue liquid when she and the doctor finally make love. The movie is visceral, in a tabloid headline sort of way, with the Saint vomiting stigmata, for instance, and Rantes dissecting brains in the pathology lab. He hopes to understand man's "greatest weapon -- human stupidity."

Hugo Soto, a repertory actor, plays Rantes with robotic tenderness and one of those bad haircuts they tend to get in space. He delivers even his wry lines without one wit of a glimmer in those flat pupils of his. He's as convincingly extraterrestrial as Joe Morton in "The Brother From Another Planet." The other patients become disciples, and as they await his blessing, somehow you just know what's in store for this holy man. "Man Facing Southeast" may be billed as "an adult E.T.," but the metaphor is bleak. It's certain nobody's going home from here.

"Man Facing Southeast" contains some nudity and no offensive language.

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