Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Hollywoodization of Torture: Death and the Maiden

Ariel Dorfman’s play is published at outset of Chiles fragile democratic transition.  The new democratic state sets up a truth commission to respond to systematic violation of human rights and memory of the dictatorship (1973-1990).  At the same time, the state faces the constraints of a constitution set up in Pinochet’s time.  Pinochet continues to be commander in chief of the army and a good portion of the population continues to be loyal to him. 

Paulina Salas (Sigourney Weaver) is the protagonist of Roman Polansky’s Death and the Maiden (1994).   Paulina is an ex-prisoner and survivor of torture and rape.  Her husband Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson) is one of the lawyers heading the Truth Commission.  Roberto Mirada (Ben Kingsley) is a doctor who they meet by accident.  Gerardo brings Roberto home after stopping by the roadside to help him with his disabled vehicle.  When Paulina hears Roberto’s voice she is convinced that he is the man that tortured and violated her.  She cannot identify him by appearance because she was blindfolded throughout her detainment.  Paulina ties up Roberto and puts him on trial.  Roberto confesses to torturing and raping Paulina, but his confession is fraught with ambivalence since Paulina has threatened and terrorized Roberto throughout the trial.

Gerardo believes in due process, but realizes that the Truth Commission will bring no justice to cases like Paulina’s.  The cases of survivors like Paulina are left out of the work of the Truth Commission in order to prioritize cases of death and disappearance.  Paulina has become invisible in the transition and reconciliation society and takes matters into her own hands so that her torturer is held accountable.
Sigourney Weaver in R. Polansky's Death and the Maiden (1994)
According to Idelbar Avelar in “La muerte y la doncella o la hollywoodización de la tortura” Polansky produces a Hollywood version of the torturer-victim dynamic in Chilean memory.  Avelar argues that Polansky portrays Paulina as a hysterical woman who is constituted through the confession of Roberto Miranda.  Throughout the film her husband doubts her credibility and the implicit viewer also cannot be certain that Paulina’s memory is reliable.  Part of the tension of the film depends on the ambivalence of Paulina as a reliable witness.  Avelar argues that this ambivalence is based on Paulina’s gender and on Polansky's stereotypical portray of women.  I respectfully disagree with Avelar’s critique of the film because Avelar himself falls back on a stereotypical portrayal of women in his analysis.  Avelar interprets trauma as the hysterics of a female.  While Polansky’s portrayal of the female ex-prisoner could be much more nuanced and complex than it is, I do not see it as the worst shortcoming of the film. 

Where the film does fall short in my view is in the over-simplification of the roles of victim and torturer.  Polansky’s version does not portray the complexity of the relationship between torturer and victim that we see in other works like Pavlovsky’s Paso de dos where the victim is complicit in her own destruction or in the cast of characters that collaborate to some degree in order to survive that Marguerite Feitlowitz brings to bear in Lexicon of terror. 

On the other hand, one nuance that the film captures especially well is the difficult situation of transition that is represented in Yuyachkani’s Antígone.  Peace and reconciliation, while generally positive in terms of rebuilding the national community, create new silences that are destructive for many people.  Antígone is not able to bury Polinices in the same way that Paulina is unable to make her torturer accountable for his crimes.   

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

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