This review is a part of our Visions Du Réel 2020 summer coverage.


EL FATHER PLAYS HIMSELF, directed beautifully by the great Mo Scarpelli, is one of the finest documentaries about father and son relationships in years. It’s also a testament to the power of cinema, and how the simple act of capturing something on film inherently changes reality.

It follows the six weeks that Jorge Thielen Armand and his father, Jorge Roque Armand, spent in the Amazonian jungle while making LA FORTALEZA. Here Scarpelli’s camera is ever present, but never intrusive. But to call this just a “making of” documentary in the style of HEART OF DARKNESS would do it a disservice. While there is plenty of footage of Jorge’s production, the focus never veers away from the fractured relationship between father and son. As a portrait of the natural power struggle between the two, it is fascinating and heartbreaking, often so intimate it hurts.

There is an element of exploitation in Jorge’s actions, but they’re understandable nonetheless. His father, Roque, is an alcoholic, who spent much of Jorge’s youth as anything but a father figure; eventually leading to the son leaving Venezuela at the age of 15. He returns now, not quite an adult, to direct a semi-fictionalized film about Roque’s life. Whether or not that includes also growing closer in understanding remains unsaid. At every turn he asks more of Roque, including returning to places and memories that clearly still haunt him. His father in turn goes with it, seemingly for the hell of it, but also to please his estranged offspring. So they bicker and scream at one another during the course of production, both incapable of expressing what they want out of the experience. The result is a fascinating look at the healing process, where both men attack the problem in an effort to rewrite history, and come away hopefully with a foundation for something better.

Watch for example the scene where Jorge has his father recreate old voice messages he left for his son. To achieve realism, Jorge has Roque get drunk throughout the day. But he doesn’t consider what happens upon completion. His father is a ball of unbalanced energy; all wild anger and unhinged impulse. When drunk, which happens often, there is no way to call “cut.”

The further the film progresses, the more it feels like Jorge isn’t interested in directing a picture so much as he’s expecting a connection that won’t happen. His crew interjects often, calling out his methods at first subtly, then forcefully, to no avail. Jorge is blind to both the newfound power and relationship he finds with Roque; less so father and son than two strangers forming a volatile friendship. Yet Roque is wholly unwilling to relinquish his familial status so easily. As he drinks, the clearer his frustration and fear becomes. 

It’s not hard to see why Roque is such a fascinating character. He’s a rascal, an archetypical bad boy who can be charming, smarmy, and terrifying seconds apart. At his best he exudes easy and gentle warmth, the kind Jorge’s mother adamantly defends off-screen. But it’s never constant, and there are deeper demons who constantly fight for control in his head. “What will you do if he’s hurt by this?” Jorge’s editor asks, receiving no answer. 

Scarpelli is such a talented and delicate filmmaker. Her eye for human interaction is exquisite; it knows precisely where to capture fleeting moments before they are lost. There is also quiet humor to her directing; such as the scene where a crew member astutely observes things about Roque that Jorge remains oblivious about. On set everyone turns away and tries to ignore the immediate rage exploding from the troubled man. But viewed on a monitor, complete with fake lighting and fictional trappings, the big picture is suddenly crystal clear. 

While not strictly a documentary about filmmaking, Scarpelli has captured inherent truths about the process so clearly that EL FATHER should be essential viewing for anyone wanting to become a director. It shows without embellishment or nostalgia the madness, narcissism, and love required to work on an artform that emphasizes the lie to create reality. Naturally, we only see what she wants us to see, but the narrative is still compelling and emotionally honest. Her presence isn’t truly objective — both Roque and Jorge refer to her multiple times during the film — but it allows better than most for us to feel as if we’re experiencing everything as it really happened. And more important than the technical side of things, Scarpelli’s interest lies in the subtext of every moment that happens between “action” and “cut.”

Scarpelli asks us: just how much are we projecting to this story ourselves? How much of Jorge and Roque is our own past? Cinema is the great unifier as well as a giant lie. The moment you put something on camera, it stops being objective, because there has to be a decision regarding what the camera doesn’t show. In EL FATHER, we see moments of understanding and reconciliation peppered throughout the shoot. What we don’t see is the years of unspoken trauma and pain, both shared and isolated, the men cannot express. 

These moments are left out; only insinuated and lingering in the air, shared stolen moments where the duo reach out to comfort one another — only to pull back at the last minute.