The Returned (Los Que Vuelven) (2019)

The Returned (Los Que Vuelven) first published by Through The Trees

“I want my son to be alive,” says Julia (María Soldi) clutching her stillborn baby by a spectacularly cascading waterfall at the beginning of The Returned (Los Que Vuelven). “Bring my son back,” she prays – and then we hear the sound of a baby crying. For, having skewered the pretensions of Argentina’s modern art scene with Benavidez’s Case (2016), now director Laura Casabé, co-writing with Lisandro Bera and Paulo Soria, delves deep into creepy colonial gothic.

Julia is engaged in a desperate act of transgression. It is not only because calling on local mountain deity the Iguazú is forbidden and always comes with consequences, but also because Julia is not even a native worshipper of the goddess, but Christian wife to the landowner Mariano (Alberto Ajaka). It is some time in the early twentieth century, near the border with Brazil in the north-eastern jungle of Argentina, where Mariano and his settler neighbours are carving up between them a lucrative trade cultivating yerba mate – and using the indigenous Guaraní as slave labour on their plantations. 

Transgressions abound here. Kept harshly in line by their foreman, the labourers are not allowed even to address their ‘masters’ – but the strict boundaries in place are there to be broken. Early on in the film, Julia attempts literally to shift a boundary, requesting for a fence to be moved further out along the property – and she has close relations with local Yasi (Ema Cuañeri) and her daughter Kerana (Lali González), who work as house servants and help Julia raise young son Manuel (Sebastián Aquino). Manuel himself has been given an alternative name – Jara – by his surrogate mother and grandmother and, growing up between two very different cultures, is more fluent in the native tongue than in his parents’ Spanish. Meanwhile Mariano, for all his imperious aloofness, enjoys illicit sexual assignations with Kerana in the jungle beyond his property’s bounds.   

In this heady environment, where every frontier comes with a certain fluidity, Julia appeals to the Iguazú to bring her newborn back from death to life, and so inadvertently sets in motion a revolutionary inversion of established norms and values that will gestate for a year before birthing itself in violent insurrection. Like Robin Campillo’s film of the same name from 2004, The Returned is concerned as much with a return of the repressed as of the dead – only here the repressed is a shameful history of colonisation, exploitation and subjugation, with its native victims both emerging zombie-like from the grave and rising up against their oppressors to reclaim at last what has long been due. 

Amid all these returns, the chronologically fractured, tripartite narrative in this supernatural tale of revenge also keeps circling around and back to the scene of primal transgression in which Julia petitions the mother spirit Iguazú. This is what it all comes back to – and also the point of no return – at a place where water, endlessly eroding rock as it pours past, shapes the land’s future. The result is a political chiller about an unresolved past still haunting Argentina today – a nation with more than one mother.

strap: The colonial gothic of Laura Casabé’s The Returned (Los Que Vuelven) traces tensions in Argentina’s past that keep coming back.

© Anton Bitel