Review: El Pepe – A Supreme Life

There’s something wonderfully encouraging about Emir Kusturica’s filmic fascination with Latin America. The Serbian director’s reputation as a polymath who makes a decent if not outstanding living as a filmmaker, writer, and musician is enhanced enormously by his tendency to work well outside his wheelhouse on subjects that simply fascinate him. His documentary on the soccer god Maradona was so personal that he titled it Maradona by Kusturica, and while that personal angle sometimes made the narrative impenetrable, it held up as a kind of primer for how to watch South American football, which is like no other pastime in the world. The cigar-chomping director brings this same element of indescribable love for his subject to his portrait of Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the former president of Uruguay who is now comfortably retired on a farm he runs with his forever partner Lucia Topolansky. Now in his 80s, Mujica has lost none of his left-wing fervor (since Topolansky was, at least at the time of the shooting, Uruguay’s vice president, he still has skin in the game) nor his biting, clear-headed intelligence, and though most of the movie involves Kusturica in conversation with him, it’s basically a monologue, because once Pepe starts a story you don’t want him to stop.

And what a story! As with many South American leftist politicians, Mujica started out as a guerilla, fighting against the Uruguayan dictatorship that dominated the country through most of the 20th century. He spent 12 years in prison and then was miraculously elected to the presidency in 2010. Internationally, Mujica was known more for his “neo-stoic” lifestyle than his politics or policies, and Kusturica was no exception, since his metier as a filmmaker has been chronicling the earthy lives of his fellow Serbs, especially those at the bottom of the economic pyramic. As any good journalist would, Kusturica is careful to show that this lifestyle may not be as ascetic as the tabloids would have you believe, but compared to most presidents in Latin America, or in the world, for that matter, it’s practically monkish. What’s refreshing about Mujica is that he doesn’t live this way to set an example. He just prefers it, since living with less removes an entire set of useless obligations from his shoulders, and the movie makes a grand case that it is also the secret to the longevity of both his life and his lucidity.

But the movie also has something for hardcore documentary fans, a deep dive into Uruguayan revolutionary history, with plenty of fascinating archival footage and living testimonies from other players, including Mujica’s fellow leftist inmates Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro, who describe the conditions of their solitary confinement. And while Kusturica’s approach veers into hagiography at times, his decision to outline Mujica’s people-first policies without simplifying them makes the scenes showing those people’s love for their leader—then and now—less sentimental than they seem on the surface. Kusturica admits openly that he is a sucker for the kind of charisma that Mujica wields so effortlessly, but he has the smarts to know that there will be skeptics in the audience. Even skeptics will have to admit that the director understands implicitly how the personal is always the political.

In Spanish and English. Opens March 27 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

El Pepe: A Supreme Life home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Capital Intellectual S.A., Rasta International, MOE

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