Rafa Russo’s “The Year of Fury,” which is set in Uruguay during the early 1970s, maintains its cool sensibilities by its knowing and interesting set of characters. It flows fluidly by Russo’s lyrical direction as the heart of the story rests on how creative writers must maintain their poise in the face of a pending dictatorship.
“The Year of Fury” exudes unique poignancy and heart — all the while aided nicely by a heavy crash course of Latin American history. Rafa Russo’s well-acted, well-written, well-shot, and thoughtfully executed “The Year of Fury,” depicts the life and travails of two writers of a television program in Uruguay – both of whom are affected by pressures of the state a year before its 1973 military coup.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Latin American countries were hit by populist, nationalist, and socialist movements. US national security strategists and their Latin American counterparts began to regard large sectors of these societies as “subversive.” Operation Condor allowed Latin American militaries “to put into practice a key strategic – and violent – concept defined by ideological frontiers. In training centers like the Army School of the Americas in Panama, officials learned how to hunt down, interrogate, and often brutalize suspected dissidents – not necessarily for their political violence, but their political ideas,” as cited by Global Policy.
“My parents are from Argentina. [The film] involves a couple of writers who have to struggle to maintain their integrity because they’re under pressure to tone down their writings – because of the government, and a dictatorship coming to the country,” Russo told me after I had seen the film premiere at the 2020 Warsaw Film Festival. “I hope the film will resonate with audiences from all over the world. I don’t think that the historiography and milieu of Uruguay are very different from other countries that have suffered dictatorship. What I hope is distinctive are the angles and points of view the story is told from.”
The subject of Tupamaros, or “Tupas,” the left wing guerrilla organization prevalent throughout Latin America at the time, is an important element of the film, and a subject rarely taught in U.S. classrooms.
“The Tupas were inspired by the example of the Cuban Revolution who in the late ’60’s started robbing banks and kidnapping entrepreneurs in order to fund their armed fight,” explained Russo. “Their biggest mistake was probably kidnapping and murdering Dan Mitrione, an American who came to instruct the police and the military in torture methods. That gave the military and the right-wing government the excuse to portray them as terrorists and justify the creation of Death Squads and the brutal repression of all left-wing protesters.” Russo mentioned to me that such an incident had been shown in Costa Gavras’s film, “State of Siege.”
The writer-director told me he has been greatly inspired by Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Julian Barnes and Leonard Cohen. He spent about ten years on “The Year of Fury,” underscoring the film came about more as a result of hard work, and from his wellspring of creativity. Russo also took the film on as a personal challenge as a writer.
“To be honest, I don’t think [these cultural influences] have seeped into the story at all. I’ve been writing for many, many years, and I think I’ve developed my own style of writing,” he reflected. “Once I create characters, I try to dig deep into their hearts and let them sit at the steering wheel of the story. Then my eyes, like a clock-maker’s, are totally fixed on their hearts; their little pieces, their luminous and dark parts, the shades of grey. [It’s] the most amazing landscape there is.”
The metaphor of clock-ticking is a prevalent motif employed throughout the film. Leonardo, one of the film’s protagonists, is a copious and pensive writer, and is played with mysterious gusto by Joaquin Furriel. Leonardo had written an important novel in his past as a teacher, was embraced by his colleagues. He grows increasingly stultified, however, as he continues to write a silly variety show with his partner Diego.
Leonardo is also still madly in love with Raquel — a young woman who works at a shoe store, and is married to a hapless shoemaker. Early on the film, Leonardo continually watches Raquel from across the street of her shop. She seems to somewhat reciprocate her love back yet is clearly disheartened and angered that he abandoned her.
“Leonardo’s love story with Raquel is very important in the movie,” remarked Russo. “He leaves her in order to protect her, as the military had threatened to kill her if he doesn’t stop indoctrinating his students. But he’s always remained in love with her yet doesn’t want her to know. He knows she’s married to an apolitical shoemaker. That’s why Leonardo furtively watches her from the other side of the street.”
Is “faded memory” a conscious motif for Leonardo, and for this element of the story?
“Leonardo has got the ‘bullet of fear’ embedded in his head and he’s turned his back on life, love and writing, as a result of that,” continued Russo. “He despises himself because of this. He can’t stand people worshiping him. That’s why he goes nuts when Diego says to him, ‘you too have a big heart’ and decides to change the script.
“Diego is the character who becomes the nexus for all the overlapping stories. His is a coming-of-age story. He’s young and ambitious. [He’s also] individualistic with several women orbiting around him — but [he] is totally noncommittal. And he uses politics for his own creative purposes [with] the comedy show. But he’s not truly committed politically.”
Russo also revealed that Rojas, the chief interrogator and tormented officer, as played by Daniel Grao, “is possibly the most resonant and powerful [character] of the overlapping stories in the film. He is a middle-rank soldier who was trained to repress and torture the insurgency and is pressured by his superiors to be more ruthless with them. But he’s got moral problems with that. Rojas [a married man] turns, and finds solace in Susana.”
Susana is a prostitute who lives in the same guesthouse as Diego.
“Somehow, Rojas longs for some kind of freedom, too. That’s what he finds in her.”
Does this mean that Rojas loves Susana?
“[It’s] the freedom that love brings. His heart is asking him to go against what he’s been taught to do since he was young,” added Russo. “Rojas is a complex and doomed character whose obligations as a lieutenant make him beyond stoic. He may be as much a victim within this harsh and draconian society as those he tortures in detention. He can never change as it is the system that is cruel, zapping his abilities to experience a free life. This stranglehold affects all of Rojas’s decisions, and brings him near paranoia, and worse.”
The creative impulses of searching writers beset by turbulent times remain the most essential theme of “The Year of Fury.” It is a poignant tale of the limits of creativity amid a rising dictatorship that is hell-bent on suppressing it. The movie also argues that the power of the human spirit cannot be fully vanquished, either — as is shown by the windshield wipers’ protest.
“Even as freedom of expression is curtailed, people find ingenious ways of expressing themselves,” emphasized Russo. “Public demonstrations were forbidden in Uruguay during the 12-year long dictatorship. When the military attempted to change the constitution to perpetuate them in power, they organized a referendum. Those against it found a very original and graphic way of saying ‘NO’ to that change in the constitution: [It was with] the windshield wipers’ pendulum-like movement.”
‘The Year of Fury’ is due to hit movie theaters in Spain on May 28, 2021.