After a low key festival premiere in Peru last summer, the striking drama Retablo is being unleashed onto this year’s Berlinale – and this directorial debut introduces filmmaker Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L. as a major force to be reckoned with in world cinema. The rural setting of this coming of age tale may initially remind viewers of the similarly rugged Yorkshire backdrops of God’s Own Country, one of last year’s standout LGBT films. But the Peruvian landscape hides an intolerant undercurrent, with these rural villages populated entirely by townsfolk with reactionary and religiously motivated attitudes towards same sex relationships. This is something fourteen year old Segundo (Junior Béjar Roca) finds out the hard way.
Segundo is training to follow in the footsteps of his artisan father Noe (Amiel Cayo), a man whose artfully crafted story-box have earned him the undying respect of numerous Peruvian mountain communities. He may be a father to Segundo, but the townsfolk all unanimously refer to him as “maestro” or “master” without a lick of irony due to his gift. On the drive to a community celebration, thanking the father and son team for a story-box they made, Segundo witnesses his dad in the midst of a sexual act with another man – something which shatters his entire world. Going through puberty in a toxically masculine landscape, where his father is the only role model worth looking up to, he slowly begins to realise that he has more in common with his dad than initially realised. Something which is going to cause considerable trouble in a village as divorced from progressive politics as this one.
Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L. and cinematographer Mario Bassino utilise long takes throughout the entire film, largely focusing on characters staring in to the distance before even offering us a glimpse of what they see. This is an impressive visual motif, for multiple reasons. Firstly, we are told from the offset about the father’s considerable attention to detail – but even when they aren’t examining crowds or landscapes like photographers preparing to take a photograph, we see their unwavering focus on every mundane detail occurring around them. The film’s second half focuses on Segundo coming to terms with the life altering sex act he saw, and it’s here this motif changes. Instead, Junior Béjar Roca (in an impressive, silently brooding performance) sees his gaze struggle to permanently fix in any direction like it did before, suggesting a boy trying to shut off from a reality he can’t alter.
A quick glance at Peru’s LGBT rights record shows that while they are far from the worst in the world, they are insufficiently progressive to the point that intolerant attitudes shown by the villagers ring true. The screenplay, co-written by the director and Héctor Gálvez, works because it never shows the villagers being intolerant of gay people unless events happening nearby render it relevant to the conversation. Instead, they depict an aura of homophobia due to the sheer aggressiveness of the teenage heteronormativity, where every woman, no matter how minor a role she plays in the lives of Segundo’s peer group, is the subject of extensive conversations imagining her sexual organs. It’s an incredibly stifling environment, with the overly forced machismo proving to be a more effective signal of the dread to come later on in the story than any overt signs of homophobia.
Retablo is an emotionally brutal tale of self realisation, which even in its heightened state and geographically detached setting, will likely prove to be relatable due to the sheer universality of Segundo’s pre-coming out quandary. Before self-acceptance, it can feel like the whole world is against you – and as it progresses, Retablo depicts the terror of a closeted life for people of different generations in a manner that feels keenly observed. It’s a quietly haunting debut effort from a director to watch.