José Celestino Campusano is an Argentinean filmmaker known for a type of brutal realism that often unearths the origins of hidden desires and the energies that influence the nature and machinations of the environments of his stories. The strongest of these energies is sexuality and while the characters are never either likable or entirely unpleasant, they are often divided between those who take charge of it and those who, for one reason or another, do not. Those who take charge of it blossom; those who do not bury themselves deeper underground.
Because of this “earthly” nature of his films, it is appropriate that his latest feature should be set in the countryside. Men of Hard Skin (Hombres de piel dura), presented at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, revolves around Ariel (Will Javier), a young and attractive gay man living and working on his father’s farm in a rural part of the region of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Its story particularly focuses on his troubled and troublesome relationship with two older men: his father (Claudio Medina), who refuses to accept his homosexuality, and Omar (Germán Tarantino), a Catholic priest with whom he has a secret love affair.
Omar seduced Ariel as a teenager and constantly takes advantage of his innocence and lack of experience with his emotions. But despite the controversial “genesis” of this love affair, we know from the beginning that it is consensual. Indeed, it is only because Ariel sees no future in the relationship that he decides to end it. The decision is painstaking but allows him to take charge of his own sexuality and embark on an exploration of his desires, taking himself out of the shadows that both his father and Omar want to drag him into – and where both manifest their own, albeit different, sexuality.
Campusano welcomes interaction with spectators. This is reflected in his increased interest in newer technologies, such as VR, that allows for even greater room for viewers to draw out their own conclusions on characters, themes and situations. He is also keen on revealing realities that go beyond sets of rules and conventions. In Men of Hard Skin (Hombres de piel dura), he shines a light on the alternate realities of rural life and the Catholic Church, exposing in the process the structures in place that ensure their legitimation.
Despite the daring nature of some of these exposés, such as that of pedophelia and priesthood, all is treated in a matter-of-fact and somewhat detached way and without resorting to much stylization and accentuation. This approach reflects the hushed rebellion that Ariel represents by simply refusing to repress his sexuality in order to fit into the order of things rather than, for instance, being a vocal activist. His is, essentially, a generational struggle and his constant clashes with his father represent the clash between the ways of old generations and the new generation – an old generation defined by gender lines and rituals, such as that exhibited in the scene where the father takes Ariel to a brothel and pays a prostitute to have sex with him.
Generational tension is, of course, one of the things that traditionally defines coming of age dramas and in a textual sense, Men of Hard Skin (Hombres de piel dura), fits into this particular category. However, it too defies the conventions of this particular genre via a narrative style that is rooted in the present. Events unravel in a naturalistic but surprising way and this allows for a deeper understanding of the struggles lived by the three main characters and the consequences of the choices they make.