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Juan José Campanella: Success, Imagination, and Memory

Por: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Fotos: Julieta Solincée

A smart looking, good-natured, and disheveled man traveled for more than twenty hours to Cartagena de Indias in a bus that looked like a giant refrigerator, with the sole intention of handing the manuscript of his first novel to a Buenos Aires movie director who had influenced him so vividly as to have inspired his book’s finale and several other scenes. The young writer had seen the director’s most famous film twenty-eight times, always with the excitement of the first.

This writer and tropical ascetic is Alejandro Ordóñez and the filmmaker who had so marked his most recent years of work is none other than Juan José Campanella, who won the Oscar in 2010 for Best Foreign Language Film for The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos). The theme of this film, so brilliantly developed, is the relationship between the art of love and the equally notable arts of crime and oblivion.

The task of this wandering novelist was not easy. He was not the only one who had traveled to the Hay Festival to intercept Campanella. A horde of followers and film students had besieged him without respite or mercy during his three-day stay. He had to quell all types of demands, which came in the form of intimate, academic, and political questions, and even theological ones.

The Dawn of the Dream

To completely understand Campanella’s passion for film, we must take a rapid jump backward, or meander, with charming lightness, through the canyon of his past, the contemplation of which is both revelatory and authentic.

“I was never a typical boy or an orthodox Argentine,” he recalls. “As a young boy I preferred the road to the theater to the one to the soccer field or stadium, and my devotion to the heroes of fictional film was greater than what a goalkeeper from Boca or a goal scorer from River could incite in me,” he recalls smiling. “I recognize, yes, that these words may be taken as heresy.”

“My childhood was a long, drawn-out fantasy made of films and comic strips,” he adds. “I was a boy at the hands of a crazy imagination. Everywhere, like invisible friends, I projected Tintin and Spiderman, Prince Valiant, Robin Hood, James Stewart and John Wayne, or the heroes of Argentine comic strips: Capicúa, Piantadino and Pepe Sánchez. I read like crazy and I went to the movies four times a week.”

Campanella was born in Vicente López, a typical middle class Argentine neighborhood, with clouds of pensioners and old “tangueros,” housewives consumed by boredom, fruit and vegetable sellers, matchmakers and sentimental girls, petty bureaucrats, shopkeepers, alcoholics, widowers, and little graying clerks; all at the mercy of love, break ups, falls, and rebirths. “This contradictory, stimulating fauna, seen in childhood and analyzed in adolescence, is the embryo, the genesis, of my films, which attempt to reflect the economic and collective madness of a distraught generation,” reveals Campanella.

In September 1983 he traveled to New York to study filmmaking. That city and country would keep him for almost twenty years. In the beginning, his situation in the U.S. was not an easy one. To survive he worked odd jobs, including as a waiter in the French restaurant La Cremerie on 75th and Lexington, and as a translator for Latin Americans on trial in the courtrooms of the Bronx. Most of those cases were for drug trafficking. Campanella would translate the defensive words of small-time gangsters and South American godfathers, which, in his words, had their own theatrical charm. The other, more pathetic trials were the ones trying unemployed Latinos. “For a budding artist,” he reflects, “the materials that reality provides, including the crudest and most virulent ones, become a driving force that helps a sensitive imagination take off.”

The Invention of Voice

“Like all artists since the beginning of time, I spent a lot of time trying to find myself, slowly investigating the things I wanted to say and how to strike the appropriate tone to make them alternately poetic and credible. You can say, therefore, that some of my films are from a different Campanella‚Äïa man who now seems distant and unknown to me. After I ‘sharpened my blade’ with American series House, 30 Rock, and Law and Order and again in Argentina, naturally, the voice that would sculpt my true work began to emerge, the voice I had waited for, and which would be responsible for establishing my universe, giving it the shape of what had up to that point been simply searching, intuition, and attempts.”

Campanella then talks about those unexpected, miraculous, poetic, deep, but basic movies that shot him onto the world stage and allowed him to exorcize his demons, make memories, and convert enigmas and despair, wounds, loneliness, and torment, into beauty. He achieved it in maturity, right before turning fifty; after throwing endless hooks and jabs he says, in a reference to boxing, he ended up producing a knockout.

Some of his most notable films include Same Love, Same Rain (El mismo amor, la misma lluvia) (1999), which depicts a perverse portrait of a writer who wants to be immortalized, but who must resort to writing cheesy novels for an ordinary magazine, until love forces him to find himself; Son of the Bride (El hijo de la novia) (2001), which reflects the need to give oblivion a name and musicalize silence, through the tender story of a great woman devastated by Alzheimer’s; Moon of Avellaneda (Luna de Avellaneda) (2004), a nostalgic homage to those classic gathering places which fall into ruin at the hands of modernity and amnesia; and The Secret in Their Eyes (2010), which recounts, in the form of a thriller, the tricks, jokes, and riddles that the years throw at us.

Campanella’s Asteroid

Ever since he stepped onto the stage to receive the coveted statuette from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Campanella has understood that “not much happens after the recognition, unless, perhaps, that you’re not so in need of showing yourself without people fixing their gaze on your every move. So you can, from a standpoint of serenity, devote yourself to your obsessions, the same ones that will become films.”

He recalled that on the night he brought the statuette home he was impressed by the fact that it was delivered “naked,” or better said, without any type of cape or wrapping. He looked at it for a long time, remembering how he had dreamed about it when he went to the movies as a child. And on his return trip, at the airport, he had to undergo one of those humiliating inspections where you have to show even the most insignificant scarf in your last bag. To the perplexity of the security officers, the Oscar image appeared. They asked him if they were seeing what they thought they saw, if it was really the mythical statuette from the movie gods. And when they learned it was so, their severity morphed into the devotion of fans, with an improvised photo shoot posing beside the sacred icon and its unexpected owner.

“Film will disappear only when men disappear,” he now says with certainty. “It’s palpitating, generous, and human to go to a full theater to burnish emotions with others. This extends and strengthens our kinship and the invisible bond that connect one man to another. If we have a creative crisis right now, it’s transitory and we will soon see new life blown into this dance of shadows.”

Epilogue

Alejandro Ordóñez, the novelist and Campanella’s admirer, was able to give him his novel, ask two witty questions and get him to sign the book on which The Secret in Their Eyes was based. He ended up exhausted, stunned, and beaming. At the end of their meeting, as he was planning to get on another bus and return to Bogotá, he felt as if all the emotions in his body ached and the fatigue of the years it took him to write his novel suddenly overcame him. He had watched The Secret in Their Eyes a countless number of times and had even come to the sea to meet a master. He fell ill in the doorway of the beautiful Hotel Santa Clara and had to be rushed to the hospital. But it was nothing serious. He is fully recovering now dreaming that he is one of Campanella’s characters…

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