Act of Violence upon a Young Journalist (1988) is a Cult Film You’ve Never Heard Of

This is installment five in our “Psychotronic Cinema” series. (What is psychotronic cinema?)

Act of Violence upon a Young Journalist is a cult film object from Uruguay, but it is relatively unknown in the U.S. It circulated in some film circles in South America, seemingly years after its original direct-to-video release in 1988. A documentary was made a couple years ago, called Straight to VHS (directed by Emilio Silva Torres), that documented the strange absence of the film’s director, Manuel Lamas, from public life, which has rendered details on the film’s production and its release scant.

The doc is good, although I don’t think it answers as many questions as it asks. What makes the doc and its distribution important is that its release coincided with North American distribution of the film in question, Act of Violence upon a Young Journalist, which prior to this has only existed, (pseudo-)legally from what I understand, in the U.S. as a YouTube upload. The problem for my monolingual self was that the video did not contain English subtitles.

Now, Straight to VHS and Act of Violence are available on Tubi (all hail, Tubi!). Having finally watched this film, I can say that it is not exactly all that it’s cracked up to be. If you just watch Straight to VHS, you get the sense from the film’s avid fanbase that Manuel Lamas is a lost cinematic prophet whose failure sent him into exile unjustly. The film compares Lamas’ work on Violence to names as canonical as Godard, Bergman, and Kiarostami. To be fair to the documentary, it does spend much of its second half dispelling these mythic notions.

For those fans that have made those connections, I am happy that you see pure cinematic art inside this film. For me, this is just another day at the badfilm office. It is a film riddled with errors, poorly shot on video, edited awkwardly, framed statically, and narratively meandering to a fault. Save for some brief moments of spontaneous and crude craftsmanship, Act of Violence is two long hours of amateur filmmaking. This is not to discredit amateur film or the flashes of artistry that Lamas demonstrates. It’s just to say that I want to bring the perception of this film back down closer to Earth (Torres does a lot of this work in Straight to VHS, too).

There’s the story that gets told about Orson Welles filming Citizen Kane, about how he wanted to achieve things with the camera that were then considered unthinkable. But they were achievable, and achieve cinematographer Gregg Toland did. The crew raised entire sets so that the camera could rest at eye level for those extreme low angle shots. They built ceilings for sets (not a normal practice) to capture Kane as if he were a bird trapped in a cage. Welles’ radical new ideas were executed, because incredibly skilled craftspeople worked their asses off. And cultural memory now recalls Kane as one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

Compare this to Lamas. An anecdote told in Straight to VHS outlines his personality in a way that feels both of a piece with yet entirely antithetical to the Wellesian radical vision narrative I just laid out. Julio Pelossi, a camera technician on Violence, talks about filming a scene where Lamas wanted to capture audio from a couple standing about two blocks away from the camera.

Pelossi recommended state of the art wireless mics he had recently gotten shipped in from the U.S. But Lamas staunchly refused, and decided instead to create a contraption of wires tied together, which ran through the busy streets. Pelossi claims it took 14 hours to get the shot, and whether Lamas ended up getting usable audio from the ordeal or not remains a mystery. So while Welles (a first-time director on the Kane set) relied on the people surrounding him who knew what they were doing, Lamas ignored reasonable advice under the belief that he himself knew how to achieve the impossible. And it wasted the time and labor of a crew of people.

But let’s dive into the movie itself. Only then can we really get a sense of what it is about this film that makes it such a cult fascination.

The premise is this: a journalist, Blanca (Blanca Gimenez), who is undertaking an ambitious project on the nature of human violence, finds herself in the cross-hairs of an unstable killer.

The first real scene of the film (after strangely-edited B-roll footage of city streets) involves an interview with a conductor retelling the story of an opera written in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944. He is talking about Viktor Ullman’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a composition that survived the Holocaust even though Ullman himself, sadly, did not. The composer discusses this piece’s creation, in response to a prompt about music’s link to violence. But the scene never pushes past this story to address such a link in any definite terms. It is merely an anecdote told in documentary style.

This was a key part of the film’s hook. The trailer for the film promised “real interviews” to accompany the fictional thriller plot. It is hard to tell how scripted these interviews are, but I suppose we could take the marketing’s word for it that these were real interviews with people. Considering how clunkily the interviews factor into the film’s plot, this is not hard to believe.

Quickly, it becomes apparent that we are working with a non-professional filmmaker (interviews in the Straight to VHS doc confirm that Lamas was self-taught). Scenes cross-cut between action in the strangest way. A dinner scene seems to reach a natural conclusion, and we cut away to a variety show at a bar that a different character is at. It would make logical sense that we have entered an entirely new scene. However, when the variety show finishes, we cut back to the dinner, where there is just one more line of dialogue before the scene fades out.

Not to mention these characters are not adequately introduced. The woman talking to the journalist at dinner is talking about her adult son (Vittorio Maganza), whom she berates and infantilizes (he is referred to as “Bebotte:” a big baby). It is not immediately clear this woman’s relation to the journalist. Carlos (Carlos Regueiro), the man from the bar, is introduced entering a hotel then talking a bath, his voiceover discussing how he is going to take a bath and then go for a walk. Again, it is not immediately clear who this man is, nor why him taking a bath is pertinent to watch.

Eventually, we watch the “Bebotte” walking around the city for a few lengthy shots, before seeing an extreme closeup of his face shouting out at the ocean, “I’m going to kill her! Blanca, that radio journalist! I swear it! I’m going to kill her!” The way this scene plays out, the whole thing appears more confusing than it actually is. The way the man is framed, it is not immediately clear he is the man from the previous scene. His motivation is clearly established in that scene with his mother, but with the way this film moves, everything kind of blurs, making it difficult to understand exactly what is happening.

Seemingly, the film wants this confusion, as the climax presents Bebotte’s identity as if it is a revelation of sorts, despite his identity being more or less apparent all along. The story develops with such deliberate pacing that it seems as though every detail is important, that those details string together to solve some mystery. Instead, there really is no mystery. The plot is as linear and straightforward as one could imagine. Why, then, is every piece of information laid out so slowly?

It is important to add that this movie is obsessed with Coke. Some of the first shots of the movie are establishing shots of a city street featuring a big Coke billboard. Multiple characters in multiple scenes excitedly ask for a Coke. One would assume the film was sponsored by the soft drink company, if the film itself was not so low budget and appeared to actively combat the concept of commercial entertainment.

The end credits make it seem as if the brand was a sponsor, as there are separate title cards for all of the brand names featured in the film. The Coca-Cola logo, as well as others like Wrangler jeans, receive a prominent few seconds in the credits.

Yet, it is extraordinarily difficult to believe that these brands gave the film money for this product placement. Is it possible that Lamas put the product placement in the film proactively, assuming that once Coca-Cola and Wrangler saw the film that they would put money down on it? Or perhaps they were added just to make the film appear more professional by tricking people into thinking it had major sponsorship deals? The Coca-Cola of it all might be the actual mystery of the film.

Much like After Last Season, which we reviewed recently, Act of Violence is a very talky movie, and much of that talking is banal and takes place in real time. Blanca’s interviews are showed in full, and they do not necessarily drive the narrative forward in any meaningful way. One interview regarding violence in football goes on for minutes, ballooning from a discussion of sports to socio-political discussions of the congressional duty to police violence and the economic realities that drive people to aggression.

I understand the film is in part a thesis about violent behavior in all walks of life and on various scales and how this behavior is mediated through journalism. But I can’t help but think practically about Blanca’s piece within the diegesis. Is she aiming to exhaustively understand why and how people enact violence full stop? You might need more than a news article to cover that one. At one point she mentions that it might be worth developing into a book, and even then I’m thinking, this is not a question one can answer in a single volume. You are endeavoring to answer one of the biggest questions of the human condition, Blanca. You might want to consider narrowing your focus.

Then again, who I am to critique Blanca? Maybe she’s the greatest journalist the world has seen. I have no idea. Beyond being told she’s a “radio journalist,” we never really see her doing any journalism outside of these broad interviews.

As far as the construction of the movie is concerned, these interview scenes are at least morbidly interesting as curiosities. What the interviews do to the form of the film is intriguing in spite of their lack in meaning-making. We are asked to simply sit in these interviews carried out in unbroken takes as if actually watching a news report, and the resulting lack of cinematic flow and movement is alienating. I prefer the alienation to the long takes of people talking about entirely uninteresting things like jewelry and food.

The fades to black that end most scenes feel, more often than not, like a punchline. The scene in which characters discuss jewelry ends with Blanca walking into the conversation and realizing that the man her friend Gabriela (Gabriela Novasco) is trying to set her up with, Carlos (the bath boy), had rudely interrupted her at a phone booth earlier in the film. Seemingly out of frustration with him, she leaves the scene immediately and the scene fades to black in an instant. The whole thing feels like an error, and I suppose it is. An error in judgment. (It might be worth noting that Lamas not only wrote and directed the film; he also shot it, edited it, and wrote the music for it).

Regardless of this scene, Blanca almost instantly falls head over heels in love with Carlos once she decides to actually go on a date with him. This, despite the fact that (1) Carlos is an absolute tool, and (2) he is wearing a wedding ring (the actor’s, most likely) in most of his scenes.

Within this canned romance that I don’t buy for a second, though, is Lamas’ most passionate bit of scripting. In a prolonged argument between Blanca and Carlos, precipitated by Carlos needing to leave to return to his business in Canada, the two discuss the merits of Uruguay and whether Carlos is right to use Uruguay for his education and then export his talent to another country. Given that the film begins with a crawl in which Lamas speaks to the need for a Uruguayan film culture, the director seems to care about his country.

This scene speaks of Uruguayan education as some of the best in the world. Blanca’s hangup is that Carlos is not giving back to the Uruguay that raised him. In this scene, something of import, seemingly coming from the director’s heart, is brought to the fore. Instead of pouring Coke into glasses and interviewing people about car accidents and aggression, the film pauses to look at something with identifiable reasoning behind it.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, what happened to the declaration of violence against Blanca (both in the title and shouted to the heavens by a stranger in act one)? Well, this character doesn’t resurface until the final half hour of the film, and his return marks the high point of the film.

A horrendously slow chase scene instigated by the Bebotte culminates in the most artistic series of shots that Lamas has to offer in Violence. Slow motion shots turn to freeze frames in a stilted yet still somehow elegantly choreographed struggle. Compared with everything that has come before—the static long takes and banal conversations—this scene reads like an avant-garde dance. It is 60 seconds or so that are worth watching in a film that I otherwise can’t bring myself to strongly recommend (unless you’re the kind that digs this brand of low-budget SOV fare).

I don’t believe that Act of Violence upon a Young Journalist is destined for a second (third?) life as a cult film in North America, even if it is now more freely available. But of course, that is not what matters. The film already has its dedicated following, and they see many things in it that elude me. What I can say for it is that it could be cut into a five minute clip package that would make it look a lot stranger and more curious than it actually is. If Alamo Drafthouse hasn’t already cut footage from it into their pre-roll package, then someone on their team should get on that.

Act of Violence upon a Young Journalist is not in the Psychotronic Video Guide. I struggled (and failed) to find a Uruguay film in the Guide, but I did find Love, Strange Love on page 343 and Satanic Attraction on page 481. Both were produced in Uruguay’s neighbor Brazil. Weldon writes of Attraction: “This didn’t make all that much sense to me and the dubbing is sometimes awkward or laughable, but I liked the fact that people ate mangoes after a sex scene.”

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)


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