Magallanes is not the tale of the trans-oceanic explorer. Instead, it’s the name of the film’s protagonist, a Peruvian ex-soldier, who took part in the military’s cruel campaign against the Sendero Luminoso in the province of Ayacucho. Now in late middle-age, Magallanes lives in Lima. He makes a part-time living driving a taxi and is paid to look after his senile ex-colonel by the colonel’s son, a wealthy businessman. Magallanes, desperate to earn a few bob, decides to blackmail the son by revealing the uncensored details of his father’s activities in Ayacucho.
The idea for the blackmail comes when he picks up a woman inches taxi, Celina, who the colonel took as his concubine when she was 14 years old. Celina has since moved to Lima and is struggling to pay off her debts and make a go of her failing hairdressing business. As Magallanes becomes more and more caught up in Celina’s story, what begun as a mercenary exercise turns into an attempt to assuage his own guilt for his role in Celina’s unhappy past. When the blackmail attempt fails, Magallanes turns to kidnap. However, his real objective is to try to deal with the guilt of what occurred in Ayacucho, a name that lingers over the whole film like a curse.
Peru, it is said, is divided into four zones: the city (Lima); the jungle, the coast and the altiplano, the highlands. These zones are not only different geographically, but also politically. The Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement emerged from the Altiplano, the land of the Incas. The state of Ayacucho was its heartland, a harsh, mountainous land. In essence, Ayacucho became a kind of Peruvian Vietnam, a place where the gloves were off and any kind of military strategy, including rape and torture, was used in the name of the war against terror. At one point in the film, Magallanes’ old service comrade, Milton, talks about how he misses the fear and the excitement of war. It could almost be Walken in the Deer Hunter. Magallanes himself knows he contributed to the committal of war crimes, but he also knows that society has rewarded the victors, such as the Colonel and his son, with his infinity pool and fancy cars.
The film does its best to bring these injustices to light. There’s something slightly methodical about the plot and the pacing: at times it feels as though this is as much a carefully framed political treatise as a cinematic narrative. Which raises the issue of the problems inherent in political film-making. How the intentions underpinning the script so often cauterise its cinematic potency. There’s a clarity to the narrative which at times feels almost counter-productive. Drama depends on shades of grey, not blacks and whites. Having said which, Magallanes emerges as a solid piece of storytelling, which affords a lucid reading of the complexities of recent Peruvian history, delineating the price that has been paid by the victims of the military’s excesses as well as the grunt soldiers who had to carry out the military’s orders.