'[La Lengua Muerta] is about the frantic and frayed means of expression, the destruction of culture, the end of art...'1
How many pieces of art have placed a new adjective in the lexicon? In the same way that Catch 22 offered itself up as a phrase to explain something we had never quite so succinctly explained before, so too walks La Lengua Muerta. And how: for the means here are as legendary as the art itself.
Chilean director Gilberto Ayala constructed this paean to the sabotage of his country in secrecy within those tortured borders at various points between 1975 and 1979. Fearful of the regime of General Auguste Pinochet, Ayala cut apart his film and mailed each frame to different locations across North America. In the region of 108,000 frames were sent out. When Ayala fled Chile in 1980, he began the process of tracking down each frame to build his 75 minute film. Friends returned them to him over a period of months, and after an arduous editing process, he debuted the film at the New York Film Festival in 1982.
'Of course, some frames were missing,' Ayaya says. 'Some friends had lost them, or moved, or perhaps they had never arrived in the first place. This slow wave of mail bringing my film back to me proved emotional and revealing. Many scenes I had not watched since I had shot them, being in such a hurry to cut the film up and send it to safety. But each day, several pieces of my jigsaw arrived at my new address in Manhattan, bringing with them shards of memory, and new dreams. Some pieces are out of synch. I know. I accept this. Perfection was impossible. But a new magic was applied in the process, as if the spirit of thousands of my countrymen was enriched by the film's contact with thousands of Americans'1
The missing pieces actually work in the film's favour, giving the action a jerkily hypnotic lack of flow. Ayala didn't realise it at the time, but his accidental discovery of a technique would prove inspirational to a generation of offbeat auteurs. Other directors removed frames from their reels, and what quickly became known as 'Dead Language Style', or simply 'Dead Language' became a common entry in dictionaries of film terms.2
The film itself is wonderful and worthy of discussion beyond the history of its mythical journey. The plot is based on a famous Chilean folk tale, and it is also a commentary on the regime of Pinochet. Said Pauline Kael, 'Ayala's La Lengua Muerta is like Mikhail Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita, this is magical realism without whim, but with angry claws.' 1
The country descends into savagery; all the while, there is suspicion of an outside force. A group of young deaf street children realise they must do something. Their sign language is the only form of communication that still carries resonance, and they band together and attempt to rebuild. The strength of the young hopefuls in a dire circumstance is the backbone of the film's thrust and power.