'[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
When the land of Alhambria wakes on midsummer's day, a surprising chill is in the air. There is a problem. The statue at the centre of town that was constructed by ancient fathers is gone. This icon was made of lettered building blocks, and their disappearance is calamitous. Without the powers of the blocks, the land has no language; the alphabet is forgotten overnight, and coherent speech vanishes. The written word is meaningless, and books are burned or ignored.
People have only the vaguest sense of what has been lost: How can the inarticulate rembember articulacy with any detail? Forgotten language litters the air. Every now and then, words are spoken, sentences even, as some kind of brain memory spins lines, but they expire, undeciphered.
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.
Poignantly, the young star Maria-Maria Cruz disappeared in 1986, suspected murdered by the army in Chile. She would have been just nineteen years old. Her performance as the patient and busy leader of the group of street children is the emotional focus of the film 'Maria-Maria's death reminds me why I made the film in the first place,' says Ayala. ''Brave' is a word that is attached to artists far too frequently. Maria-Maria defined the word in ways that Hollywood, with its 'heroic' films condemning slavery, or Nazis, can never comprehend'.
La Lengua Muerta Directed by Gilberto Ayala Written by Gilberto Ayala Juan Jiminez Produced by Gilberto Ayala Juan Jiminez, Steffan Reuters La Blanca/Fusion Pictures Release Date US: November 1982 UK: March 1983 Tagline: 'How Can You Speak When There Are No Words?'
1. Pauline Kael, 1001 Nights (1990). Ayala was so taken with Kael's vivid phrase that he titled his 2003 autobiography A Life With Angry Claws. The quotes above are all taken from it.
2. Quentin Tarantino famously emulated the style for a disorientating action sequence in his Reel Cool Beach (2002), and Woody Allen paid homage with repeated use of Dead Language in If I Do Say So Myself (1989). Hal Hartley, Vic Vikram and Neil Labute have all also utilised the technique repeatedly.