“La Mujer Sin Cabeza” is a brilliant film, with subtle social commentary that never hits one over the head. Like the mystery in the film itself, it’s something the audience must pieces together. The director, Lucretia Martel, presents the evidence, but no editorials. Class and race are paramount, but they remain as unspoken, perhaps even ghostly components of the film. Amnesia, real and feigned, are a part of the mix as well.
Maria Onetto plays Verónica, a bourgeoisie dentist, living in comfort in Northwestern Argentina. Surrounded by a close-knit extended family, in a house where many Indigenista servants appear and disappear, her life takes a sudden turn when she runs over something on the highway. She hits her head and becomes disoriented, but goes on, not looking back until much later to see what she may have hit. Was it a dog or a human? We get clues for both possibilities as the film progresses, and we discover how quickly her family pulls together to protect her.
Onetto’s performance is stunning. She is regal in her amnesia, regal in her concussion induced vagueness regarding her surroundings. The camera work and the soundtrack add to the effect and the audience itself is disorientated along with her. But it’s never done with a hammer, and always with nuance and levels of almost hidden meaning.
The film made me think as I watched. It made me think about how strange it is that we value one kind of work over another kind. In the movie, it appears that young and older Indigenistas are constantly in motion, working hard, moving across the screen, asking for work again and again, while the Argentinians of European ancestry seem to have a great deal of leisure time. The Indigenistas work harder because they are paid far less for their work. They must do more of it because their wages are so terrible in relative terms. As I watched, I wondered about the surreality of our own system here, how CEOs make 500 times more than rank and file workers, when they made just 43 times as much 30 years ago. Why should they pay themselves so much more? Are they really worth 500 workers? Do they really do the work of 500 people, and do they really have a skill worth 500 times more than the average Joe or Jane? Why is their work valued at such an incredible rate?
Again, Martel never discusses these things. Her characters never discuss these things. Her film, though, is a demonstration of the ridiculous nature of our class divisions and the insane divide between rich and poor. Not knowing Argentinian history, this was my takeaway, though other critics have pointed to many other symbolic and metaphorical connections with recent Argentinian turmoil and dictatorship. They have pointed to the aspect of her family closing ranks to protect Verónica from the repercussions of her accident, and some of the very brief scenes, almost too brief to catch, of possible incestuous relationships in her family. This, too, along with her amnesia, points to social change and the walls between the classes. But Martel does something fair and just in another sense. The Indigenistas seem powerful in their own way. They don’t seem afraid of the Middle Class, nor particularly impressed by them. While they are treated unfairly overall, they are never owned.
This is a thought-provoking movie that deserves wide exposure, and calls for more than one viewing.