Complicity and Agency

Today comes to you courtesy of my neuroses.

Since posting Monday’s triple feature about the international-shortlisted Dear Comrades!, Quo vadis, Aida and La Llorona, I’ve been wracked with insecurity regarding its omission of a crucial component in each of the three discussed protagonists’ struggles with the personal and the political, one that should be noted when reckoning with their relative complicity in the depicted political horrors: their tangential relationships to the real seats of power.

Dear Comrades!‘s Lyuda undeniably wields power within the Soviet party, but she’s still sitting and watching from the audience when the true power-brokers hold court regarding their deliberations. She’s more of an advisor, albeit one constantly pushing for her fellow local party leaders to wield their power on the ground to help those the party are supposed to help. Their refusal to do so before it’s too late results in their constituents protesting their power, which is when the higher-ups arrive. Initially, Lyuda advises them to use the full might of their political armory against the “agitators”, an approach they ask her to flesh out in hopes of pursuing … which becomes complicated when she realizes her daughter’s one of the agitators … which is when her conflict between the personal and the political formally commences.

She is — or, at least, was — irrefutably on the side of the murderers, but how much did/could she really sway national machinations? It’s unclear how much political power she personally possessed within her political party to change anything (we see her early efforts fall on deaf ears). And this air of possible futility is key to all three movies.

Case in point: Quo Vadis‘s Aida. As a mere U.N. translator, she’s in no position to rescue her entire town from an imminent genocide. Yes, she prioritizes saving her kin over her peers, but her familially-minded actions don’t make her complicit in the massacre, because she never sided with the perpetrators. Rather, her powerlessness is almost the point; political travesties force victims to choose between imperfect paths to navigate impossible situations. Even worse, all roads might lead to the same place for the victims: the fate they’re fighting to avoid.

On Monday, I referenced only one of the mothers dealing with relative complicity and relative agency in La Llorona. The movie seems to be saying that, in corrupt societies, the only powers that can hold the corrupt to account are supernatural. The victims and their cries for justice are not enough to overcome the corruption of the justice system, which allows a former genocidal leader to enjoy the end of his life in his palatial residence.

Luckily, La Llorona apparates to exact the sort of revenge that’s unattainable in the strictly corporeal world. And there’s a reason she also haunts, in different ways, the aforementioned ruler’s wife and daughter. La Llorona’s punishment for his wife Carmen’s quiet acceptance of his crimes against humanity — complicity! — bears resemblance to Dear Comrades!: Carmen’s consciousness flashes back into and embodies one of his victims, a mother failing to protect her children from his wrath. As it does for Lyuda, familially-personifying the political unmoors Carmen’s everyday compass.

Though Carmen’s daughter Natalia seems more receptive (mildly) to the victims’ stories regarding her father’s atrocities, she seems more affected by how his atrocities affect her life, namely: her suspicion that he assassinated the father of her daughter, and how her and her daughter’s lives have become consumed in his political maelstrom. Like the other mothers, her personal stance on the political is shaken after the political started incurring its wrath on her personal life; devastation’s not as easy to ignore when it’s at your doorstep.

Carmen and Natalia were not directly responsible for his evil, but they definitely could’ve done more to oppose him. And for that, La Llorona and her people are here to collect the wholly insufficient bill.

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