Speak up Neto


El silencio de Neto deserves the acclaim it received as a Guatemalan cinematic achievement, but could have spoken more loudly about the country’s history


El silencio de Neto
Luis Argueta, Guatemala
1994, Buenos Dias
106 mins, Spanish

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

LATAMROB rating: ***

GUATEMALA’S most successful ever independent film charts one boy’s journey through puberty during one of the most important eras in the country’s recent history, the 1950s.

This was a period in which – against the backdrop of the social transformation under socialist president Jacobo Arbenz, which would be abruptly halted by a CIA-backed coup – the seeds were sown for Latin America’s most bloody subsequent civil war.

El silencio de Neto (The Silence of Neto) can be likened to a genre of films about adolescence and enlightenment in the Cinema Paradiso vein yet, however touching the subject matter and context, lacks the cinematic charm to make it as memorable or magnetic as its esteemed predecessors. Moreover, the sentimental focus on Neto’s pubescent struggle and loss of innocence – as opposed to the potential for a focus on political minefield of Guatemala in that period and the country’s own loss of innocence – represents something of a missed opportunity.

Although critically acclaimed as one of the country’s most important cinematic achievements, El silencio de Neto is over-ambitious, only touching the surface of themes it promises to explore.

The title is never really explained: an over-protective mother and domineering father smother the young protagonist while, meanwhile, the youth’s rebellious uncle encourages him to make his voice heard (which he never does). The events that unravel are quickly forgotten as attention turns mostly to Neto’s attempts at finding a girlfriend.

Oscar Javier Almengor is mesmerising as Neto, and there are worthy hints at political injustice throughout, with Neto’s father losing his job, his newly found girlfriend disappearing one day, and the discovery of a machine gun while the boys are out playing. One resonant quote comes from a young servant girl making inferences about class and shared origins: “We’re all Indians here, Neto.”

Nonetheless, these hints are not developed and, like its moments of humour, the film’s enduring observations seem mostly to revolve around the universal theme of pre-pubescent discovery and frustration.

El silencio de Neto represented an important success in Guatemalan cinema, providing the foundations for other directors to build upon. It was the first independent film to come out of the country that was produced and directed by nationals. However, it seems to have rejected influences of the past that could have given the script greater potential and, as a result, appears simplistic.

Despite this, El silencio de Neto will undoubtedly prove a marvel to those new to the culture and history of Guatemala. The cinematography is beautiful, emulating the aura of a time of struggle and fear which, combined with a native soundtrack, transports the viewer to this troubled Central American land.

Isabel O’Toole is an undergraduate student