This Wednesday I went to OU’s screening of “El Silencio de Neto” (The Silence of Neto), a film recommended to me by my Spanish Literature professor. She mentioned that it was the first Guatemalan film screened internationally, directed by Luis Argueta. OU managed to have Luis Argueta himself at the screening, and after the film he spoke briefly about the ideas and history behind the movie. The film centers on the life of a young boy, Neto, and his life during a very tumultuous time in Guatemala. The story takes place in 1954, the year of the coup d’état that dismantled the country’s democratic government.
I had trouble understanding why the movie was called “El Silencio de Neto.” It seemed to be a coming of age film, made very unique by its historical context. I suppose a good deal of the plot had to do with Neto learning how to be more independent. The movie opens on his birthday—he has eleven candles to blow out but is so severely asthmatic that this is difficult for him. He is treated very much like a young child by his family. His father shelters him, not wanting him to know anything of the war that is beginning around him. I believe this may have something to do with the title of the movie: At the beginning, Neto is very soft-spoken and unwilling to talk back to adults. At one point, he even asks his uncle, who often fights with Neto’s father, why he always brings up things that will anger others. He wants to know why he doesn’t just stay quiet. His uncle responds that staying quiet might be easy, but that when you have something to say, the right thing to do is to say it.
Neto is a peacekeeper. He is always the one to urge his friends to get along, and he comforts his little sister when she becomes startled by the sounds of bombs that become common during Guatemala’s Civil War. He has trouble keeping this up with the death (by heart attack) of his beloved uncle. At the funeral, a distraught Neto is visited by his uncle’s ghost. Their conversation is brief, but Neto jokingly accuses his uncle of never making good on his promise to teach him how to fly a balloon. His uncle responds that he has come back to fulfill this promise, and at later at his funeral his ghost instructs Neto from afar as he lights and flies a ceremonial balloon. He implies that letting go of the balloon is like letting go of the dead. Overall, the film focuses heavily on Neto’s coming of age and learning how to handle his emotions. In a time when his country is at war and his uncle (who is very much like a father to him) passes away, he is forced to grow up very quickly. However, with the guidance of his uncle, he comes out wiser and more mature.
Although the story of Neto was interesting, I was also intrigued by the historical aspects of the movie. The US government, specifically the CIA, trained Nicaraguan troops and sent them into Guatemala to overthrow their democratically elected president. The CIA felt the need to do this because they interpreted the liberal ideas of the Guatemalan government as nearly communist, and during the Cold War this was seen as a cause for alarm. The invasion was successful, and a military US-backed government was imposed in Guatemala. What I found most interesting about this was that I had been completely unaware of it before seeing “El Silencio de Neto”. I suppose it is not surprising that this chapter of US history is not emphasized in our schools, as it certainly casts us in a bad light. I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch this movie, as it provides a startling example of another nation’s perspective on US imperialism.