Professor Kiarina Kordela
HCST 10 : Introduction to Humanities and Cultural Studies
25 April 2002
Alsino and the Condor is a movie filmed by the Nicaraguan Film Institute and co-produced by Mexico, Cuba and Costa Rica. According to The New York Times, it “is a film about injustice and revolution, not looked at directly but seen, as if passing, by Alsino, a solemn little peasant who, more than anything else, wants to fly.” . The description is more or less appropriate; the movie is the story of a kid named Alsino, who dreams of flying and jumps from a tall tree. This storyline is filled with a somber account of the Sandinista revolution in its effort to undermine the Somoza dictatorship, which presents a sharp contrast (seemingly) to the dreamlike pursuits of Alsino.
Having been produced during the height of the “democratization of the arts” policy of the Sandinista government , the movie occasionally contains typically propagandistic elements. However, close examination of its dialectic structure reveals methods that sweep the audience away with the political message.
The movie’s plot is based on Alsino: Novela , a novel by Pedro Prado, a modernist Chilean writer. Both stories share the same initial settings and similar proceeding. But halfway through the story, the movie takes a detour towards the negation of flight and justification of a new regime (Sandinista Government). The extreme polarity of the two stories will ease the observation of relevant elements for analysis. This paper will utilize Lacanian psycho-analytic theories to decipher the foundations laid in the movie to make the Sandinista discourse possible, and social theories from Guy Debord and application of Lacanian theories by Žižek Slavoj to discuss the discourse’s actual body.
It is first necessary to briefly compare Alsino the novel and Alsino and the Condor in order to correlate elements of pre-oedipal scheme in Alsino and the Condor. In Alsino, there is Poli , the younger brother of Alsino. He accompanies Alsino as he jumps from the tall tree and represents the pragmatic personality of both Alsino and himself, for Alsino doesn’t show it at all. However, in Alsino and the Condor, this interdependent relationship is broken by a single stroke. Poli is replaced by Lucia , a neighbor girl who Alsino “has known since he has had memory”. Before analyzing the impact of this difference, let’s distinguish the role of the main character in Alsino the novel versus a classic dialectic for the story of a flying kid, the myth of Icarus. The comparison with Icarus is meaningful insofar that Alsino (from the novel) could be mistaken to be Icarus, the son. In the novel, however, Alsino’s role resembles that of Daedalus the father, and in the movie this relationship shifts again so that Alsino plays the role of Icarus, the son.
Alsino the novel thus inherits important narrative aspects from “Icarus”. The role of Alsino, however, is not that of Icarus, but of his father Daedalus. Daedalus gave Icarus the knowledge of flying, by giving him the wings and telling him not to go too high or too low, since that would make the wings worthless. Alsino gives Poli the knowledge of flying. (He explained to Poli: “Do you see? The big birds will try hard to fly from the ground, but those other birds jump from a tall tree! [We should jump from the tree too!]” ). Daedalus’ only purpose was escaping from Minos and flying to a safe city, but he lost his son Icarus during the attempt. Alsino attempted to jump from a tree and fly like the birds do, but he got a big hump in his back instead.
Notice how the structural relationship of Daedalus with Icarus and Alsino with Poli are parallel to each other. Daedalus instructs Icarus and loses his son during the flight. Alsino also instructs Poli and gets big hump (loses his physical freedom) during the attempt for flight. Alsino is playing the role of Daedalus, and not of Icarus as a first impression might suggest.
It can be said that this correlation between Daedalus and Alsino is inappropriate because while Daedalus deals with Icarus in both cases (gives knowledge to Icarus and then loses him), Alsino deals with Poli and his hump separately. Why should Icarus be split in two in a parallel analogy? But the analogy can be justified by noticing that Icarus represents both a subject and an object to Daedalus. Icarus is a subject insofar as he receives knowledge from his father, but he is an object in that the father mourns the loss of Icarus. A subject cannot be the property of another subject, but an object can be. Hence, the split of Icarus into the subject of Poli and object of hump remains valid. The fact that Alsino’s role resembles that of Daedalus, the father, is important because the Sandinista discourse requires this relationship to be inverted.
Back in the movie, Lucia’s presence raises the question: why was this modification necessary? Lucia is almost an irrelevant character; she disappears in the middle of the movie. And nothing of what she says seems to directly influence Alsino’s actions, except the few scenes at the beginning. Despite this, Lucia is important because she undermines the father role of Alsino in Alsino the novel. She is no longer the receiver of knowledge, but expresses a strong phallic desire with no aim, a typical pre-oedipal characteristic. By expressing a phallic lack in the form of sexual desire, Lucia suggests to Alsino the possibility that he could have had the phallus, and thus fulfill her desire.
Therefore, the role of Lucia as the substitute of Poli is twofold: for one thing, she gives back to Alsino the role of the son by destroying his structural identification with Daedalus; and for the second, she assumes the function of a pre-oedipal mother by expressing a phallic lack. These two functions are the same looked with a different gaze, one from the Other and the second from Alsino.
Three Discourses: Sandinista, Alsino and Lucia
Once the role of Alsino is agreed to be that of the son, and not that of the father, can the Lacanian psycho-analysis be used to study the symbolic order of the movie. Žižek defines the Lacanian unconscious as “the discourse of the Other” . In other words, the Other, the gaze with which we perceive the world and give it signification, speaks its dialectic in an unconscious way. In the movie, this discourse of the Other is manifested through a perversion of the object: a mother substitute.
All forms of discourse can be generalized in the following diagram:
the agent ———> the other
In the Lacanian diagrams of discourse the agent desires the Other, because the Other is “the one supposed to know” the truth. The agent always tries to identify itself with the other, but since the other is not the agent by its definition, it can never be reached or understood. In this tension and endless repetition, a surplus meaning is produced, which is the production, often the source of enjoyment.
Lucia’s discourse is a fundamentally hysteric one. The hysteric discourse is described as “… a certain kind of social bond … The dominant position is occupied by the divided subject, the symptom. This discourse is that which points the way towards knowledge.” The Lacanian diagram for the hysteric discourse is
$ (subject) ——————> S1 (master signifier)
a (enjoyment) S2 (knowledge (savoir))
This structure is illustrated in the scene where Alsino and Lucia watch the birds . She observes that the only reason that a bird must be flying around (which is true), is that it must have found some dead animal around (additional knowledge).
Hence the Lacanian diagram of the hysteric in Lucia’s discourse appears like this:
Lucia (agent/subject) ——————————> sight of birds (other/master signifier)
there are dead animals (truth/enjoyment) birds fly (production/knowledge)
What is Alsino’s discourse towards the flying bird? Alsino doesn’t claim any inference from the sight of the flying bird, but he simply exclaims “Now I know! Now I know!” It should be noted that the original Spanish line reads as “Ya se! Ya se! [literally, Now know! Now know!]” which excludes the subject of the action. Of course this is only possible given the nature of the Spanish language, but it is remarkable to notice that by structuring his exclamation in this shape, Alsino is making a direct reference to the object of desire and source of enjoyment, to the flight. In a certain way, it is the flight that is showing itself to Alsino. This coincides with the analyst’s discourse, which is structured as follows:
a (enjoyment) —> $ (subject)
S2 (knowledge) S1 (master signifier)
For the analyst, he becomes the source of pleasure himself during his discourse, in treating the subject. The master signifier, the quilting point around which everything revolves, becomes a result of his analysis, not its cause. Again, this diagram can be applied to Alsino’s case as the following:
To fly (agent/enjoyment) ——> Alsino (other/subject)
Possibility (truth/knowledge) Sight of birds (production/master signifier)
However, this discourse is fatal to the Sandinista discourse, since it undermines the very core: it negates the existence of the master signifier, since this discourse views the sight of birds as a mere byproduct (the production of the “sight of birds”, a gazing towards the flying birds, is a byproduct in that it is an excess of the signifying process) of the pure act of flying (agent). The master’s discourse, which is the Sandinista discourse, cannot be justified without its basic assumption. This is why the movie needs to modify Alsino’s desire from that of pure flying to that of an impure end (S2, knowledge, for example). But how does Alsino lose the analyst’s desire and make Lucia’s desire his own?
This is where the second function of Lucia, that of the pre-oedipal mother, comes to action. She embodies an object that attracts Alsino and finally enthralls him in her own discourse.
Perverted Object as Mother
Dylan Evans describes the first phase of the Oedipus complex as an identification of the child with the mother’s sense of lack of phallus. The child desires to posses the phallus his mom desires in order to fulfill her. If Alsino can identify Lucia as a pre-oedipal mother, then the chain of second and third phases can happen (he does not complete the third phase of the Oedipus complex, though) and deviate Alsino’s desire from that of pure flight to that of phallic desire.
This is precisely what Lucia does by offering to Alsino her breasts, the first point of identification of the newborn baby. The first contact of the baby with the mother will be an oral one, that of sucking for mother’s milk. Thus the oral drive, the search for something to suck on, constitutes a fundamentally pre-oedipal one. That the kissing shot follows the breast shot is then not arbitrary, since the breast is the partial object of the oral drive, which is erogenously manifested in the lips. In other words, the motherly identification is only complete insofar as Lucia offers to Alsino a complete set of elements constituent of the oral partial drive. Once the aim of the drive is completed, this drive retroactively constitutes the demand on the side of the subject, making it barren.
The second time in the Oedipus complex corresponds to the appearance of the Imaginary Father. The imaginary father “castrates” the mother by refusing to give her access to the phallus and prohibits the subject from approaching the mother. In this process the child looks at the father as a rival for the mother’s desire.
This imaginary father corresponds to the Somoza government. It is the Somoza government that “castrates” the mother (Lucia) by denying her access to the phallus (by killing Lucia’s father, Rodriguez, the possibility for Lucia of getting the real phallus from her father is permanently sealed.) and prohibits Alsino from approaching the mourning mother.
The third time consists in the appearance of the real father, who has the phallus, and does use it against the mother. He does not exchange nor gives his phallus. The son cannot compete with the real phallus, and becomes castrated and at the same time identified with the father, and in this manner gaining the symbolic phallus.
The explanation lies again in the role of Lucia in determining Alsino’s desire. From Lucia’s gaze, or Lucia’s interest, she cannot identify with the discourse of the Somoza government, since it is the Somoza officials who killed her father, taking out the possibility of having a Real Phallus. Given that the university discourse of Somoza and the master’s discourse of Sandinista are antinomical dialects, she opts for the Sandinista discourse . It must be reminded that Alsino’s desire at this point is already one with that of Lucia’s. Therefore, Alsino will repudiate the Somoza government and consider the Sandinista as his Real Father, the owner of the Real Phallus and the person with which he identifies.
Where is the fourth discourse?
The discourse of the Sandinista government (as impermeated through the Nicaraguan Institute of Film) and that of the Somoza army (El Condor) are fundamentally the same. “Don’t climb trees” advices Frank, a Somoza army official (and thus embodying the discourse as well), to Alsino, “Study hard, and maybe you will go to a university at my country and become a soldier; if you belong to the army, you might fly a helicopter, just like me”. This is the discourse of the university.
S2 (knowledge) ———> a (enjoyment)
S1 (master signifier) $ (subject)
The above is the diagram of the discourse of the university, and below follows the actual elements applied in the structure.
To study (agent/knowledge) ————————> How to fly? (other/enjoyment)
To become a soldier (truth/master signifier) student (production/subject)
This should be the fourth discourse, but in the movie, there are no four discourses competing one against each other, there are only three! Where is the fourth discourse? Which is the fourth discourse?
The fourth discourse is that of the analyst. The discourse of pure desire for flight, manifested precariously by Alsino, is ignored purposefully in the movie to allow room for an bipartite dispute between the university discourse and the master’s discourse. The analyst’s discourse can be safely ignored because, of course, Alsino’s desire is already a replicate of Lucia’s desire.
The discourse of university might safely cover the inconsistency of the real with an arbitrary knowledge, but “behind the semblance of the neutral ‘knowledge’ (..) we can always locate the gesture of the master ”. Fundamentally the university discourse is a variation of the master’s discourse, it is in fact the same in that they both reject the possibility of pure enjoyment being the agent of the discourse. The categorical refusal of the Somoza officials towards human flight is not different from the mocking smile Alsino sees in he young rebels when he tells the story of his falling from the tree that led to his back injury.
The Choice of Identity over the Law
Towards the end of the film, the internal contradictions of the Somoza discourse will be exposed one by one, non-coercively coercing Alsino (and possibly the audience) to enlist under the opposite band. The ridiculous notion of a curfew in a rural area, the life of Don Nazarino, a man who believes he is free from the Other by obeying the rules of the Other (he claims that the birds he sells will bring back congenial love to women, which he doesn’t believe, while declaring that “He is a man of Law” when crossing with soldiers) and finally showing the pathetic doom of the Somoza discourse after the real it relies on is disrupted.
The final scene is a show of Somoza power through bombers, helicopters and big explosions. What should be noticed, though, is that this is really the power of Sandinista discourse, not Somoza. The big explosions don’t influence the rebels, who hide in the forest, but only makes the residing troops run from the camp. The helicopter has come to survey the area, only to be blown up with a bazooka. The lack of communication between the major and the headquarters (he yells to the evacuating soldiers, “How can nobody by in charge? Somebody should be in charge!”) is contrasted with the Sandinista cohesion. (i.e. the last scene where groups of red flags gather together) The purpose of the scene (as well as the other one where Alsino visits the rebel camp and watches several engineers fix guns and cannons, that is, laboring and producing utilities) is to show a Sandinista power that stems from human labor and in this way justifies its own reproduction.
After the university discourse of the Somoza government is in this manner negated, can the identification of Alsino’s desire with the Sandinista discourse of the master take place. In a sense, the whole diegetical setting of the movie was intended for this step to happen.
First, by claiming that “we all are called Manuel” (Manuel stems from Immanuel, that is, Immanuel is defined as the negation of Manuel ), the Sandinista youth is making a very subtle move in which the thing-in-itself is not in itself, it is in themselves. In Latin American idiosyncrasy, the thing exists inside the name of the thing itself. Thus, it is the name itself that will ultimately define the fate of the characters of the tragedy.
This gaze will be the one Alsino will ultimately end up adopting. He joyfully declares, “My name is… [not Alsino, but] Manuel” and shows his rifle. By turning from the name without meaning “Alsino” to an essentially secularized version of the religious Savior, Alsino-Manuel is integrating himself into the nonsubjective network of the Sandinista discourse. Who is not the Savior is not outside of them, he is in themselves. Debord writes “The Spectacle… it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” . The rifle is then the image that mediates between the rebels and Alsino. By accepting the spectacle (That which says that “we” -Sandinista rebels- are more powerful than “they” – the Somoza government are.) and a prophetic mediation (the rifle and the name “Manuel”) Alsino is absorbed by the symbolic order. Alsino will gain a group-based identity, at the cost of renouncing the quest of flight, of not destroying the divine Law.
Alsino’s ideological leaning to a group identity begins much earlier, however. After he jumps from the tree and injures his back, he starts hearing certain “sounds” that nobody else can hear. The lady who disappears, or “the voice without bearer, which cannot be attributed to any subject and thus hovers in some indefinite interspace” turns out to be the sound effect when several farmers are killed brutally by soldiers in the jungle. The psychotic interpretation of this is that “he is not duped by the symbolic order,” and thus he is receiving a knowledge of the real (just as real is the massacre in the next shot). Žižek points out that this process, identified by Lacan as “’the inmixing of subjects,’ of the moment when the subjects lose their individuality by being reduced to little wheels in a nonsubjective machinery,” which in our case corresponds to Alsino, a kid who lost his drive for flying and became part of a nonsubjective, quasi-ideological machine of “revolution”, corresponds to the reincorporation to the Other (“this machine is of course synonymous with the symbolic order”), an Other he tried in vain to escape from.
This interpretation is true in that the people are actually being killed, but turns out to be false in that the decision of Alsino to choose the identity over the breaking of the Law has nothing to do at all with this fact, that other people are being killed. Simply, he does not have a duty to not fly and join the revolution because Somoza is killing people.
However, this final montage of Oedipal drive taking the concrete form of a political ideology is breathtaking in that there seems to be a cunning reason that guided the story to this end. It is the force of the reciprocal contribution of psychological and ideological constructions in arriving at the desired conclusion of the Sandinista discourse, given the insertion of the artifact, Lucia. The work of this paper consists in identifying and analyzing the elements and results of this ideological construction embodied by the movie.
Alsino and the Condor. Dir. Miguel Littin. Ed. Miriam Talavera. Perf. Alan Esquivel, Dean Stockwell. Videocassette. (VHS) (89 min) Beverly Hills, CA: Pacific Arts Video, 1986.
Canby, Vincent. “Film: Chilean Exile’s Political Work” The New York Times 1 May 1983 p.69
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.
Dussel, Enrique. A History of the Church in Latin America. Trans. Alan Neely. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.
Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996
Freud, Sigmund. “Totem and Taboo and Other Works”, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 13. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1958.
Gomez, Guido. Elsevier’s Concise Spanish Etymological Dictionary. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1985
Lacan, Jacques. Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Allain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton & Co., 1978
Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books, 1993
Prado, Pedro. Alsino: Novela 9th ed. Santiago: Nascimiento, 1968.
Terry, Edward D. “Aesthetics in Chile” Latin American Research Review 18.3 (1983): 255-260
Torres-Ríoseco Arturo. “La Novela Chilena Contemporánea” Journal of Inter-American Studies 4.3 (October 1962): 503-516
White, Steven. Culture & Politics in Nicaragua: Testimonies of Poets and Writers. New York: Lumen Books, 1986.
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: October Books, 2000.
—. Enjoy your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. London: Routledge, 1992
—. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989
Alsino and the Condor. Dir. Miguel Littin. Ed. Miriam Talavera. Perf. Alan Esquivel, Dean Stockwell. Videocassette. (VHS) (89 min) Beverly Hills, Pacific Arts Video, 1986
Canby, Vincent. “Film: Chilean Exile’s Political Work” The New York Times 1 May 1983 p.69
White, Steven. Culture & Politics in Nicaragua: Testimonies of Poets and Writers. New York:
Lumen Books, 1986. p.4
Prado, Pedro. Alsino: Novela. 9th ed. Santiago: Nascimiento, 1968.
Terry, Edward D. “Aesthetics in Chile” Latin American Research Review 18.3 (1983): 255-260 p.257
In Prado’s novel, Poli is Alsino’s younger brother and companion to his adventurous jumping from the tree.
Lucia is introduced in the very beginning of the movie and is the daughter of Manuel and Rosario Salazar.
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books, 1993. p.254-258), Icarus is the story of the son of Daedalus, a crafty engineer. Daedalus built wings to escape from Minos, king of Crete, whose rage was upon him because Daedalus failed to accomplish his demands. Daedalus was aware that the wings were fragile and warned and watched Icarus. During flight, while Daedalus was distracted, Icarus flew too high up and fell to the sea, dying.
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: October Books, 2000. p.130
Alsino and the Condor. In this scene Alsino and Lucia gather at the prairie and watch a black bird descend from a tree to the ground. Lucia comments “It must be a dead animal [That bird must be flying after the dead animal]”. And then the camera traces their gaze following the bird who flies low over the ground. After a while, Alsino exclaims “Now I know! Now I know!”, he takes her hand and they run to a big tree and climb it with the intention of jumping from it.
Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996. p.128
Alsino and the Condor. In the first minutes of the movie, there are a few awkward minutes where a relationship resembling incest is given between Lucia and Alsino. Lucia asks him to touch her breasts, and then comments “You have the face of a child, but hands of an adult”. This description of Alsino’s hand, again, fits into the description of the pre-oedipal phase where the child desires to posses the Imaginary Phallus, in this case fetishised in his hand. Notice that it is not the child, Alsino, who initiates the identification, but is the mother, Lucia, who invites the child to desire fulfilling her desire by suggesting that the fetishised hand feels like that of an adult (a Real Phallus).
Alsino and the Condor. However, this scene as such is never shown on screen. This scene is not necessary for the argument of the Sandinista discourse, whose interest is to attract Alsino, with whom the audience might begin to feel identified with. The movie hints of such event, however, in that Lucia’s mother brings her
Žižek, Looking Awry. p.131
Alsino and the Condor. In previous scenes, the headquarters have ordered the bombardment of the camp, since it is so hard to find the rebels hiding in the jungle.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1995. p.18 Art.23
Gómez,, Guido. Elsevier’s Concise Spanish Etymological Dictionary. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1985 p.334
Alsino and the Condor
Debord, p.12 Art.4
Žižek, Looking Awry. p.126
Žižek, Looking Awry. p.79
Žižek, Enjoy your Symptom!, p.19