Film Review: “Power and Impotence” — A Cold Look at a Hot Story

Divided into three acts and an epilogue, the film attempts to generate Shakespearean resonances, but the presentation is more mundane than tragic.

Power and Impotence: A Tragedy in Three Acts, directed by Anna Recalde Miranda. At the Arlington International Film Festival, Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA, on October 15.

Lonely at the Top: A scene from the documentary "Power & Impotence," screening at the Arlington International Film Festival.

Lonely at the Top: A scene from the documentary “Power and Impotence,” screening at the Arlington International Film Festival.

By Paul Dervis

Anna Recalde Miranda’s documentary (receiving its American premiere) on the rise and fall of democratically elected Paraguayan president and former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo has all the ingredients for a real-life political ‘hot-button’ thriller, yet it treats its controversial subject so dryly that a potentially intriguing tale of poor versus rich eventually becomes monotonous.

Divided into three acts and an epilogue, the film attempts to generate Shakespearean resonances, but the presentation is more mundane than tragic.

Act One: Lugo’s rise to power. Early in the film, Lugo himself acknowledges how unprepared he was to oversee a government, particularly given the chaotic Paraguayan political structure. Paraguay had been under control of the Colorado Party for 60 years, 35 of those years under the military dictatorship of President Alfredo Stroessner. In fact, from 1947 until 1962, it was illegal to be a member of a political party other than Colorado. Many members of the new regime had, in fact, spent a lot of time in prison as political enemies of the old order.

Lugo had run on a platform of land distribution. Decades earlier, many of the country’s working class had lost their land—with the aid of corrupt members of the government—to soy plantation barons, multinational corporations, and drug lords. Yet Lugo was not able to make his promises of redistribution a reality, and he quickly began losing his base of support. To further complicate his tenure, Paraguay’s Parliament was still under the control of his power brokers who stymied his every move.

Act Two: Lugo’s health crisis. Two years into his term, Lugo was diagnosed with cancer and needed to leave the country for treatment in Brazil. He turned over the government to his vice president, a man who turned out to be anything but a staunch supporter.

Soon, rumors were flying that Lugo was dying, and the wheels of power crashed to a halt. On Lugo’s return it was clear that whatever momentum toward reform that he had begun was now crippled. The “Landless” (the term given to farmers who had lost their land under the past administration) were now abandoning the president in droves. One worker interviewed claims that nothing had changed concerning their plight: All that was accomplished was that the farmers now had a right to speak up about the country’s inequity. The table is set for the climax.

Act Three: Impeachment. By 2012, a core of the “Landless” had organized itself into a militant group. The press and the Colorado Party suggested that this faction was not only violent, but that Lugo himself was a supporter. Then, on June 15, 2012, there was a clash between the police and a group of poor farmers and 17 people died.

The violence was seized on by the Senate as an opportunity to get rid of Lugo. The members voted 39 to 4 to impeach him. Federico Franco, leader of the Liberal Party, took control. All of Paraguay’s Latin American counterparts saw this action as a coup d’état.

Epilogue: In an ironic twist, one year later, Lugo returned to a seat in government. He was elected a senator, becoming part of the same body that tossed him out of office.

If all of this sounds like a realpolitik documentary that should be filled with intense drama…well, it doesn’t turn out that way.

So much of the footage is merely of planes flying and suits walking into buildings that it makes one wonder where all the confrontations went…on the cutting room floor? Also, there were several silly images of newspapers twirling around before stopping so we can focus on a salacious headline. There is far too much of this kind of hackneyed ‘Front Page’ dramatics. And Power and Impotence is loaded with footage of routine news reports that are anything but powerful.

Even the cinematography is pedestrian. We see the poor in the streets of the city. We see the farmers hanging around waiting for Lugo to appear. Many of these shots last far too long—they contribute nothing aside from eating up screen time.

On top of this, Lugo was not a charismatic man. A Shakespearean figure he is not.

This film is being paired with a Spanish short, Juan and the Cloud. It is 15-minute piece that looks at the relationship between a friendless young boy and a solitary cloud. Action fans will be disappointed.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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