Film Review: 108 (Cuchillo de Palo)

This glowingly effective and intelligently low-key documentary manages to be both a stirring family drama and a valuable depiction of gay life and history in Paraguay.

Filmmaker Renate Costa Perdomo always wondered what really happened to her gay uncle, Rodolfo, who was found dead in his apartment in Asuncion, Paraguay. In 108, named for the negative epithet used for homosexuals which stemmed from the notorious, publicly posted lists of the names of gay men who were arrested and mistreated under the 35-year reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, she leaves her home in Spain and sets out on a kind of familial detective’s quest to discover the truth. Gradually breaking the fearful silence of the past, she seeks out Rodolfo’s friends, who include a pair of feisty transvestites who tear up at his beloved memory, as well as a few men—some still fearing detection—who describe her uncle as a handsome, sensitive and caring soul with an artist’s nature, who had to lead a double life.

Besides the obvious governmental strictures, Rodolfo’s hidden life also sprang from his relationship with his brother, Renate’s father Pedro, who is prominently featured. He’s an anti-homosexual, avowed Christian who actually feels he was defending Rodolfo when he secretly shadowed him and then beat up his gay friends for “defiling” his life. Thus, Renate’s film also becomes a portrait of their strained relationship as, again and again, she tries to reason with her father and make him realize how he contributed to Rodolfo’s destruction. When she ultimately learns of the torture he experienced in jail, including an anal assault with a broken bottle from which he never recovered, she quails at telling her father, who remains convinced that nothing really untoward ever happened to Rodolfo.

Costa Perdomo films this ultimate encounter between father and daughter in an excruciatingly long, yet supremely telling, silent sequence that is incredibly fraught. (You almost want to scream, “Tell him the truth!”) The sequence stands out as the most histrionically loaded in an gentle documentary that manages to be highly political without ever once veering into tiresome or abrasive preachiness.

For all of the oppressive horror it reveals, the film is nevertheless quite lovely, in its methodical peeling away of the camouflage that clouded so many gay lives in the past. There’s a moment in a bar featuring a transvestite beauty pageant which also honors the surviving, crusty veterans of the scene, one of whom tells the director that the transvestites were never bothered by the police. Unlike Rodolfo’s ilk, often comprised of the scions of wealthy families, they had nothing to hide, fear or lose, being already flamboyantly out in the streets.

The complex depth of the evil of homophobia is also revealed when survivors of the Stroessner era recall how it was his own gay son, involved in the scandalous death of a child, who prompted the repressive measures of his father, in an attempt to deflect public interest in the facts of the case. This is but one of many important revelations the film quietly delivers. Its original Spanish title, Cuchillo de Palo, translates as “useless knife,” another gay insult referring to the negligibility of homosexuals who do not, in Pedro Costa’s complacent words, fulfill their manly, Christian duty by marrying women and procreating. Rodolfo Costa’s overwhelmingly sad story is an important one, and I heartily applaud his niece for her determination to tell it.