Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Secret of the Andes

Secret of the Andes (1999) is a children's movie, which is probably why the director made no effort to make the plot coherent, continuous, or believable. Its unbelievable cheesiness is, alas, not saved by the colourful scenes of Peruvian/Bolivian culture, which are in fact filmed in Argentina. The film begins with a legend being told to a 10-year old girl by an old Andean man. It is about an Inca man who climbed to the top of a mountain and was given a golden disc by God. When this man returned to civilization with the disc, he was made a king. But when the Spaniards came God was angered and split the disc into two. Now, one half of the disc is in a New York City museum, and the other half is being searched for by American archaeologist Brooks Willings in the Andes. Brooks' mischievous daughter Diana and her mother Brenda are living in New York, where Diana is having trouble at school; Diana's psychiatrist Dr. Goldfisch advises Brenda to send Diana to a special boarding school. This "crisis" leads Brenda to call her husband and demand that he return from his excavation but somehow results in Brenda and Diana taking the next flight down to the unspecified Andean country where Brooks' excavation is taking place. Arriving to the town of Jucaitambo, where Brooks is staying with Catholic priest Father Claver, the religious patriarch of the town. Ever since Brooks has arrived, a mysterious plague has been killing all of the townspeople's livestock, which has led him to be extremely unpopular. To fight the plague, the townspeople are participating in nighttime cult meetings led by the town's sorcerer, an evil-looking long-haired man who performs animal sacrifices and is undermining their belief in the Church much to Father Claver's concern.

When Diana and Brenda arrive to Jucaitambo, they visit the excavation site, where Brooks has been largely unsuccessful in finding anything, let alone the half of the golden disc. The excavation's sponsors are threatening to pull the funding for the dig, and the villagers who provide the labour are not showing up because they think Brooks brings evil to their town. Diana's adventurous spirit is highly stimulated in the colourful Andean village, where she makes friends with an alpaca named Bolivia (a hint to where the movie actually takes place?) and Mama Lola, Claver's benevolent housekeeper who plies her with coca tea. She also discovers the sculptor's workshop of "Hombre Grande", Don Benito, a shaman who is teaching his apprentices Lucho and Sancho how to make sculptures lifelike. The trick seems to be playing the cana, the flute, which makes the sculptures magically start moving. Don Benito takes to Diana because she apparently has some kind of magical powers of understanding, confirmed by the her nightmares coinciding with the Sorcerer's nighttime sacrifices and her ability to see the magic sparked by Don Benito's flute. Don Benito tells Diana that her father will never find the golden disc, because "Foreigners seek the wrong treasure. The real treasure is everywhere, but they cannot understand it". Things start to go wrong when Diana's alpaca friend Bolivia contracts the animal plague. That afternoon, the procession of the town's patron saint Timothy results in disaster when Brooks takes his turn to carry the saint's statue and in passing it to Sancho to carry causes the statue to fall and shatter. The villagers take this as an ominous sign and start to curse the American. Father Claver is deeply upset because in a few days, when Carnaval is over, the villagers all go to the church to see the statue of St. Timothy unveiled again; if he is not there, they will lose their faith in the Church and go to the Sorcerer. He brings the statue to Lucho to fix, but he does not think he can fix it before Carnaval is over.

One night, Diana is awoken by a flute music and climbs out her window to find its source, which happens to be at Don Benito's house. There, she asks him to help her find the golden disc for her father. Because she apparently has the right intentions, he agrees to help her. The first step is to lie Diana on the ground and make a circle of corn kernels around her while playing the flute and expecting her to be led to the disc by her inner eye. This ceremony is interrupted by the enraged Brenda, who has been looking for her daughter. Brenda has Don Benito arrested despite Diana's protests. Back at Father Claver's house, Brenda insists that she wants to return to the States, and that she's going to send Diana to the boarding school Dr. Goldfisch suggested. Brooks begs her to stay for a few more days, and she reluctantly agrees. That night is the last night of Carnaval, and St. Timothy's statue is to be unveiled. Father Claver is upset because he thinks it is not ready, but in the last moment Sancho runs into the church and unveils a perfectly intact statue, its source unexplained. All the villagers rejoice. Back to the search for the golden disc, Diana manages to get Don Benito out of jail by asking her father for help; Diana, Don Benito, Lucho, and Sancho go on an expedition to find the golden disc without telling Diana's parents. As they are panicking because their daughter is missing, she and the three Andean men are hiking up into the mountains and making circles of corn while playing the flute and summoning the spirit of the condor to lead them to the golden disc. At one point, Don Benito climbs a hill and disappears into the sun. Lucho, Sancho, and Diana continue their search. A flying condor leads them to a well, where a look into the water points them to a cave, where they find the golden disc. They return to the well, where they find the Sorcerer, who has followed them the entire way. He steals the disc from them and throws it into the well, but the disc magically flies out again. When he looks into the well, the image of his face turns into a devil and he proceeds to be sucked into the well and disappears. Triumphant, Diana and the two boys return to Jucaitambo just as Diana's parents are dispatching a military search for them. The happy ending occurs the following day, when Diana plants the golden disc on her father's archaeological site so that he finds it. With his work done, he can return to New York with Diana and Brenda, taking the golden disc with him.

The "secret" of the Andes that gives the film its title is something mystical which is never explained. It is about seeing things "not with the eye, but with the heart", as Don Benito explains. This is the way to find the golden treasure. The foreigners who try to take the heritage of the local people are driven by greed, and they will never discover the secret; but the innocent young Diana, despite being American, is capable of the spiritual depth that allows her to find the disc. The people of Jucaitambo are in on the secret; their simple ways allow them to see with their hearts. However, they are in some ways too simple, easily manipulated by the crusading ideal of Father Claver on one hand and the nighttime cult of the Sorcerer on the other. The depiction of their celebrations during Carnaval makes them appear silly and primitive; it is implied that without Father Claver they fall into backwards beliefs, like those of the Sorcerer. Don Benito is an example of the spiritual wisdom of the townspeople, a contrast to the superstitious simplicity of the others. His magical flute-playing and his mysticism show a culture that is highly connected with nature, and through nature, with a higher power. His disappearance into the sun on the mountain is reminiscent of the Ascension. Diana's youth enables her to be part of the mystical world of the Andes, while her parents are too old and contaminated with American ideals to ever discover its secret.

The colourful and mystical life of the Andes causes interesting reactions in the extremely culturally retarded Americans. When Brenda is offered coca tea by Mama Lola, she is visibly taken aback, and the terrible acting exaggerates the shock. Brenda finds the life in Jucaitambo unsavoury and dangerous for her young daughter. She is extremely distrustful of the local people; a testament to her complete misunderstanding of the culture is the fact that the only local she likes is the evil Sorcerer, whom she finds good-looking. A visit to the market with Diana results in her buying a tiny pair of wooden llamas for $50 dollars after a pathetic bout of bargaining. Father Claver is another interesting character, a white Spanish-speaking priest in the midst of indigenous Andeans. He cares for the local people, but he is not one of them; he is a man trying to create peace and civilization in a town of chaos, and Brooks is not making it easy for him, driving him to swig from his flask of booze and chain-smoke cigars. Finally, there is Brooks, whose obsession with finding the golden disc and other archaeological artifacts is his only concern in the Andes. This is why he cannot find the disc. Only Diana, a little girl from New York with an open mind and an open heart that eagerly takes in all the facets of the unknown culture of the Andes is able to become a part of it and clear the wall between the two cultures. In the end, however, she gives the golden disc to her unworthy father, which is unexplained.