A Constant Choice
“Last night it snowed again,” says Gustavo Proto. “I don’t know if I can take another winter. Sometimes I feel so lonely, like I can only see myself. I pray to God to release me from this weight.” As Gustavo speaks, the camera in EL Huaso looks out on the streets of Toronto, the palette gray, the traffic endless. It’s a view familiar to Gustavo, though the context here—a drive to Gustavo’s doctor’s office—makes the grey seem more pronounced, the season’s onset more chilling.
Gustavo is from Chile, his son Carlo explains in his own voiceover. There he spent his boyhood as a huaso, a cowboy, long hours in the hot sun, riding horses on the dusty, hard, brown ground. Carlo’s film can’t show these moments exactly, as no one filmed his father back then. Still, it emphasizes the differences between worlds, between heat and cold, youth and age, a recollected past and an unknown future. The long gray streets and tall gray buildings frame Gustavo as he walks to and from his car, as he drives to and from the doctor’s. The doctor notes briefly his history of anxiety and his occasional memory loss; they’re testing now for signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicted Gustavo’s mother. “She took her last breath in my arms,” he recalls in voiceover, while he watches his young grandson Daniel, laughing and making snow angels.
This sort of contrast structures the essential question in El Huaso. As Gustavo reflects on his past and worries over his future, so too does Carlo. Both are sons who feel the weight of their fathers’ losses. A filmmaker by trade, Carlo takes up his dilemma with his camera, riding along in Gustavo’s car as he calls home because he’s forgotten what exit to take in order to pick up Daniel from school, and also recording himself in his therapist’s office, sorting through his own ponders the effects of his father’s depression on himself and, he notes painfully, his own children. Each of these compositions seem simple and different from one another: Gustavo looking out on the road ahead, Carlo gazing at his therapist, one in close profile, the other in a medium shot, his figure tense, the chair inevitably uncomfortable. But the images are linked as well, as the men express fear and guilt, determination and confusion. Neither feels able to help the other, but neither can he let go, reject or dismiss the loss in process.
Their mutual concerns shape their family’s interactions, increasingly distressed, wanting to assuage Gustavo’s anxieties but unable to make promises. Gustavo’s wife Ana prepares her husband’s breakfast and sends him out into each day, and still, at home she frets, uncertain what that day might bring. During family discussions, sometimes including Gustavo, sometimes not, Carlo’s sister Paulina makes the point that it is, after all, their father’s decision, whether he will kill himself or not. They nod in agreement, but the children remember too that, as much as Gustavo now cites the possibility of Alzheimer’s as the reason for his current focus on this solution, he spoke of suicide when they were younger too. Carlos’ memories are especially acute, as Gustavo warned him he meant to kill himself, when Carlos was just a boy. “You thought about committing suicide when I was 13 years old,” he says, “It’s not because of your disease.”
Sitting in Gustavo’s car, the two men look confined, the windshield framing their taut faces as they look away from one another, ever uncertain, seeking assurance. Such images don’t lead to resolution in El Huaso. As much as the men discuss their needs and expectations, neither father nor son can extract a satisfying answer from the other. If they see themselves in one another, they also seek not to, their pasts shared and their futures diverging. When his father doesn’t remember speaking of suicide when Carlo was young, the son is caught up in another crisis: “Sometimes,” he tells his sister, “when dad denies that stuff, it makes me feel kind of crazy, it makes me feel like that shit didn’t even happen.”
Each believes his past shapes his future, even as he s his present, tries to sort it in connection to the other. El Huaso underscores these connections even as it exposes the impossibility of reconciling them. Gustavo continues to contemplate an end. “Nothing in life is as certain as death,” he asserts, “Taking your own life is a natural death, it can present itself in different ways.” The poetry of his formulation is at once harrowing and logical, and Carlo is hard pressed to argue with him, even as he voices his longstanding resentment and frustration. “It’s a constant choice,” says Gustavo, even if suicide also can seem like fate. And this is the ultimate tension that the film won’t resolve, whether lives are matters of choices or fates. The end seems too clear and yet utterly unknowable.