Every guy knows someone like Oliverio (Darío Grandinetti), the poet protagonist of Eliseo Subiela’s The Dark Side of the Heart (El Lado Oscuro del Corazón). Young, handsome, utterly self-absorbed. Possessed of a magnetism that makes us shake our heads in disbelief that the girls he takes home and summarily discards are taken in by what the rest of us can plainly see is total bullshit. We hate him, though perhaps not a little because many of us see in him the road not taken, the person we convince ourselves we might have been had we not chosen to grow up.
Oliverio lives the bohemian life in Buenos Aires, living in a tiny garret, offering lines of spontaneous doggerel to passing motorists in exchange for pocket change and paying for meals with hasty poetry the way Picasso used to do with napkin sketches. When he’s not bailing his artist friend Gustavo (André Mélançon) out of jail for displaying his subversive art—there’s a sequence where Oliverio and another friend (Jean Pierre Raguerrez) wheel a nine-foot plaster penis across town on a child’s wagon to sell for bail money—Oliverio is searching for the perfect woman. “I will not tolerate a woman who cannot fly,” he says repeatedly.
As he beds partner after partner, seeking a girl with a suitably poetic soul to satisfy his nebulous criteria, there is no question that Oliverio is a first-class jerk. For a poet, Oliverio is virtually soulless, squandering his talents and opportunities for happiness with blithe disregard. In neither his work nor his romances does he revise or revisit—his search for perfection is predicated on the implication that he himself is already perfect and the rest of the planet needs to get with the program.
Thus possessed of the self-absorption without self-awareness that one usually sees in teenaged boys, Oliverio ranges far afield in his quest, not actually to find love but to make sure he’s got his rap down pat when love finds him, as of course it must. In a sleazy little cabaret in Montevideo, Oliverio lays his poet vibe on Ana (Sandra Ballesteros), who steadfastly refuses to be impressed. For one, she is a prostitute, all business, and two, she is as well read as he is, calling him on the lines he swipes from the poet Mario Benedetti. As Ana fails to fall for his adolescent come-on, Oliverio becomes obsessed with her, thinking perhaps she is the woman who can fly. As we discover, she actually can: when Oliverio’s pursuit erodes her resistance and they make love, she levitates.
Well, maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. Dark Side is firmly entrenched in the Latin American literary tradition of “magical realism,” wherein the story is interwoven with threads of the otherworldly and absurd. Throughout the film, we are given glimpses of Oliverio’s inner life, where he has conversations with a cow that represents his mother, attempts to keep his libido bound and gagged in a closet, and literally dumps his sexual conquests by means of a trap door beneath their side of his bed. Oliverio’s closest companion is Death (Nacha Guevara), but it’s not Bergman’s austere, frightening Death or even Neil Gaiman’s perky punkette Death. Here, Death is Oliverio’s sparring partner, a sardonic harridan who trades barbs with him like an existentialist Alice Kramden.
But even this Death may be one of Oliverio’s self-serving projections—he insults her, wins most of the arguments, and as he falls harder for Ana, Death actually becomes jealous, yet another spurned lover. Peculiar behavior for an incarnated aspect of the infinite, to be sure, but her moodiness serves as a barometer for Oliverio’s progress toward manhood. She and the rest of Oliverio’s illusions appear less frequently as he immerses himself in the three-dimensional world of Ana.
Although Ana falls in love with Oliverio, she stubbornly keeps him at a distance. Subiela depicts her as a child of the revolution, her life shaped, like so many others in Argentina, by hard fortune. She is a widow, her husband having been “disappeared” by Argentina’s former oppressive regime, and a mother who must care for herself and her daughter in the best way she knows how. The coup, she says, made whores of everyone. She still keeps her books of poetry, considered subversive under the old regime, hidden because of course prostitutes do not read. And just as Oliverio has his pat turns of phrase, Ana has one of her own: “Never look at a whore in the daylight.” She fiercely insists upon never being seen as anything other than a prostitute for fear that any other perception of her will shatter her own, and unlike Oliverio’s narcissistic mind-games, Ana’s self-created identity is a means of survival. Having defined herself, allowing anyone to redefine her, even for love, would be calamitous.
Ana is by far the most complex character in the film and its primary saving grace. With its childish protagonist, absurdist touches, personified Death, and a pace like the march to Bataan, Dark Side often comes perilously close to artsy self-parody, but Ana shines through. Ballesteros is a beautiful and textured actress, and though her character is Oliverio’s dream girl, she’s also a compelling mixture of simple joy and deep sadness. Ana’s psyche is a mass of scars, and Subiela and Ballesteros let us see that even when Oliverio doesn’t. Eventually, however, even Oliverio is forced to leave his own head and learn to empathize. In doing so, he comes to realize, as all grownups must, that perfection is not his rightful due, that love will not sit up and beg for him, and that, too often, the woman who can fly only does so to escape.