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Trujillo: The Most Insane Dictator

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

I had thought it was practically impossible to bring to the screen The Feast of the Goat, the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa that was published in 2000 with extraordinary success. I was wrong. First at the Berlin International Film Festival and later in Madrid, a fine movie version was shown, scripted and performed in English and directed by Peruvian Luis Llosa, the novelist's brother-in-law and cousin.

Luis Llosa is an experienced filmmaker, renowned throughout Latin America for his TV novelas (soap operas) and in Hollywood for two adventure films that did well at the box office: The Specialist, with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone; and Anaconda, with Jennifer Lopez.

The performances in The Feast of the Goat were by a basically European cast: Isabella Rosellini; Tomás Milián, a Cuban Italian trained at the Actors Studio in New York City; a splendid Stephanie Leonidas; and Paul Freeman, a fine British character actor capable of conveying with a few gestures all the infamy, ambiguity and pain of a father who delivers his teenage daughter to the elderly dictator so he can deflower her in exchange for reinstating the father's political privileges.

Llosa's film tells two perfectly dovetailed stories, those of the dishonored girl and the conspiracy to kill Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo, assassinated on May 30, 1961, by a group of former government supporters who had turned against The Goat, one of the nicknames the people gave the despotic general.

Aside from the anecdotes threaded through the plot, something even more important shows through in the film: the atmosphere of terror, sycophancy and savagery that pervaded Dominican society during three interminable decades of horror and degradation.

Trujillo was the most monstrous, arbitrary and colorful member of the long chain of dictators that Latin America has endured. He rescinded the name of the oldest city in the Americas, Santo Domingo, and renamed it Ciudad Trujillo. At ceremonies, he wore a plumed bicorn on his head and a thousand fanciful medals on his chest.

He had his enemies killed and dismembered and threw their remains to his sharks -- he maintained a shark grotto -- or ferocious dogs. He bedded any woman he wanted, whether she was the wife of an aide or the daughter of a peasant. He appointed one of his sons to the post of army colonel when the boy was 7. He made him a general when the boy was 10.

Trujillo ordered his people to call him First Teacher, First Doctor, First Journalist of the Republic and the Homeland's Benefactor. He assumed the titles of Genius of Peace, Protector of All Workers, Savior of the Homeland and Undefeated Generalissimo of the Dominican Armies.

He organized campaigns to secure the Nobel Peace Prize for himself and the Literature Prize for his wife, a pretentious woman who so loved the opera Aida that she named her sons Ramfis (the precocious colonel) and Rhadames.

The world created by this psychopath likely had no equal in Latin America. Neither Fidel Castro with his dwarf cows, his 10,000 victims, his street-fair histrionics and eight-hour speeches; or José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the Supreme, the Paraguayan who in the early 19th century kidnapped his country and isolated it from the rest of the world for 26 years; or the irresponsible Antonio López de Santa Anna, the man who lost Texas, the Mexican dictator who ordered the burial with military honors of a leg severed in combat that wasn't even his -- none of them compares in ridiculousness, cruelty and wickedness to the Dominican Trujillo, the architect of the most insane and terrible dictatorship of all that have afflicted the region.

Features of madness

It was precisely that criminal unrestraint that became the major challenge for the moviemakers. Would it be credible to show Trujillo publicly humiliating one of his military chiefs with a detailed account of the sexual pleasure that the man's wife gave him? Tomás Milián makes it look credible. He manages to make the character believable, the same way Marlon Brando brought to life the mad colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Hinting at the features of madness was not enough. It was necessary to show them without restraint, even exaggerating them, because there is no other way to encapsulate in four scenes and barely 120 minutes all the horror and perversion of a brutal tragedy that lasted 30 years and debased almost all of society throughout that period.

When the theater lights go back on, the appalled spectators leave in silence, heads bowed. I think they've understood.

©2006 Firmas Press

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 Carlos Alberto Montaner
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