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Not surprisingly, Handler entered filmmaking in the mid-60s, directing a series of verite-style documentaries about marginalized people. These films were rather contentious in Handler's native Uruguay—he claims to have been harassed for years by government authorities before he left the country around 1970. For a few years he produced television in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile (briefly crossing paths with the young Raul Ruiz) before settling in Venezuela in 1973. He directed or codirected a few movies there before returning to TV production in the 80s, working mainly on political documentaries. Mestizo was the only narrative film he directed in that decade (as well as his last one to date); the confidence and overall authority of the filmmaking suggests the movie had been gestating within him for some time.
The film is an adaptation of the novel El Mestizo José Vargas, whose author, Guillermo Meneses, is considered one of the first modern Venezuelan writers. The hero is the illegitimate son of a white colonial administrator and a black woman who lives in his rural district; the story centers on his struggle to reconcile his split identity upon entering adulthood. Handler introduces this struggle in no subtle terms. Mestizo opens to intense symphonic music and a handheld shot of the administrator, Don Aquiles, beating his black mistress. He's just found out she's carrying his child. Cut to Don Aquiles holding his newborn son on a turbulent beach, crying out at the society the boy's been born into. "Damn mixture of Indians, blacks, whores, and bums!" he says of the native population, defining his son as an embodiment of everything respectable society loathes. The style here is sensationalist with a purpose, illustrating the brutality at the root of the national culture.
Moments later, another hard cut brings us 18 years into the future. Don Aquiles has raised the boy as his own—which is to say, as white—within elite colonial society. José Ramon wants to become a poet, but his father wants him to be "respectable." He gets the boy a job as secretary to a district judge, a Mestizo who has risen to a position of colonial authority. The introduction of the judge is one of the film's most New Wavish moments, a Brechtian tableau about the nature of power. A little man with Trotsky glasses and a thick, well-groomed mustache that conveys desperation to be taken seriously, the judge is a caricature of power. "Human beings must be governed," he recites to José Ramon while pacing his office. "The subconscious, the loss of will, passions which take control of our instincts must be governed by our authority, which is conscious, legitimate, repressive, and corrective." Offscreen, a prisoner howls in pain as interrogators torture him.
Naturally, the judge is impotent—he derives sexual pleasure exclusively from watching other men ravish his beautiful wife. José Ramon soon discovers that a big part of his job is assisting his boss in such a manner. There's a snag to the arrangement, though. The wife, who's white, enjoys the transgression only if her paramours are black. And so, the Mestizo's rise in white society depends on exploiting the parts of his self (black, whore, bum) that his father always wanted to suppress.
In the film's lengthy centerpiece, the judge's wife and three of her girlfriends spend a night on the beach to carry out their extramarital affairs with Mestizo men. (This part of the movie anticipates Ulrich Seidl's recent Paradise: Love in its sexual relationships between privileged white women and underprivileged native men. It arrives at the same discomforting insight: that a society based on exploitation still allows the exploited to experience moments of genuine pleasure, provided they work within the system rather than against it.) José Ramon and the judge's wife have such great sex that he believes she's fallen in love with him. He proposes the next day that she run away with him, but she refuses. To make matters worse, Don Aquiles threatens to disown him when he finds out about the affair. (He's most upset that José Ramon submitted to the desires of that "half-breed judge.")
Disgusted with the hypocrisy of white society, José Ramon leaves town and goes to live with his mother in her beachside village. Predictably he can't relate to any of the poor fishermen in her community, and they in turn view him with suspicion. He discovers that the natives are no more principled than the whites he left behind; his mother freely admits that she built her house and sponsored community projects with the money she earned by sleeping with wealthy white men. Handler foreshadows this revelation in earlier parts of the movie, cutting to shots of José Ramon entering the village when he experiences a rude awakening at home.
Though the source novel was published in 1942, it's hard to tell when Mestizo takes place. Handler makes almost no effort to ground the movie in a particular period, suggesting that its conflicts are timeless. As a result, it doesn't feel particularly like a movie of the 1980s either. Impassioned filmmaking like this has a way of staying young.