Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

El Father Plays Himself is in UK cinemas from 6 August.

Formally, Mo Scarpelli’s El Father Plays Himself – a documentary about the making of Jorge Thielen Armand’s 2020 feature film La fortaleza (Fortitude) – feels quite a straightforward affair. In the tradition of other behind-the-scenes portraits, Scarpelli largely adopts what seems to be a fairly unobtrusive position on set and points her camera at the interesting comings and goings occurring around her. In doing so, Scarpelli captures the typical moments of stress, creativity, and combinations of the two that arise in the heat of production, but what makes El Father Plays Himself a knottier and more intriguing prospect than it might initially appear is its central dynamic, between the erratic lead actor Jorge Roque Thielen (henceforth ‘Roque’), who is playing a fictionalised version of himself, and the director Jorge Thielen Armand, who is his son.

It is difficult, while watching, for the mind not to flit to Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which documented the chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (both films 1982). Both Blank and Scarpelli’s films are set in the Amazon, both are interested in the process of making a film, and both detail a fractious relationship between the director and a ‘difficult’ lead actor.

In both cases, the documentary’s central conceit seems to echo that of the fiction that forms its subject: Blank and Herzog were both attempting to capture the energy, madness and sheer force of will behind an insane endeavour; Scarpelli and Thielen Armand are both probing the latter’s relationship with his father. Roque remained behind when, at the age of 15, Thielen Armand – and, presumably, his mother – left Venezuela; the connection between father and son has clearly been strained by their geographical distance and Roque’s taste for the drink.

El Father Plays Himself (2021)

The concord and conflict between director and actor is something that has regularly provided sufficient drama to power both documentaries like El Father and fictional features, and it doesn’t disappoint here. Thielen Armand knows both the risks and potential rewards of putting his father on screen and has to walk a constant tightrope between on the one hand keeping Roque happy and onside, and on the other enabling his self-destructive behaviour – indeed, at times he encourages it, for the sake of the production. In some moments Roque is forced to swig from a bottle of liquor concealed in his room; in others, he is plied with (hopefully) just the right amount of booze to give an air of authenticity to a scene in which Roque must play drunk. At the other end of the spectrum are moments in which Thielen Armand must sternly impose his vision and demand his father complies, and others in which he seems willing to let his father make decisions – to the shock of crew members. The give and take between the two men, in which recriminations simmer beneath the surface and are never aired as they might be in a drama, is utterly engrossing.

All of this is heightened by the fact that La fortaleza is at least partly based on biographical detail and Roque is reliving moments of his life – utilising a device as old as documentary itself, in which subjects ‘restore behaviour’ by reworking and reperforming past moments and actions. This potentially offers the subject a moment of catharsis, in re-enacting, correcting or exorcising the past. One moment in which Roque is asked to restage some drunken voicemails left for his son on another hemisphere offers a piquant example of this. It also, however, blurs the lines between what is fact and fiction, on set and on our screen as much as in the finished fiction. In one sequence, the lighting of a shot of Roque relaxing is taking a long time to get right and Roque is bored and becoming annoyed. By the time they are ready to shoot, he says he’s done and pointedly motions towards Scarpelli’s camera, suggesting that Mo probably already has what they need.

It is true that Scarpelli’s camerawork is beautiful enough to slot neatly into a feature film. In amongst the action she manages to balance a febrile intimacy – in the moments of high tension – with sumptuous and lyrical compositions. This may perhaps be most evident in her use of the light and landscape of the production’s surroundings, but also in quiet, observational moments in which her two protagonists retreat and reflect. The fact that she remains at arm’s length in these moments, refusing to force the two men into a narratively satisfying conversation, may frustrate some, but seems a perfect approach to their difficult and unknowable bond.