Los conductos is a swirling, cryptic journey into a hellish Medellín night

Camilo Restrepo’s stunning debut mixes up myth, fantasy and contemporary Colombian social reality to potent effect.

Los conductos (2020)

Los conductos is streaming on Mubi.

Anyone reading the synopsis of Los conductos may immediately guess that this Colombian feature is a grade-A head-scratcher. It takes effort, and licence, to piece together a coherent narrative from the information provided during its hallucinatory 71 minutes. One runs the risk of distorting Los conductos by imposing on it anything like a conventional shape, although one version of that would be: a victim of deprivation and social exclusion had joined a religious cult that gave him a sense of community, but has since liberated himself from its oppressions and criminal temptations.

The logic of Camilo Restrepo’s concise first feature emerges partly from a series of backstories narrated to us in voiceover. But, while the film derives a tantalising richness from its various opacities, conversely it may help to have access to some of the background information that Restrepo has revealed in interviews. For example, the characters Nut and Baby (Tuerquita and Bebé in Spanish) were actual figures on Colombian television, while the outlaw known as Revenge (‘Desquite’) is an allusion to a real bandit, active in Colombia in the 1950s, who enjoyed something of a Robin Hood reputation. Most importantly, protagonist and intermittent narrator Pinky – named in the credits but not in the film itself – is played by Luis Felipe ‘Pinky’ Lozano, here enacting a fantasy version of his own experience as a social outcast and former cult member.

Lozano told Restrepo that he still wished to kill his cult’s leader; the director says he offered him the chance to do just that, in fictional form. So we can assume that the person Pinky shoots at the start of the film is indeed the figure known as ‘the Father’, who is never seen except in the closeup of a bloody bullet-hole. Then, at the end of Los conductos, Pinky announces his intention to kill ‘the Father’: part and parcel of the film’s non-linearity, with events happening not in sequence but in jigsaw fragmentation, repeating or appearing to occur in parallel.

Los conductos (2020)

Timelines, spaces, identities remain indeterminate. Most perplexing are the doublings that run throughout. Not only is Pinky the protagonist a fictional version of the actor who plays him, but he is mirrored by his clown alter ego Nut, while Nut’s brother Baby is played by the same actor as Pinky’s criminal associate Revenge – himself a reincarnation, of the 50s outlaw. Individual images too are doubled: twin Pinkies dance, side by side but out of synch, on a drug high. In one sequence, Pinkie’s voice is overdubbed, effectively split into two; in another, he and Revenge speak the same words in chorus (the latter is voiced by Restrepo himself).

Los conductos resonates as a richly complex adventure in the poetic dimensions of film language, rooted in a highly specific network of social realities and cultural allusions. Edited by Restrepo and shot in 16mm by Guillaume Mazloum, the film revels in an aggressively disorienting style, with confrontational use of frontal images from the outset: Pinky’s sometimes unreadable but consistently magnetic stare to camera (his heavy beard makes him both piratical and Christ-like), or a motorbike headlight seen head on, variously echoed by images of the moon and the sun (in a largely nocturnal film that only grants us daylight 20 minutes before the end).

The opening sequence sets the tone: the initial killing and the theft of a motorbike are sketched in an abrupt series of shots that obscure as much as they show, in sharply geometric arrangements of light and dense shadow. This telegraphic visual shorthand lies halfway between minimalist comic strip and Robert Bresson; the nearest equivalent in recent cinema is surely the 2019 British film Bait.

Beneath Pinky’s story lie levels of myth and apocalyptic cosmology. There is the fantasy derived from the routine of TV clowns Nut and Baby and their father Bolt, who would peer into the holes in Colombian roads as satirical commentary on national corruption. They imagined cars falling into the holes, then travelling the roads of a parallel, subterranean world – these holes and roads being one possible version of the ‘conductos’ (conduits, channels) of the title.

Los conductos (2020)

The other myth expanded on involves a different underworld. Hell is evoked by the real flames of a factory furnace, and by imaginary ones, a fire motif silk-screened on fabric, printed in a workshop that is twin to the T-shirt factory where Pinky works. In this (possibly imaginary) place, male workers prepare bolts of cloth in a red and yellow flame pattern, seen cascading in an endless flow in front of the camera (this predominantly male film is also heavily homoerotic, making the most of naked torsos).

The Hell motif also relates to a story Revenge tells, about the Devil revealing the world’s true nature by peeling the roofs off a city’s houses. In a striking version of this Devil’s-eye-view, the city’s lights at night, seen from above, are gradually extinguished, possibly as a result of the activity of the army of bandits that Revenge talks about. Their theft of the city’s copper wires plunges Medellín into darkness, retribution for its evils. But it is also related to a redemptive epiphany. The ball of copper that Pinky steals is echoed by the blazing sun seen at the very end, and by a coloured globe that Pinky tosses euphorically in the final parade scene. Fire, Pinky muses off-screen in his gentle, ruminative tones, is key to the theme of redemption and re-creation. He evokes “a magma in which matter loses its shape to be regenerated… components fuse together to produce new matter from the old”. The result will be a state of total, universal indeterminacy, “without one thing signifying another or being a memory of another life. Nothing more than white light.”

The film might seem to lay its cards on the table with a caption showing Gonzalo Arango’s 1958 poem ‘Elegy to Revenge’ (ie, the bandit of that name, although it demands to be read metaphorically too) which contains the line, “When will Colombia stop killing her sons?” But to sum up Los conductos as a statement, however complex, of that theme would be to reduce its power massively. The realities of Colombia and its people run through the film, irreducibly so, but fused and regenerated into something mysteriously Other in the intense heat of Restrepo’s singular poetic imagination.

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