“Men Of Hard Skin”
A Dark Abusive Argentinian Story
Teenage Ariel (Wall Javier) lives on a large farm outside of Buenos Aires with his machismo father (Claudio Medina) and older sister (Camila Diez) after his mother had upped and left some years earlier. He’s a major disappointment to his father because he is a quiet sensitive boy who shows no interest at all in helping run the farm.
Ariel prefers to volunteer at the local soup kitchen next to the local Church but that is also because he has been a willing participant in sexual abuse by Omar the Priest (German Tarantino) because he saw their hook-ups as romantic encounters and not as abuse. Omar is actually conflicted about his own sexuality and goes off to a Catholic retreat to try and resolve his feelings. While there he meets an older priest who has just been exposed in his own Parish by the parents of a boy he had regularly abused which seems to confuse him even further.
Ariel is upset when Omar now rejects him and begins paying attention to someone closer to his own age. Julio (Juan Salmieri), a bisexual laborer who works on the family farm. Ariel’s father spots them making out in the barn one day and beats Julio up and then fires him, and then goes off and recruits a young whore to make a man of Ariel.
She, however, is more than glady to take the father’s money and eat a decent meal and go along with Ariel’s request to pretend that she had finally taken his virginity. She also introduces Ariel to the man who really falls in love with him. This dark tale takes on a different angle on the classic pedophile/ priest story in that Ariel was a willing participant and led to believe that their ‘relationship’ went beyond being merely physical. The reality is that this is very sadly typical of these scenarios and that Omar was a serial offender who could somehow combine his religious faith with his complete lack of morals.
The fact that Ariel was torn between the toxic masculinity of his overbearing father and the Priest who both exploited the young boy in different ways had him desperately looking for an outlet for love of any kind as well as some physical affection. This is a compelling dark coming-of-age tale from Argentinian filmmaker Jose Celestino Campusano that has no chance of ending well for any of its central characters. Director Campusano is an Argentinean filmmaker known for a type of brutal realism that often unearths the origins of hidden desires and the energies that influence the nature and workings of the environments of his stories.
The story focuses on Ariel’s troubled and troublesome relationship with two older men: his father who refuses to accept his homosexuality, and Omar, the Catholic priest with whom he has been having a secret love affair. Omar seduced Ariel as a teenager and constantly takes advantage of his innocence and lack of experience with his emotions. But despite the controversial “genesis” of this love affair, we know from the beginning that it is consensual. Indeed, it is only because Ariel sees no future in the relationship that he decides to end it. The decision is painstaking but allows him to take charge of his own sexuality and begin his own exploration of his desires, taking himself out of the shadows that both his father and Omar want to drag him.
The film shines a light on the alternate realities of rural life and the Catholic Church, exposing in the process the structures in place that ensure their legitimation. Despite the daring nature of some of these exposés, such as that of pedophilia and priesthood, all is treated in a matter-of-fact and somewhat detached way. This approach reflects the hushed rebellion that Ariel represents by simply refusing to repress his sexuality in order to fit into the order of things rather than, for instance, being a vocal activist. His is, essentially, a generational struggle and his constant clashes with his father represent the clash between the ways of old generations and the new generation – an old generation defined by gender lines and rituals.
Generational tension traditionally defines coming of age dramas and in a textual sense, “Men of Hard Skin” fits into this particular category. However, it also defies the conventions of this particular genre with a narrative style that is rooted in the present. Events unravel in a naturalistic but surprising way and this allows for a deeper understanding of the struggles lived by the three main characters and the consequences of the choices they make.
“Men of Hard Skin” is a challenging film that portrays a deeper truth of abuse and exploitation; communities often collude in the actions of those deemed to have power. It is a powerful and often uncomfortable exploration of coming of age in a rural community where collusion, masculinity and religion combine to create exploitation and abuse.