The discomforts of the body define Alejandro Landes’s Porfirio. From the opening shot, a fixed-take stare-down of the eponymous, obese protagonist (a real-life cause célèbre playing a version of himself) as he slurps the milk in his cereal to graphic sexual acts performed by the same man, Landes and his rarely moving camera are fascinated by Porfirio’s voluptuous corporeality. But it’s when the man, semi-paralyzed in an obliquely alluded to past incident involving a police bullet, strains to move his hairy buttocks, Buddha belly, and spindly legs that Landes’s gaze becomes as cruel as it is enraptured.
Porfirio is an ugly movie to watch, but it’s not without purpose. For as unpleasant as this man’s actions are, as disagreeable as it is watching his son bathe him or a lover ride him, they’re a muddied reflection of the rottenness of a society that presumably left this man both physically and emotionally broken and which refuses to provide sufficient compensatory monetary aid. Reduced to sitting in his wheelchair all day in his hovel selling minutes on a cellphone to passersby, Porfirio is one of Colombian society’s forgotten ones, and his urge to flee his useless body—a desire envisioned as a series of cutaways to achingly blue skies and vocalized by Porfirio’s professed longing to run and to fly—is also a desire to extract revenge on the society that left him in his current state.
Porfirio is defined almost entirely by his corporeality. Landes is content to portray his protagonist as a man with little personality and what little personality he does possess as unpleasant. As Porfirio fills the screen, sometimes quite literally, it’s his body we respond to, and it’s his torso, at once oversize and unmovable, more than any word or action that explains him. Landes isn’t afraid to risk miserablism and exploitation in his physical study of a real-life criminal, but he places this figure against the context of a rural Colombian hellhole and an intractable legal system. The exact relation between the body and the body politic isn’t made clear until the film’s conclusion, but when, right before the end titles roll, the filmmaker fixes his subject in close-up while the latter recites a song outlining his plight, the man and his environment become purposefully and inextricably linked.