Captain Pantoja and instrumental rationality: a feminist critique

(On the occasion of the International Day of Women, March 8th)
By Eugenia Demuro
This text represents the views of the individual author, and not of ANCLAS

On 28 of February 2013, ANCLAS, along with the Embassy of the Republic of Peru, screened the first film of the Peruvian Film Festival. The Festival was organised to commemorate 50 years of Diplomatic Relations between Australia and Peru. The film screened was Lombardi’s Captain Pantoja and The Special Services (Pantaleón y las visitadoras, 2000), based on the homologous novel by the Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.  I must admit that I have not read Vargas Llosa’s novel and therefore will limit my reflections to Lombardi’s film. These reflections, however, also serve as a platform to think about the role of art, and more precisely, to think about art as representative of a particular reality. Second, and no less important, is the question about by whom, and for whom, does a particular representation speak to. I am in this way grateful to the efforts of ANCLAS, and of the Embassy of Peru, for providing a context to engage these questions.

The film tells the story of a ‘straight-laced’ captain of Peru’s army, Pantaleón Pantoja, who is given the task of putting together a force of sex-workers, las visitadoras (or the special service) to ‘service’ the military posts stationed within the Amazonian jungle. Part comedy, and part drama, the story follows the precise militaristic approach of Captain Pantoja as he executes the task given. The film reaches moments of high irony and absurdity as a result of the quantitative and precise management of Captain Pantoja in his endeavour to fulfil the high demand of sexual encounters (or renditions, as termed in the film).

The film’s success rests on carrying out, principally and convincingly, a critique of the Peruvian Military, including some of its key organisational structures such as authority, efficiency ‘at all costs and under all circumstances’ and Machismo. Even when this is so, as I will argue here, the film’s critique is still carried out within a male-centric optic. To be blunt, the film is based, exclusively, on a patriarchal and sexist representation of women. The two options of female identities available to the female viewer are either as a saint (as in the case of the Captain’s wife, a ‘decent’ woman), or as sex-workers, whose only concern is to provide sexual gratification to men, at a price. There is a complete omission of the female experience, of the problematic of becoming a visitadora and working within a corrupt, male-dominated environment. There is no treatment of the motives, frustrations and aspirations of women as full-fledged social actors who possess agency.

I’ve asked myself several times if I am not simply reacting to the very element that the film is attempting to critique, that is, the patriarchal structure of the military, the hypocritical approach to prostitution, and the idea that women’s roles function exclusively (in the film) to service men. I’ve pondered, as well, on whether this is the actual critique that the film enacts. This is the point where, for me at least, we need to be critical of the text itself, or at least to posit the question: at what point does the critique of sexism become the reification of sexist practices through representation? What I am trying to get at is that a radical critique actually requires embodiment and performance. The critique of the military, for example, is embodied in the character of Pantoja himself, and accordingly, it is ‘performed’ throughout the entirety of the film in his detailed approach to making the sex-industry efficient and ‘militaristic’. In fact, the final note of the film, sees Pantoja (and his wife) stationed in a remote desert, where Pantoja applies his characteristic rationalising principle to a literacy program he’s been given command of. The critique of military authority and efficiency, and its reductionist logic, is thus embodied in the main character of the film. In the case of the critique to patriarchal and sexist attitudes within the military, however, there is no female character that embodies or performs resistance in any critical way. Women are mere by-products or bystanders in the culture of the military, and not just that, they are very ‘attractive’, naked, and ‘willing’ participants. If the film Captain Pantoja and The Special Services is in fact a critique, it is a critique from a male-oriented perspective, where women (and their needs, aspirations, motivations, etc.) continue to be consigned to a second plane. The film proves lacking in its capacity to give any kind of visibility to the agency of women, that is: to the representation of women as actors within a social, cultural and historical context. The only point at which the female characters take a stand is towards the film’s end, as they are attacked, and at risk of being raped by the ‘local native’ populations who also want their sexual ‘needs’ to be met. I will leave to one side the representation of the ‘natives’, although this is another completely problematic representation. If the women only react when they are under the threat of rape and violence, what does it say about them? And what does it say about the women’s attitudes towards the sexist environment in which they are contained? Does this in any way diminish the film’s critical acclaims?

While I appreciate, and share, the critique of the military, as a woman (and as a Latin American woman) I cannot find, in this film, a female character with which to identify. I am therefore forced, if I am to engage the film’s critical message, to assume a sexist male-oriented optic. Any film that demands this of its female viewers cannot be considered as a radical appraisal of a reality. This is where the force of the critique to militaristic practices, and to instrumental rationality, comes to a halting stop. The film is a critique from within a naturalised male perspective, what it lacks, is any true account of the female experience.

1 Comment

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One response to “Captain Pantoja and instrumental rationality: a feminist critique

  1. Cusco smiles

    And we should assume that a female-oriented optic is never a sexist one, should we not? XD;

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