I read this film as an anatomy of the artist’s ego. From the opening ceremony to his panic flight from his home town Daniel Mantovani is a completely self-absorbed and destructive figure. Whether the resultant novels balance the scales is an unanswerable question. But the question stands: How far can art go to excuse the artist from the criteria for a good human being?
Daniel starts in the catbird seat — receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature — but in an aggressively disrespectful manner. He eschews the tuxedo, refuses to bow to the presiding royals and declares that he will now cease writing because that very award suggests he has not been upsetting enough to the literary world. He stands silently in front of the stunned audience — until they arise to applaud. As he expected.
He lives in a palatial estate. The massive library curving under his main floor suggests that culture is the foundation of his house, his life. As he proceeds through a litany of refusing invitations and cancelling engagements that anchor seems to weigh him down. Impetuously accepting an immediate visit to his small home town confirms his exclusive self-concern. Distinguished he may well be, but he falls far short on "citizen."
Daniel’s return to the small town which he fled — and refused to return to, even for his father’s funeral — is into the lion’s den. What begins as the town’s fulsome celebration of their world-famous escapee turns into their vicious rejection. His succession of car breakdowns proves the animosity mutual.
Daniel has been basing his stories on the people and places he remembers from that town, Salas. We see it as a dismal, empty, pedestrian community that shrinks further in its every pretension to honour him: the windy mayor, the honorary citizen medal, the volunteer fire department, the vapid beauty queen. On the spectrum of classical music it’s a Mantovani.
Whatever his reason for returning there, Daniel refuses to respect the town and its people. He’s courteous to the man who invites him home for lunch. But the request to fund a young man’s $10,000 wheelchair becomes an opportunity for him to lecture the father on the inappropriateness of personal charity.
The disaster begins when Daniel heads a jury selecting works for the community art show. He shows no respect for the community’s needs and responsibilities, rejecting works here for the reasons he might in Buenos Aires or Madrid. He promotes one work for an accidental expressiveness that attests to Daniel’s sophistication not the artist’s. The consequent attack on him spreads from his disrespect for their efforts to his insulting treatment of their people and traditions jn his fiction.
Given the references to Borges and the Latin American setting, we might be primed to expect Magic Realism. The stark colours in the streets, the vulgarity in the Volcano bar, the extravagant characterization may approach that — but the ending cinches it.
Daniel is forcibly taken on a wild pig hunt by his old friend Antonio (who married Daniel’s old girlfriend Irene) and the yob dating their daughter. Still jealous of Irene’s long-held love for Daniel, Antonio takes great pleasure in running him out of town, especially as he fires his rifle at him, narrowly missing. But Daniel is felled by the yob, whose specialty has been defined as efficiently killing the prey their clients miss.
So. Does Daniel die there? Could be. Then the epilogue in which his publisher presents him with his new novel, based on that trip, could be the last story the novelist tells. He’s telling it to himself. His reappearance sans beard lets him live the story he told earlier of the two rival brothers, both doomed to murder.
Or Daniel survives the marksman’s shot, is rushed to a hospital and flown home, where his replay of the adventures we have witnessed turns into his new novel. The scar he reveals could be from that hunt — or some other accident. This ending may be harder to believe. It’s also undercut by the pointlessly loud glasses he wears at the end, implying an exaggeration of vision.
We don’t have to choose between those endings. For the point is that Daniel is compelled to tell stories. To pontificate, as re:the wheelchair. To strike a posture whether dominant or recessive, as when he responds to the young woman’s question about whether an artist needs to suffer in order to create. No, he says now, but she pops up with the proof that he said the reverse elsewhere.
It’s because he has to tell a story that he can’t maintain an ethical responsibility. So he'll abandon the wheelchair denial. He slips into the matinee seduction by that young woman. Indeed he’s on the verge of describing it to friend Antonio when the woman appears — she’s Irene’s and Antonio’s daughter.
Daniel will do anything, on impulse, for the sake of a good story. That’s why he leans over to kiss Irene in her stalled car — as if testing a new (and disastrous) plot-line. He lives to narrate. His roots are in his library not his emotions and relationships. Great artists live by their own standards. That’s how we lesser console ourselves.