Bajo la corteza: the unifying fragility of the environment and humankind

Morals and obligations collide in the Argentine Pampas

Man in a smokey forest
PHOTO: Martín Heredia Troncoso

By: Clarence Ndabahwerize, Staff Writer 

Part of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival, Martín Heredia Troncoso’s Bajo la corteza (Under Bark) begins with a raging forest fire in the Argentine province of Córdoba. We meet César, a humble man out of work, moving rapidly to join the efforts to assist in its extinguishment. The sirens are ever present as a reminder of the danger the fires pose to the community around him. 

Land acquisition, from the beginning of time, has been a matter of contention and frustration. Troncoso’s film presents us with a perspective not commonly portrayed; someone willing to get their hands dirty for, in their view, noble reasons. César’s sister Mabel, struggles with an illness that will leave her out of work, and serves as the reason César goes down a dark path. The family’s economic situation, coupled with this curveball, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Fragility is key here: César’s economic fragility, and the fragility of his sister’s health. 

After seeking employment at a job placement centre, César finds Héctor, a real estate developer, seeking to extend his frontier into protected land. César works with his nephew to clear and fence Héctor’s land, showing him the ropes of how to properly burn incendiary twigs. At a gathering, Héctor is accused of land grabbing. He defends his employer, showing he’s willing to get physical on his behalf.

Towards the end of Bajo la corteza, we see César start a forest fire at Héctor’s behest. The costs of his actions are revealed through radio snippets featuring community members lamenting the loss of their homes, and clips of the destruction the blaze wreaks upon the landscape. The film’s debut on local and international stages followed the 2022 Corrientes wildfires in Argentina.

César himself revisits the charred land he set fire to. Perpetrators are smart to avoid returning to the scene of their crime, but César isn’t a criminal and clearly has a conscience. His actions put him at great odds with himself, and later with Mabel, who pieces together what he has done. She rejects the money he brings to her. The final act of the film is a lesson in teaching the art of deduction as this chain of events is more implicit than explicit. 

Local film buffs are familiar with The Cinematheque and it delivered a brilliant experience, as should be expected of the venue. Troncoso’s film was in good hands and lived up to the expectations set by many other great motion pictures that graced that screen. With its long takes, neorealist characteristics and pertinent storyline, Bajo la corteza is a reminder that the most unexpected situations and people can have a profound effect on our environment and communities.