Man Facing Southeast Has Many Imitators, But the Original Is Still Unsurpassed
This Argentinian sci-fi classic deserves your attention. Here’s why.
“He’s a very good man, and he’s come from far,” a bedridden elderly patient at a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires declares about an enigmatic new visitor who’s admitted himself.
A lanky figure who radiates an unnerving calm, Rantés (Hugo Soto) claims to have arrived from another planet on a spaceship. He cannot feel human emotions the way we do (or so he explains) and finds himself mystified by the indifference we exhibit toward each other.
Already disenchanted with his profession, the obvious instinct of Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros) is to dismiss Rantés’ extraordinary assertions as the consequence of mental illness. But in trying to find any trace of this bizarrely magnetic individual’s past, the jaded psychiatrist begins to question his previously unwavering beliefs about how life operates.
That’s the premise of 1986’s Man Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste) from the late Eliseo Subiela, one of Latin America’s most renowned filmmakers. Science fiction at its most grounded, there are no technologically advanced devices in sight but plenty of existentialist ideas. Admittedly, the film relies heavily on the doctor’s verbose voiceover, as he ponders his conflicting thoughts — and on equally as intense dialogue elsewhere. But the two leads, embodying the tussle between realism and idealism, make those lines convincing.
The otherworldly tone of the piece hinges on Soto’s impenetrable visage. His unemotional matter-of-factness as he speaks of futuristic holograms that exist on his planet creates an alluring alien quality that only breaks when he gives into rage. In another scene, he holds a human brain wondering if what we think of as the soul resides within that slippery mass.
Rantés stands still in the yard facing southeast without blinking. The purpose of his stoic pose? To receive and transmit information from a home beyond the stars. Julio watches from afar expecting to perceive cracks in Rantés’ conviction, but the more he observes, the more doubt penetrates his psyche. Rantés has forced him to skew his rigid understanding of how we should care for others and the injustices we blindly accept as part of the system.
“I’m more rational than you all,” Rantés tells Julio in one of the movie’s most memorable philosophical exchanges. “I respond rationally to stimuli. If someone suffers, I console them. If someone asks me for help, I give it to them. Why then do you think I am crazy?”
What Rantés preaches are evident truths. As the other patients uphold him as their leader, Rantés assumes the role of an intergalactic messiah. But not unlike the story of Christ himself, his teachings of kindness, represent a threat to established ideologies.
Enter Beatriz (Inés Vernengo), a young woman who visits Rantés every week. Her identity is dubious. Could she be Rantés’ wife or sister, or perhaps even another holy extraterrestrial? Early on, Rantés assures Julio that he is not the only of his kind exploring Earth, but some of his fellow travelers have succumbed to the pleasures of this world.
In one climatic sequence, Rantés takes the reigns of an orchestra from the conductor and guides the musicians into a stirring performance of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As those in the audience dance, his loyal followers at the hospital orchestrate a cheerful riot, almost as if they could also hear the tune. For a moment, we too fall under Rantés’ happiness-inducing spell. Though he won’t admit it, Julio — whose only source of glee is playing the saxophone — has also been reinvigorated by Rantés’ presence.
Subiela, who died in 2016, often said the title and original concept came from a man in his neighborhood who would stare into the distance for long periods of time without an apparent reason. Years after making the movie, the director would learn a darker truth. The person who’d inspired him was in fact looking at a woman he was infatuated with.
Other references clearly present include the Argentine sci-fi novel The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (which Rantés talks about on-screen) and Philip K. Dick’s similarly themed The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Dick is fittingly Beatriz’s last name.
Released in Argentine cinemas in the spring of 1987, following recognition at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Man Facing Southeast” landed with thunderous success. Over a million people in the country saw it during its original run — a rare feat for a local film.
Following such notable success, Hollywood called on Subiela to direct in the U.S., but he refused the opportunity and continued to work in his home country. There was also interest in buying rights for an English-language remake, but no sale ever materialized.
Years later, Subiela became certain that the American production Mr. Jones, starring Richard Gere, had lifted the orchestra scene among other elements directly from his film. At the time, the Argentine filmmaker decided not to pursue legal action. But in 2001, after learning about the releases of K-PAX, starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, Subiela believed that author Gene Brewer had plagiarized his film for his novels K-PAX and On a Beam of Light, only to sell the rights to Universal Studios. This time, Subiela chose to sue. However, he was eventually forced to drop the lawsuit after running out of money. Subiela died in 2016.
But there’s a timeless melancholy to Subiela’s heady original that the replicas failed to mimic.
In modern society acting in good faith with the well-being of others as priority is equated with insanity, while turning away from the horrors that afflict millions reads as normal. In Man Facing Southeast, this confounds Rantés. Sedated and imprisoned, he eventually loses his spark. Unable to connect with a greater force, he no longer gazes southeast but into a hopeless void.