Homage to a Simpler Life

Léonie Caldecott

Lighthouse of the Orcas (Lo Faro de las Orcas), 2017. Directed by Gerardo Olivares. 

From the far end of the world comes this cross between a fairy tale and a nature documentary. Lighthouse of the Orcas (in Spanish with English subtitles) is an Argentine film shot in a remote area of Patagonia—and it’s one of the most enchanting things I have seen in long time.

Mother orcas never abandon their calves: likewise Lola (Maribel Verdu), the mother of a profoundly autistic boy called Tristan (Quinchu Rapalini). She travels all the way from Spain to the Valdes peninsula in order to find a marine biologist turned nature reserve warden, purely because the boy has become animated on seeing television footage of this man playing with wild orcas. At her wits’ end as to how to ameliorate her child’s condition—he never speaks, and is prone to constant panic attacks—she hopes Roberto Bubas (Joaquin Furriel) will somehow be able to reconnect Tristan with the world around him.

As a premise, it sounds fanciful. But Lo Faro de las Orcas is actually based on a true story. Bubas is a real person, and he really has done the things with wild orcas that the film portrays. He also helped an autistic boy from Mexico, and wrote a book about it, Agustin Corazon Abierto (Augustine Open Heart). He believes that autism is not just a mental and neurological condition, but that it reflects a sickness in society at large. This spiritual sickness causes us to live in ways that are disconnected from nature. Among many other symptoms, our abuse of the orca population by breaking up their natural social environment (orca pods consist of close-knit families who stay together for life) in order to display them for human entertainment make this animal a powerful symbol for our condition. And thereon hangs the drama that affects both the fictional Beto Bubas and the real one. What he does with and for Tristan will lose him his job, because he is not legally permitted to encourage members of the public, let alone children, to interact with wild orcas.

Leaving aside these issues, the film does depart from the original story in significant ways. It takes the relationship between the mother and Bubas and turns it into a romance (the original autistic boy was brought to Patagonia by both his parents, and for a shorter time). But in doing this, it situates the story of the orcas and the child in the very dis-ease that Bubas refers to. Because at the heart of the fictional story is the drama of paternal abandonment: on his right hand Tristan wears a glove which is far too large for him. It is a glove which his father left behind when he walked out, depriving his disabled son of a crucial resource with which to grapple with the world.

The fictional Beto is also marked by familial tragedy. Close contact with the female orca, whom Bubas has named Shaka, and who has lost her calf (orca infant mortality is high, often because of marine pollution), has a healing effect on both man and boy. There is a brief reference to the premise that the echo-locationary noises of cetaceans affect the human brain, but the fledgling science is not the issue here. The orca is known as the ‘killer whale’, even though it belongs to the dolphin family; just like man, it is a highly intelligent apex predator with an ability to act collectively and care for its kin. It is a documented fact that connecting with these imposing creatures of the sea can bring relief to those affected by loss or deprivation. Simultaneously, in learning how to father the deeply withdrawn boy entrusted to him, approaching him slowly with the same calmness and respect as he approaches the orcas, Beto also comes out of his profound withdrawal from the world.

If in some ways the narrative of the film strains credulity, it more than makes up for this with the sheer poetry of its cinematography and the purity of its vision. Scenes where Beto rides his horse bareback across the wild territory of the Valdes peninsula, where he shows Lola the constellations at night, and from the top of the lighthouse next to his cabin, tells Tristan that from here they can see right across the world: all point to the larger picture which we all need to see in order to orient ourselves on the stormy sea of life. The sheep-shearing festival where the local community comes together to dance to the traditional songs of the gauchos has a biblical quality to it. One of the delightful minor characters is the heavily pregnant Marcella (Ana Celentano), whom we discover late in the film was in fact born and brought up in Buenos Aires, as she explains to Lola: “I never imagined, a city girl, I would be happy living in such a wild, inhospitable, isolated place: painting, rearing my children, without fear, without interference!”

It is this contrast between what is harsh and difficult—the Argentinian orca population, for instance, specialise in beaching themselves in order to eat young sea-lions as they frolic in the waves near shore—and what is sublime, that marks out the film. Beto himself, at the beginning of the relationship with Lola and Tristan, is unwelcoming and curmudgeonly. The first interaction he has with her is to gruffly order her to fetch water to help him sew up the wounds of a sea-lion he has found on the beach. It is only through the tenderness of his contact with animals that we first glimpse the inner man. And then the child invites this tenderness (a quality Pope Francis often refers to as a marker of the Christian life) to emerge back into a fully human context.

We all have a deep-seated capacity for wonder—an attention which is not just focused on ‘nature’ in a sentimental way, but also on what respect for nature teaches us about integrity in human relations. Ultimately the film tells the story of our longing for a more innocent existence, a simpler life in which human beings, at ease in God’s creation, content with what they are granted in the wilderness, are more important than money or technological expertise (it is not insignificant that there is no cell-phone signal on the peninsula!). Lo Faro de las Orcas sings a hymn to a different kind of life, in which honest work, and truthful feelings, bring deep satisfaction to the soul.

 Leonie Caldecott is the UK editor of Humanum.