A review requested by Diego Santa Maria, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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One will from time to time come across a film for which one tangibly lacks the proper cultural context to full appreciate, and this happened to me upon watching the 2000 Peruvian film Captain Pantoja and the Special Services (a self-evidently broad translation of the Spanish original, where the term rendered as "Special Services" is literally "Visitors", apparently with a legal overtone of "Auditor" - both of these shades of meaning matter). I will confess that my first response was a long, confused "what the hell?" To wit: a captain in the Peruvian army is assigned to create a prostitution division to provide regular sex for the male soldiers, who have been causing issues for the military bureaucracy on account of how much they've taken to raping locals. There are no end of ways that a movie thus founded could go terribly wrong, though in the end, Captain Pantoja doesn't go any of those ways. It's still incredibly weird and goes all over the place tonally, but this is clearly part of its strategy: the film's primary aim is to be a warped satire of military behavior, and a healthy dose of "what in God's name am I watching" is part of how it does that.

The film is the second adaptation of a 1973 novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the leading lights in Peruvian literature, which is a big part of the cultural context that I very much wish I had. And there is a certain literary element to the story, which is fundamentally about a man of principles losing his way and then finding it again. This man is the titular Captain Pantaleón Pantoja (Salvador del Solar), a stable, reliable married man who finds himself unhappily assigned to establish a military brothel in the jungle. This galls him from the start, but being stable and reliable, he makes the very best of it, raising the morale of the prostitutes and soldiers alike, and falling in love with a particularly savvy prostitute nicknamed "The Colombian", Olga (Angie Cepeda). That second plot development is the cue for the film's very different second half, so for now let's just stick what the early bits, when Captain Pantoja is a very strange combination of juvenile sex farce, Heller-esque savaging of the army mindset, and mystical bedazzlement at the transporting emotional power of the South American rainforest.

That's a lot of ground to cover, and the film manages it largely by putting almost everything on del Solar's shoulders. I nothing of the actor's work (which was apparently impressive enough to get him the position of Minister of Culture in 2016 and 2017), but he's close to perfect in Captain Pantoja, executing a pretty substantial overhaul of the character's personality without sacrificing continuity across the film, and also helping to make some pretty shticky comedy land in the beginning. There aren't really all that many different kinds of jokes in the first half the movie, mostly just variations on Pantoja being dumbfounded by having to hire gorgeous prostitutes at first, and then to treat the business of running a brothel as a strict military regime second. And in both cases, del Solar helps to keep the comedy out of the thickets by grounding what's happening in his character's fundamental humanity. This cuts in two directly opposite ways: early on, when the film is at its most unabashedly goofy, he pointedly underplays things, largely expressing Pantoja's discomfort in the form of a furrowed brow and a tight facial expression. And this is aided a great deal by director Francisco J. Lombardi's decision to rely on close-ups rather a great deal more than is usual; it very distinctively pushes the film towards a more psychological bent for Pantoja and a couple of other major characters (the Colombian, and also the matronly Chuchupe, played by Pilar Bardem), despite how much the script and the general rhythm of scenes tells us that we're watching nothing but a goofy comedy.

The other, opposite force in del Solar's performance develops as Pantoja experiences early success as a military pimp, and the film depicts the  operating of his touring prostitutes with crisp timing, military precision, and a whole dossier full of chilly, inhuman euphemisms. The satiric point is entirely obvious: the reduction of eros and human physicality to mechanical language and a brittle problem+solution approach is no good at all, and the film makes a great deal out of contrasting the clipped militarism with the lush location photography and the sweltering golden colors in Teo Delgado's cinematography, not to mention the way the Pantoja's sterile language abuts with the practically soft-core pornographic celebration of the naked female body. There is very self-evidently a message in here about human libido yearning to express itself and the woefully insufficient desire by bureaucrats to somehow set this libido on a manifest and decompress it according to a timetable; that is indeed much of the film's comedy, the blunt conflict between these states.

But if all that's the obvious, direct thing the film is doing, it's what del Solar is up to that's more interesting, if not necessarily more effect (subtlety is nice, but screaming is what gets the job done). The really sweet thing about Captain Pantoja is the unexpected feeling of lightness that comes into it, the sense of things genuinely getting better in some capacity, and Pantoja himself is the primary vessel of that lightness. What del Solar manages to do quite well in this portion of the movie is to indicate a burgeoning feeling of relaxation, of pride, of not-being-such-a-square-ness. He re-humanises the character and the sometimes curt satire; he adds a feeling of froth to the sardonic humor, and keeps it from getting to heavy.

All of this is weird, and surprising, and it absolutely works: there's a winning, genial quality to the film that makes the satire go down well, and enough caustic wit that I gather to be a holdover from the novel (it certainly feels literary) to keep it from being just good-natured sexploitation, though that is undoubtedly its primary characteristic for long stretches. The problem here is that it's all somewhat there on the surface: the film makes its points, they're clear, they're enjoyable, and then that's kind of all there is to it. The second half of the film does combat this somewhat, by growing more serious and transforming explicitly into a character study, and  I'm not really sure that it works. It certainly feels like a novel, a medium much better-suited to psychological representation, would be able to handle this transition with more grace, but in the movie, Pantoja isn't quite enough of a character to navigate the new plot developments getting thrown at him, and del Solar's work is too small and light to fully compensate for it. There's quite a bit of solid character work that happens, particularly as the Colombian develops more thoroughly, but it lacks any strong connection to what's gone before, and in some cases to what's come after. Captain Pantoja certainly merits more attention than it's ever received in the anglosphere for its humor alone, not to mention its performances and interesting (if only half-successful) complexity, but given how vaguely unsatisfying it proves to be, I'm not shocked that it's failed to acquire any sort of substantial audience.