Argentine drama Men of Hard Skin from writer-director José Celestino Campusano blends an unsettling tale of abuse with an impressive coming of age tale, producing an engaging end result. This picturesque drama set in a rural part of Buenos Aires examines the effect of sexual abuse on young victims, delivered with a hard-hitting impact.
Teenage Ariel (Wall Javier) lives on his conservative father’s farm where he attempts to cope with his misplaced romantic affections for Omar (Germán Tarantino), the local priest who abused him. After Omar rebuffs him, Ariel begins a sexual relationship with a married farmhand – yet this is not the relationship to cure him of the lingering effects of his abuse. Meanwhile Omar embarks on a friendship with an older excommunicated priest with similar sexual desires.
As the synopsis suggests, Men of Hard Skin is a film that tackles complex and intense themes – and in this exploration of adolescence, sex, power and ecclesiastical abuse, Campusano finds masses of unsettling dramatic material. Placing these themes in the setting of rural Argentina means a picturesque rural beauty is given a claustrophobic intensity as Ariel is in regular proximity with his abuser and the warped object of his affection. It is an unsettling blend with the beauty of the locales almost paralleling the innocent rose-tinted way in which the manipulated Ariel saw his relationship with Omar.
The character of Ariel is an interesting protagonist with Campusano capturing him as victim of manipulation and abuse, yet also a young man navigating sexual desire and his place in his insulat community. Petulant, naive and vulnerable, Ariel attempts to fill the emotional void created by Omar with workers from his father’s farm – falling too deep and taken advantage of for sex by those around him. Whilst this is just a snapshot of a small period of Ariel’s life, Campusano is intelligent in exploring the dichotomy of Ariel, believing he is taking control of his sexuality through these encounters, yet also alluding the fact these new men are simply taking advantage of his youth and naivety.
Men of Hard Skin is a powerful, sometimes alluring and often intensely thought-provoking take on the coming of age story. Campusano tackles complex issues and does not set out to provide answers, yet explores Ariel’s story with a skilful eye.