If there were an award for most unusual film of the year, it would probably go to A Son of Man.
First, a little bit of historical background. In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro lured the emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa, to a feast, killed most of his entourage of several thousand soldiers and held Atahualpa as a prisoner. Pizarro agreed to free Atahualpa if the Incas would fill a room full of gold and silver. Atahualpa’s followers began delivering the loot, but before they had finished, Pizarro got cold feet. Fearing slaughter by the Incas if they were secretly planning to rescue Atahualpa, Pizarro had the Incan leader executed. Upon learning of Pizarro’s treachery, Atahualpa’s soldiers, who were in the process of transporting the largest stash of precious metals, turned around and hid it. Or so the legend goes.
A Son of Man begins with Pipe, a student at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, a private high school in Minnesota. His tuition is paid by a father he has never met. The first inkling that this is not a normal film comes when Pipe enters a church whose stained-glass windows depict Donald Trump and Che Guevara. For the first time, Pipe receives a piece of mail from his father. But the envelope does not contain a message; only plane tickets to Ecuador.
When Pipe arrives in Ecuador, he is driven to the hacienda of his father, a landowner with extensive holdings and numerous employees, some of whom are tasked with driving off poachers and thieves. Pipe’s father, Luis Felipe, introduces his son to the history of his own late father, Pipe’s grandfather, a former sprinter and bodybuilder who, as a young man, met many famous movie stars in Hollywood. Over a period of more than sixty years, Grandpa made more than sixty expeditions into Llanganates National Park, often accompanied by his son, in search of Atahualpa’s treasure. After Grandpa dies, Father decides that it is Pipe’s responsibility to join the quest.
Accompanied by Father’s sexy girlfriend, Lily, and a large contingent of porters, Pipe and his father plunge deep into the wild and beautiful jungle. They encounter shamans and dangerous terrain and porters of dubious morals. Eventually, Father sends everyone back home, and he and Pipe proceed alone.
The catch is that director Luis Felipe Fernández-Salvador, who prefers to go by the name JamaicaNoProblem, claims that A Son of Man is not a fictional film, but a true story. Indeed, Pipe is played by Luis Felipe “Pipe” Fernández-Salvador y Bolona. Lily is played by JamaicaNoProblem’s girlfriend, Lily van Ghemen. And Luis Felipe Fernández-Salvador plays himself.
So how much of the story is true and how much fiction? In 2013, JamaicaNoProblem did produce El Cazador, a documentary short about his father, Andrés Fernández-Salvador y Zaldumbide, and his quest for Atahualpa’s treasure. After his father’s death, JamaicaNoProblem says that he discovered the concept of the docudrama and decided to use this format for the feature film that became A Son of Man.
A Son of Man may be the work of an unknown Ecuadorian director, but it is not a low-budget film. There are two directors, four honorary executive producers, and twelve people who receive screenwriting credit, including five “story editors” and two “story doctors.” There are also 59 people who receive credit as porters.
In the director’s manifesto (yes, he has a manifesto), Luis Felipe Fernández-Salvador claims that the search for the lost treasure is really a MacGuffin. “The journey,” he writes, “is actually a coming-of-age story, and it enriches the protagonist. He grows, coming to understand and accept his father. A son’s loving understanding becomes the plot treasure and purpose of the journey.”
I encountered JamaicaNoProblem twice. The first time, I asked him what his son, Pipe, thought about the film. He replied that Pipe had not yet seen it. He was waiting for the right moment when they could watch it together. Fair enough. I happened to run into JamaicaNoProblem again, a few weeks later, and asked him the same question. He said that Pipe finally had seen A Son of Man, but he was vague about his son’s reaction. So, I’m not sure if JamaicaNoProblem’s goal of convincing Pipe to accept him has been achieved.
However bizarre the film is, A Son of Man is worth seeing for its amazing scenery. No wonder it took 59 porters to get it done.