Year Without Love (2005): Anahi Berneri’s Directorial Debut–AIDS Tale (LGBTQ, Gay)

Mar del Plata Film Fest—Anahi Berneri’s directorial debut, “A Year Without Love,” is based on Pablo Prez’s diary of the same title, which was published in 1996. It’s an AIDS drama with a twist, the kind of which we have not seen in the US since the New Queer Film Wave of the early 1990s.

A winner of a Teddy Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received its world premiere, “A Year Without Love” will be released in the U.S. by Strand after traveling the gay festival road.

“A Year Without Love” opens in Buenos Aires next week on ten screens, based on the filmmakers’ belief that the film has a strong crossover appeal. If it will do well, the film will platform and eventually play in many more venues.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

With the exception of broad Hollywood gay comedies, such as “In & Out” or “The Bird Cage,” gay-themed American films, particularly AIDS dramas, seldom play outside big urban centers that have large gay population.

Recent gay films, at Sundance and other festivals, have steered clear of AIDS, as if pretending that the problem no longer exists. In this context, “A Year Without Love,” is a bold, audacious film that has the courage to place its HIV+ protagonist, Pablo Perez, in the S&M leather scene of Buenos Aires.

What’s most impressive about Berneri’s film is its non-melodramatic, non-exploitative nature. It’s a far cry from William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” which was set in the leather scene of New York in the early 1980s, before the AIDS era. Despite some rough scenes that depict S&M in graphic detail, “A Year Without Love” is non-judgmental in its depiction of AIDS, or the leather crowd. It feels like a personal tale by an insider.

Pablo (played by the likable and handsome Juan Minujin) is a young poet-writer stricken with HIV and the fear of dying. In the first scene, we see him in bed coughing, then, in defiance of his deteriorating health, he dons his black leather jacket and hits the cruising area of Buenos Aires, landing in a porn movie house.

The narrative unfolds as a personal journal, beginning April 26, 1996 and concluding on New Year’s Eve of that year. In first-person narration, Pablo records his painful experiences with his family, medical establishment, close friend, and mostly with himself, as an ambitious, gifted man, forced to come to terms with his mortality due to the infectious disease.

Though petrified of dying, Pablo is skeptical about the new drug (this is 1996), AZT, and its supposedly miraculous results. Periodic visits to the hospital and encounters with doctors only increase his phobias, though the medical institution is portrayed in an extremely positive way.

Pablo channels his anxieties into two creative outlets: writing his diary and looking for love through personal ads. He repeats over and over again, “I don’t want to write, I force myself to do it. However, the inner urge to express his feelings leads to an obsessive search for a cure to his dual misfortune: the lethal virus and his unbearable loneliness.

Seeking for “the love of his life,” for the man who will give him back his zest for a full life, Pablo continues to place ads in magazines and the Internet and cruise the lively gay scene of Buenos Aires, which often results in having dissatisfying anonymous sex.

Pablo’s lifestyle might sound depressing, but it is not. In fact, his obsessive search for love leads him to a local group that engages in sadomasochistic sexual practices and leather fetishism. Soon, he meets and becomes the slave of a macho dream lover, Martin (Javier Van De Couter), deluding himself that he has fallen in love and that the attraction is mutual.

Anahi handles in an extremely delicate way the S&M scenes, which are depicted briefly through fast montages and snippets of imagery. Though explicit, there’s hardly frontal nudity in these sequences. One of the film’s strong points is to show how Pablo finds resourceful ways to eroticize his pain.

A second parallel story describes Pablo and his familial relationships with his mentally unstable aunt (Mimi Ardu) and with his father (Ricardo Merkin), an uncaring and unfeeling man, who pays the bills since Pablo makes no money as a writer and part-time teacher of French. Pablo is contrasted with his best friend, Nicolas (Carlos Echevarria), a more domesticated type, who lives a quiet life.

Through Pablo’s various encounters, we learn that he had lived in Paris for a number of years, during which he was introduced to the S&M scene, and that his French lover had died of AIDS after Pablo returned to Buenos Aires. Tormented by guilt, Pablo tries to imagine what was his lover’s last year like.

The beauty of “A Year Without Love” is that it doesn’t isolate one aspect of Pablo’s life, but captures the entire lifestyle of a young man struggling to become a writer and at the same time combat AIDS by overcoming his suspicion of the new drugs.

The film’s context is crucial: It’s set in 1996, after the Vancouver’s AIDS Congress, when the new Anti-Retroviral Cocktail therapy became available, turning AIDS from a lethal condition to a chronic disease, with which people can live for a long time.

Strangely, “A Year Without Love” ends on a somber note, when Pablo’s father confronts his son and kicks him out of the apartment,forcing Pablo to spend yet another night in a porn club.

In an interview with director Anahi and writer Pablo Perez, I asked them about the ending, which is rather ambiguous in light of the fact that Pablo is alive and well and has since published a sequel diary. My understanding is that they want to reflect as vividly, accurately, and realistically Pablo’s life in 1996, his one year without love.

I highly recommend placing a title card at the end of the film that will indicate that the story is based on the real life of Pablo Perez who, ten years later, appears to be healthy and creative. This upbeat, true-to-life note will signal hope for other HIV+ people, without compromising the film’s coherence and integrity.