Computers are stupid. They keep sending mail to our deceased grandmothers, say our credit cards aren’t valid and send us around the bend because their menu options have changed. Yes, we all know it, but we can’t help ourselves. So much so that we willingly allow them to replace ourselves. Well, as long as they don’t actually replace us, computers are smart enough. Anyone else must be the dumb. But Tita (Laura Patalano) doesn’t agree, and The Ballad of Tita and the Machines wishes the rest of us would smarten up. Or we might be next.
The Miguel Angel Caballero Oscar-qualifying short starts about as far away from computers as you can get. A strawberry field with migrants lining up to pick and subsist.
So they must be safe from the ever encroaching reach of computers and artificial intelligence. Sorry, these biological entities are not immune, but for better or worse, the despair and drudgery of picking fruit is the burden to bear.
A sentiment that is resoundingly framed by Robert L Hunter’s cinematographic presentation. The darkened overcast of early daybreak does tell us the time, but implies that the sun may never fully come up today or any other day. The shadows thus cast, the bleak outlook coincides with the resigned compliance of a workforce that must accept the harsh realities of their lives.
Then Tita comes onto the scene. Out of focus, she emerges, and making up ground that is commensurate with her 60ish years, her slow strut verifies that no matter the pace there’s no escape.
Nonetheless, we soon see that Tita is not a prisoner. Her coworkers greet the elder statesman, and the smile in response sets us all free.
Unfortunately, this celebration of life is cut short by the digital killjoy in question. Apparently, an AI bio scan can measure the exact productivity of workers, and the 55% that Tita scores does not pass the muster.
The machine obviously does not take into account the way determination can negate the numbers, though. So a human being is still there to make the final call. But the foreman is also a slave to the paradigm, and the humanity he’s lost makes the rejection second nature.
Still, Tita’s situation is not as dire as it seems. She has a nice home, she won’t lose all her wages, and her daughter is more than happy to take her away from the backbreaking work.
On the other hand, the desperation in her eyes further etch the lines on her face and signify what’s really at stake. The machine is stealing her dignity, and no amount of money can buy that back.
Still, the resolve of a lifetime does arm Tita with a defense mechanism that lets her face any challenge and has the viewer ever grateful. She has a biting sarcasm that not only comes across in Patalano’s patient deadpans, but the actress can sear with a look.
Tita’s introduction to her robotic replacement is a case in point. Patalano looks him up and down and her wince is worth a thousand Mel Brooks punchlines.
There’s more to the character than laughter, though. Tita loves deeply. We see the joy in Patalano’s eyes at the sight of her daughter and get the same read when confronted by the loss of her departed spouse.
The piano score reiterates the point and encompasses who Tita is. A series of one finger beats, life is a simple matter of love, laughing, passion and dignity.
So human, the juxtaposition comes in full force when the robot replacements start to rush in. Clad in a futuristic jumpsuits, the techno enhanced discourse and electronic beeps do enough to usher in the necessary believability.
So when they fail to master the basic tricks of Tita’s trade, the irony can’t be denied. Stupid the least of it, the main hurdle faced has nothing to do with mastering the minor know-hows of picking fruit.
These androids are really plagued by the human failings of their creators. Bob, for instance, is a perfect physical specimen, and Nico Greetham’s precise delivery gives off the intended deletion of emotion. Dovetailing alongside the digitally enhanced voice, robots prove that they can’t hide their feelings either. Self assurance specifically, the android responses accentuates the arrogance that drives a belief in their own superiority.
Good luck with that when a Tita stands in your way. The robots have no chance, and neither do the computer architects of this dystopia. Not so far off, if we don’t hear Tita’s song, who will save us from the stupidity of our time’s making.