With the advent of this year’s LatinBeat (July 11-20), The Film Society of Lincoln continues on its quest to unearth the best and most challenging of Latin American cinema, including the product of Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Ecuador.
For some of these countries, having a national cinema at all is a near miracle. According to Wikipedia, Uruguay averages eleven films a year. In Paraguay, that figure drops to five. As for Peru, in 2011, only .8% of box office attendance was for national product. How can one battle Scarlett Johansson and the Transformers for a Friday night date, especially when you’re trying to showcase the political and economic realities of your country?
Having viewed five of the sixteen offerings, severable notable motifs kept popping up: broken homes, searches for fathers, the difficulties of finding employment, poverty, the indifference of the government and media, and the restorative powers of music.
Fellipe Barbosa’s engrossing Casa Grande or The Ballad of Poor Jean spotlights how the downward spiraling of a seemingly wealthy Brazilian family’s bankbook propels upward the moral consciousness of its self-involved, horny son, Jean (Thales Cavalcanti).
Residing in a huge estate in Rio with three servants, one live-in, everything seems paradisiacal in the beginning until mom learns that dad, a hedge-fund manager, has been borrowing funds from friends. His business has gone bust. Suddenly it’s time for thriftiness. No more chauffeuring of the kids to school. Bye-bye to the domestics and the accompanying life of leisure. Mom even stoops to selling makeup to her former compadres. Yes, life is getting grim, so grim that if the times don’t turn robust, and quickly, la Casa Grande might just have to be traded in for una Casa Pequena.
But the glass is only half empty here, at least for the semi-milquetoasty Jean. Forced to take a bus to his high school, he unexpectedly realizes there are benefits to mixing with the lower classes on public transportation. Within a ride or two, he finds true love with a girl who is half mulatto/half Asian. Simultaneously, he realizes that his real kin at home were the servants with whom he interacted daily. So it’s bye-bye to respecting dad and dad’s right-wing, racist views and hello to . . . what? He’s just not sure.
Manuel Nieto’s The Militant (El lugar del hijo) is a compelling recreation of a students/workers’ strike in the Uruguay of 2002 as experienced by one young man, Ariel (Philip Dieste), who’s a great believer in the power of the masses, but one without leadership capabilities. In Montevideo, he’s a little fish in a big fish bowl. But when he learns his father has died and must travel to the small town of Salto to carry out his familial responsibilities, he tries to aid the students there who are being led by an inept egomaniac, who’s more into making noise and throwing parties than organizing responsibly. At the same time, while dealing with this dullard, Ariel discovers his father was heavily in debt, was misrunning the family farm, and hadn’t paid his disgruntled employees for months. These workers see no difference between father and son. Suddenly, a card-carrying member of the proletariat is viewed as a card-carrying member of the bourgeoisie.
What’s most fascinating here is Dieste’s performance. At the age of ten, he was in a car crash that killed his mother and one of his brothers. The boy survived, but with highly slurred speech and dramatic motor problems. Still today, each word uttered by the actor seems to be dragged out from his very soul and certain tasks, such as lighting a cigarette, take great focusing on his part. These physical traits add much to his stirring performance. His Ariel moves at a different speed from the rest of the world in which he does not quite fit in. Whether he’s hooking up with a prostitute, feeding a doddering dog, going on a hunger strike, or dealing with his dad’s creditors, he always seems one awkward step behind.
From Argentina comes Matias Lucchesi’s Natural Sciences (Ciencias Naturales), an affecting buddy film led by 12-year-old Lila, who keeps running away from her rural boarding school that’s situated in some barren, icy mountains. The girl’s constantly in search of the father she never met, with whom her mother probably just had a one-nighter. Without even a photo, only the name of the company he worked for that might no longer be in business, Lila convinces her teacher to help her search for this missing half of her gene pool against her mom’s wishes.
In this pursuit for completeness, the two pass through the hardworking, blue-collar, not-so-charming rustic world of Argentina. The performances are never less than convincing, the direction straightforward, and the journey wholly moving.
Dad-hunting is also the plotline of Matias Rojas Valencia’s searing Root (Raiz) from Chile.
Amalia (Mercedes Mujica, a Julia-Roberts look-alike) has returned to her widowed mother’s home to attend the wake of a long-time domestic. With her personal life in dismal disarray and her relationship with her curmudgeonly mom never being a joyous one, Amalia finds she has another task on hand. The maid’s son, Cristobal (Cristobal Ruiz), has been left alone with no relatives who want him, including an absent father who has never tried to make contact with the boy. In fact, no one even knows how to contact him.
Get ready for another road trip saga, one that’s peopled with semi-impoverished characters with extraordinary faces, many furrowed from hardcore survivals. Poignant without being sentimental, this offering, beautifully shot by Gabruela Larrain Doler, is deserving of an art-house release.
Samuel Kishi Lepo’s We are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) chronicles the exploits of four Mexican 16-year-olds who have started a punk-rock band. That sounds promising, but the group only has two songs in their repertoire, both of which they have trouble playing.
One goes: “I wanna cum on your face, Natasha, because I love you.” The second: “I’m never going to mass again with you if you don’t gimme some of that.”
“Mari,” by the way, is short for marijuana, and “pepa” is slang for vagina: two important areas of concern for any teen, thus a perfect title for a garage band, right?
But the boys’ path to stardom has more roadblocks on it, including girlfriends, the need to get a job, parents who want you to go to college, poverty, and the death of a guardian. Real life often quashes the most fervent dreams. Pulling no punches, Leopo scrutinizes teenhood south of the boarder with rigor and compassion. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.