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[Article] – Latin American Film Festival 2017 – A Rundown

 

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Posted October 17, 2017 by

 
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The American Film Institute Silver Theatre recently concluded its 2017 Latin American Film Festival. 42 movies. 20 countries. I was able to see 21 of the 35 fiction films (the other seven were documentaries.) Here is a quick run-down of the movies presented.

From Argentina

Kekszakallu (AKA Bluebeard)

Gaston Solnicki’s film was awarded the Orizzonti Prize in Venice. That can be roughly translated as new/experimental. Personally, I don’t see it. The random collection of extended static takes focusing on unnamed youth in Buenos Aires and Punta del Este steadfastly rejects narrative coherence. There is beauty in the imagery and occasional flashes of humor, but its pay-offs are scant at best. If you are a fan of latter day Terence Malick, you may find value here.

Hermia  & Helena

Matias Pineiro’s slight, pleasant comedy uses Shakespeare as  a broad lens to explore the fleeting artistic and personal desires of the young people at its center. Pineiro, and cameraman Fernando Lockett, use plenty of visual tricks, including a film within a film, which keep things constantly engaging, even if the story never seems entirely satisfying.

The Distinguished Citizen

Among the most honored of all the titles playing at the Silver, Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s wryly understated take on the clash between the provincial and the worldly has won awards all over the world. There are elements memory dramas like Wild Strawberries as a famous writer returns to his small town home after a very long absence, but this crosses many genre lines with its absurd humor and even a reference to a wild boar hunt reminiscent of the roo hunt in Wake in Fright that reveals some borderline horror elements as well. Outstanding lead performance from Oscar Martinez and support from Dany Brieva. One of the top five movies of the Fest.

Black Snow

It’s a genre thriller that dwells a bit too much in the past, but Martin Hodara’s second collaboration with actor Ricardo Darin was the most intense narrative of the Fest. Set primarily in the snowy Argentine wilderness,  it traverses similar thematic territory as The Distinguished Citizen but with an entirely different approach. Another successful man returns to his provincial home to confront his past. Not a lot of new ground covered, but a very strong family mystery thriller with a great setting and bravura performance from Darin. Another top five movie.

From Brazil

Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl

Felipe Braganca’s uneven allegory is set on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, along the Rio Apa, the site of past slaughter and ongoing violence. The movie blends two disparate threads – the first a motorcycle gang saga focused on the compelling Caua Reymond, and the second a coming-of-age love story between Reymond’s besotted young brother and a bold girl from the opposite side of the river. The motorcycle story offers some spectacular imagery of night-time races and has intriguing characters, but the love story is far less successful, highly symbolic and often stilted.

From Chile

Bad Influence

Claudia Huaiquimilla’s feature debut examines a topic she has explored in her short movies – the struggle of the indigenous Mapuche in Southern Chile. When Tano, a troubled teen from Santiago, is sent to live with his mostly-absent father in the south, he forms a tenuous bond with Cheo, a Mapuche boy who is victim of much bullying and ethnic prejudice. Prone to melodrama at times on the dark and murky side, this nonetheless has good dramatic moments and tells a powerful story about what it means to be an outsider.

Spider Thieves

Guillermo Helo’s glorious story of young female empowerment is based on the true story of three 13 year old girls living in the massive shanty town, Toma Modelo de Penalolen, who embark on a life of burglary, breaking into luxury high-rise apartments by sneaking into buildings and then climbing into unlocked windows. Outstanding performances from the three young leads, full of energy, wit and poignance. Reminiscent of We Are the Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s 2013 story three girls forming a punk rock band in Sweden.  One of the top five.

From Columbia

Guilty Men

Ivan Gaona’s debut feature is a taut and moody crime story centered on the mythology of the Columbian warlords who controlled and terrorized the provinces even as they were being disarmed in and around 2005. Elliptical in nature and at times hard to follow, it still remains consistently engaging and tense, and it features one of the year’s best sequences as a helmeted, motorcycle-riding killer chases the hero through country fields at night.

Bad Lucky Goat

A mash-up of Au Hasard Balthazar and Weekend at Bernies? This joyous ride from Samir Oliveros is as close as you are apt come. Set on the island of Port Paradise, this quirky, musical and mythic romp follows the misadventures of a quarreling brother and sister after they accidentally kill a goat. One of the Fest’s top five.

The Nobodies

Juan Sebastian Mesa’s free-wheeling portrait of the youth in Medellin, trying desperately to break out of their dead-end lives. Punk rock, body art, and street performance abound. Light on plot, but strong on energy and genuine human warmth. Plays almost as a (much shorter) prequel Andrea Arnold’s 2016 American Honey.

The Dragon Defense

Natalia Santa’s debut is a slight but effective portrait of unattached middle-aged men. Gonzalo Sagarminaga (who also composed the score) is at the center in a scruffy and sad performance. His Samuel is a chess master, who has little else going on in his life, but gets along with the help of some friends. Suggests a touch of de Aranoa’s Mondays in the Sun, but with far less incident.

From Costa Rica

Lightning Falls Behind

Julio Hernandez Cordon begins his portrait of two free-spirited young women causing mischief in Coast Rica with great aplomb. For the first twenty minutes, we see Sole and Ana in action, pulling pranks and having fun, before a mysterious incident puts them in an intriguing situation. And then, for some unknown reason, Cordon abandons any semblance of narrative and embarks on an hour-long verite-style consideration of the girls’ bike-riding friends. The story meanders for a while, focusing more on a new character, before returning to the girls for a potent, if enigmatic ending. Ultimately not very successful and among the most maddening of the entries because it flashed such promise.

From the Dominican Republic

Woodpeckers

Jose Maria Cabral’s prison-set love story/melodrama closed out the Festival. Shot on location in several Dominican prisons, Woodpeckers has the feel of gritty realism, where danger and excitement, where life and death, pervade every inch of the place. The title refers to the way in which inmates from both the mens’ and womens’ prisons communicate with each other through inventive sign language. The story spins a bit out of control in its final act, but makes for an interesting ride nonetheless.

Samba

A small-scale take on the Rocky narrative has Cisco (Algenis Perez Soto) return home from a long stint in prison and take up boxing, with the help of former fighter Nichi (Ettore D’Allessandro). It uses several standard boxing tropes, but the setting is refreshing. A bigger problem may be the shallowness of multiple plot threads, as if filmmakers Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman couldn’t settle on one story to tell.

From Ecuador

Such is Life in the Tropics

Well-known director Sebastian Cordero family crime saga kicked off the Festival. The story stitches together parallel plotlines juxtaposing the struggles of poor squatters and rich business tycoons and the rhythm can be awkward at times. But at the center, first-time actor Daniel Adum Gilbert is a strong presence, recalling Viggo Mortensen turn in Eastern Promises. And co-writer Andres Crespo is marvelous as the shady lawyer trying to work both the rich and the poor.

From Mexico

The Untamed

Amat Escalante is the most decorated director to screen a movie in this year’s Fest. His last film, Heli, earned him the Director’s prize at Cannes several years back. He abandons the gritty realism of Heli and Los Bastardos in this sexually explicit sci-fi experience recalling Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A feuding couple, a mysterious woman, a badly beaten gay man, and a mysterious tantacled creature in a cabin in the woods all contribute to a storyline that offers no obvious answers, but which raises plenty of questions about the dangers of addiction. Escalante always offers tough sledding, but here it seems more elliptical than ever before.

The Night Guard

Diego Ros’ shaggy-dog suspense story is also long on the atmosphere of dread, while eschewing tight narrative. Plenty of things happen on the dark and eerie construction site overlooking Mexico City, but whether they add up to anything is debatable. But as an immersive experience, The Night Guard provides a continual chilly disquiet, centered around Leonardo Alonso’s strong central performance and Galo Olivares’ photography. Nice touches of absurd humor help lighten the tension.

From Peru

One Last Afternoon

For fans of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, this stroll through the streets of Lima offers an engaging experience. Ramon and Laura are old lovers who have not seen each other in many years. But when they were both young revolutionaries, they had gotten married, and now, for legal reasons, they must meet in order to formally end the marriage. Due to their age, this recalls Linklater’s final installment most of all, and there is a strong vein of missed opportunities and regret that permeates the story. Both Lucho Caceres and Katrina D’Onofrio handle the long takes beautifully, and despite a rather abrupt and incongruous ending, this is mostly satisfying.

From Spain

The Queen of Spain

Fernando Trueba reassembles most of the players from his 1998 hit The Girl of Your Dreams but the result is vaguely disappointing. The actors, led by Penelope Cruz, are all in good form, and there are some funny vignettes, but the whole thing – about a film company’s efforts to rescue a comrade from the clutches of Franco – seems simultaneously silly and lifeless. It has been billed as a Spanish take on the Coen’s Hail Caesar!. Well, I didn’t especially like Hail Caesar!, and this falls fairly short of that.

From Uruguay

The Candidate

Daniel Hendler’s satiric look at the packaging of a political candidate boasts a strong central performance from Diego de Paula as the handsome bewildered title character who is not sure early on whether he is on the left or on the right. The early scenes are quite good at mocking modern political practice but as it moves forward the plot and the humor become broader and less effective. Still, the central relationship between the candidate and a young everyman graphic artist (Matias Borras) provides a glimpse at a very interesting story lying just beneath some of the silliness.

From The USA

On the Seventh Day

Jim McCay’s first feature in more than a decade is a very affecting tale of working class immigrants in Brooklyn. Jose (first time actor Fernando Cardona) is the best player on his Puebla soccer team. They might win the championship but Jose has to pull overtime at his job as a delivery man for the La Frontera restaurant. The movie follows Jose in the week leading up to the game as he tries to figure a way out of the quandary and also figure out what matters most to him. Excellent rapport amongst the non-professional cast makes this a joy to watch. One of the top five.

Awards

I hesitate to name “bests” when I haven’t seen everything (I know people adored the Uruguayan movie Breadcrumbs, for instance), but that has never stopped me before. So here were my favorites:

Best Music… Elkin Robinson combines many styles of native music to create an energetic and beautiful pulse beneath Bad Lucky Goat.

Best Cinematography… Galo Olivares’ night visions of the empty construction site and the distant lights of Mexico City are both creepy and beautiful in The Night Guard.

Best Screenplay… Smart, funny, poignant – Andres Duprat’s work in The Distinguished Citizen.

Best Supporting Actress… Maria Angelica Puerta is Ana, a tiny girl with big dreams in The Nobodies.

Best Supporting Actor… Ettore D’Alessandro pulled double-duty in Samba, writing the screenplay and playing Nichi, a former boxer-turned-hustler who sees a chance to hit it big with a new protégé.

Best Actress… If only the story had stayed focused on Adriana Alvarez’s tempestuous Sole, Lightning Falls Behind might have been among the best.

Best Actor… Lucho Caceres stays understated throughout most of One Last Afternoon but he is always compelling. And when called on to find the anger and violence in Ramon, he delivers.

Best Director… Jim McCay worked on location with mostly non-professional actors, yet gives great energy and even beauty to the Brooklyn streets and soccer fields in On the Seventh Day.

Best Film… Spider Thieves is a revelation, as are its three young stars. Funny, exciting, dramatic, and meaningful, this is a triumph dressed up as a small slice of whimsy.

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That’s it for this year Latin Fest. Next up at the Silver, the 2017 EU Showcase in December. If you’re in the Washington, DC area, check it out.

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Jonathan Eig
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