Absolute Beginners

in 24th Toulouse Latin American Film Festival

by Giulia Dobre

Nowhere could the gentle yet bright sunshine of spring spice up a film festival more than in Toulouse, the pinkish-ochre citadel of the Southwest France.

Rencontres du Toulouse celebrated its 24th edition with a fresh programme of brand new films. For every production from each of the festival’s sections, there was a full house made up of a joyful crowd of international students, academics, culturally-aware ladies enjoying their second youth, ancient quixotic revolutionaries with white beards, sharing their observations in the mellifluous accents of the South of France.

The surrounding joie de vivre was not matched, though, by the new Latin American films the festival presented.

The very young directors of these productions are still beginners, and chose to treat topics which mainly express their personal worries and social engagement. There were no half measures in these films: they were breathless and stubborn. Their characters are very young: students keen on ideology, who make unambiguous and excruciating choices, who are immersed to the bones in the transgressions of the society in which they live. They are callous worrywarts who do not complain or head for greener pastures; instead, they prefer to solve problems, to be an active part of the agora, to explain and be explained, even to refuse and to destroy.

The first feature of Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, Thursday till Sunday (De Jueves a Domingo) chose to investigate the crumbling marriage of Ana and Fernando. Bitterness and lack of communication fill in every space in what ought to have been a relaxed and sentimental journey they with their kids to find the a tract of land belonging to the father’s family. The couple have fallen out of love, and the bare lands they travel through mirror their relationship. The sweet magic of their children’s behavior, with their questions, answers, funny situations and spontaneity, cannot repair the broken bridges. The father has already rented another apartment; the mother encounters a friend from her active and colorful youth and seems to confide in him far more than in her husband.

Their 10-year-old daughter observes everything, understands partially, suffers and yet tries to plan for a near future together, projects to pursue with both parents. And here is what triggers the empathy of any spectator from any part of the globe: it is an experience of life where a child observes with his own, incomplete yet unbeatable lucidity a world made by and for adults.

Sotomayor does not judge. She simple allows the stories to unfold around her characters, just as the camera records their adventure in the wild with distance and objectivity. Yet the freshness and intensity of the acting cannot make up for a certain ambiguity in the writing. The spectator is barely absorbed and feels too little for these characters that most of the time seem to rehearse a play of their actual life, rather than living it fully.

The lack of audience empathy continues with A Secret World (Un Mundo Secreto) by Mexican director Gabriel Mariño. The film follows the personal journey of a high school graduate, a journey which sees her move from saying YES to every request to finally refusing and saying NO when she needs to. She is a dreamer and a promiscuous girl, who hopes to find her path by breaking out of the circle of her acquaintances and getting away from her normal habits. She therefore embarks on a trip from Mexico City’s urban chaos to the deserts of Sinaloa and the vast ocean of La Paz. She is just a girl lost in a world of strangers, where even her mother and close friends care for her for the wrong reasons: there is a profound lack of affection in her life. By the last shot, something has changed, though, as suggested by the inverted position of the camera. The dramatic construction is destroyed by a long series of close-ups and playing games with the focus.

This is, unfortunately, a notable characteristic of the majority of new Latin American films at Cinélatino: an almost maniacal game of lenses that involuntarily excludes the audience from the action, instead of implicating them even more! I must say, too, that I was disturbed by the films’ excessive use of music, which makes the film more of a visual companion for the predominant text of the songs. It leaves an impression of a playful film made during the director’s film school years.

In To the Sky (Al Cielo), Diego Prado orchestrates a scenic and minimalistic drama. His teenage male character is a person that finds a way to bear the world, his family, his school, even his friendships, none of which give him much to say. Finally, one day he meets another boy as shy and creative as himself, and love springs. He finally finds words to say and decisions to take. Diego Prado adopts a rare and fresh tone in telling this story, set in the lush town of La Plata. The minor everyday gestures of this boy’s life are shot in a marvelously unpolluted manner. The happy ending comes without extravaganza: it’s just a very refreshing moment for the viewer.

South American films of the past year seem to be even more aware than their predecessors of the social turmoil the directors and their characters live in. 3 of the films presented in competition are organized around political disobedience, ideological power games, or even the total abandon of any social fight. The Destruction of the Ruling Order (La destrucción del orden vigente), a film by new Argentinean film graduate Alejo Franzetti, follows the misdemeanors of a pretty young woman through the rebellious underground groups of Buenos Aires. Between punk rock, heavy drugs and endless anarchist statements, the character trips from life to death and back again. It was a rather appealing subject for the author, who ultimately failed in his artistic journey for wanting to express too many subjects, too much in a limited timeframe.

In spite of his absolute mastery of directing, another young Argentinean director, Santiago Mitre, fails to move the audience and take them along on his journey with his excessively dense film, The Student (El Estudiante). Portraying situations that are complicated and very much particular to Buenos Aires’ academic environment, extremely calculated and with overwhelming dialogue, this film renders the complex web of personal ambitions and maneuvering that fuels campus political life. The actor Esteban Lamothe is a revelation as Roque, living and breathing his lead role with understated confidence. And yet the vast complexity of the relationships and the games of power make us disconnect and lose interest about halfway through the film.

With The Language of Machetes (El Lenguaje de los machetes), Kyzza Terrazas brings a film that has been long awaited by several successive generations. Generations that were waiting for an artist, and especially a filmmaker, to express so properly, and without any judgement, the terrible ‘mal de vivre’ that we/they all experience. Terrazas’ film circles around a couple composed of a troubled journalist and a sado—masochist punk rock singer. They have a grueling time finding out who they are, if they really care about their professions, and how much they can expect from society and also give back to it. Where does their own fight (both with themselves and with the existing powers) start and how long should it last? Both characters feel a deep unease, as if the skins they inhabit are too limiting. They sound and act like apocalyptic spirits. As the director puts it: “Love, the desire to transform reality and failure in both are thus the main themes of “El Lenguaje de los machetes”. It is a film of traces. Of disheveled gestures…Of frontal war. A case of nostalgia for utopia…”

Therefore, though very in love with each other, the couple swings between extreme passion and annulment, between profound declarations, projects, and solitude.

There is a lot of suffering for these characters, a lot of failure, both as spectators of a society where violence is omnipresent, and as persons unable to take a major step in their relationship. They suffer to such an extent that they decide to play a final act in the comedy/tragedy of their life, attacking one of the most important symbols of Mexico and its colonization.

The Language of machetes is a film that softly swings around the opposition between Mexicans of white/European origin, the direct and financially privileged descendents of blond and blue-eyed colonizers, and the local populations who still live in a sort of slavery. But it also expresses the miscommunication between urban and rural mentalities. For the latter, all change should come through bloodshed, through a heavy violence that fills the air.

Music is perfectly employed in The Language of machetes, for sheer emphasis in some key moments. The camera work is all built on the contrast of lights, colors and tones. It is without a doubt a film that has touched its public, and we can only salute the emergence of an original and breezy filmic philosopher such as Mr. Terrazas (already the author of two volumes of short stories).

Employing a more classical manner of filming and storytelling, Stories That Only Exist When Remembered (Histórias que só existem quando lembradas) and another Brazilian film, Southwest (Sudoeste), tell poignant stories of lost and almost mythical generations of Brazil’s provinces. Telling about smaller or greater pains that have been buried, as well as more and less important misdeeds, these two films offer some very well crafted images.

Stories That Only Exist When Remembered explodes with lush legions of green that emphasize the moribund world that it examines. In a remote village cut off from civilization, where trains have stopped arriving, lives Madalena. She is an elderly woman lost in her past, writing letters every day to her long-dead husband. Audacious actress Sonia Guedes plays the intense Madalena. She knows exactly what to expect from life, is totally aware of what she has lost, and determined to confront each and every day with acts of near sado—masochism in order to continue to live.

Her life, like that of the other villagers, is an uninterrupted routine until the day that Rita, a young photographer, arrives. Rita builds a gentle bond with Madalena, and becomes the conduit between past and present, vision and memory, lost and found.

Southwest (Sudoeste) has chosen a Dreyer-esque black and white, shadowy type of image, with a coarsely grainy film stock, in order to uncover implied stories of incest and repeated abuse. It looks like an ancient Greek drama filmed by a playful spirit, where expressionistic faces glide between real and dreamlike worlds. It is an emotive film, a magic parable about a woman who lives her life in just one day. The traveling camera that glides through long takes; the lateral black-and-white shots and the repetitive background sounds of Eduardo Nunes’ feature debut evoke memories of the cinema of Andrei Tarkovski, Alexander Sokurov or Béla Tarr. It is a complicated world, offering a mesmerizing embrace of real life and obscure times. Here, Nunes captures what lies behind the visible, in a narrative that alternates between Christian and non-Christian beliefs and magical stories.

A few years ago, the Argentinean Armando Bo co-wrote with Alejandro González Iñárritu the award-winning Biutiful. For his own first feature Bo has chosen the path of classical narrative. With very murky humor and perfect rhythm, he tells the story of a singer from Buenos Aires who deeply believes that he IS Elvis Presley. Seen through his eyes, Buenos Aires seems a city awash in celebrity look-alikes: there’s a Steven Tyler here, a Gene Simmons or a  Barbra Streisand there.

The downside of pursuing his passion is the loss of his family — a failed marriage with Alejandra (Griselda Siciliani) and estrangement from his daughter, named of course, Lisa Marie (Margarita Lopez). When his wife and daughter are involved in a car accident, the crisis situation brings them together, forming new intense ties between father and daughter. This new—found love and meaning, though, seems not to be enough for this colorful character, as he follows his determination to live and die just like his idol. During this last chapter of the film, questions araise in the spectator’s mind: is this character for real? Is he really insane? The writer-director achieves here one of the most stirring psychological portraits seen in recent years, sustained by flawless direction skills and by dazzling acting. Everything is filmed as in a state of grace, intentionally avoiding dirt, self—pity or violence.

Latin-American indie cinema of the past year remains, in general, at an elementary level, but some directors offer whiffs of promise that are deeply commendable and worth following.