An Overview of the Hispano-Latin American Cinema at The Montreal World Film Festival

in 28th Montreal World Film Festival

by Jorge Gutman

Since its inception in 1977, the Montreal World Film Festival (WFF) has played an important role in promoting the cinema of Latin America and Spain. Its 28th edition, held from 26 August to 6 September 2004, was truly exceptional. Thirty-eight films were shown throughout different sections, including the World Competition, Hors Concours (Out of Competition), Cinema of the Americas (Latin America), Cinema of Europe, and the “Variety Critics Choice”. What’s more, five of the twenty-one movies selected to compete for the Grand Prize of the Americas for Best Film were from Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain. What follows is an abridged critical review of some of the films that I had the opportunity to screen.

Iciar Bollain’s third feature film TE DOY MIS OJOS (Take my Eyes) touches upon the mistreatment of women through physical violence. An excellent and concise script written by Bollain and Alicia Luna depicts a story about an ordinary middle class married couple in which the wife suffers from her husband’s incontrollable violence. What makes this film so intense, vivid, and compassionate is Bollain’s courage and intelligence to treat the subject like a clinical case study by trying to penetrate the soul of a sick person. The movie neither makes pretensions nor offers any solution to the problem; however, it does leave a door open for further discussions.

Performances are outstanding in this provocative story. Luis Tosar, one of Spain’s best actors, provides a volcanic portrayal as the tormented husband struggling with his inner demons and trying – to no avail – to overcome his rage. Whether crying, yelling or showing his aggressiveness to his wife, Tosar’s interpretation is first rate. Equally deserving is the beautiful Laia Marull as the battered wife who is afraid of her husband’s outbursts. Marull’s acting reaches a climax point when her character can’t avoid the incontinence produced while looking at her husband with terrorized eyes, after being tormented and humiliated with his brutal behaviour. While her first two movies left a good impression, TE DOY MIS OJOS confirms Bollain as a solid filmmaker.

In his opera prima feature film BUENA VIDA DELIVERY, Buenos Aires native Leonardo Di Cesare conveys a strange and weird story. A mix of dramatic black humour, the film is a reflection of the social and economic crisis in Argentina since late 2001.

With this screenplay, written together with Hans Garrino, Di Cesare proves to be an accomplished storyteller. While the beginning is a little loose and not completely convincing, the film builds up as the story develops becoming captivating and appealing. A young delivery man gets involved with a young woman who works at a gas station and lets a room in his house to her. What appears to be yet another “boy meets girl” or a romantic comedy of sorts soon turns out to be a film about squatters when the girlfriend’s parents come to live with them, invading his home. To make matters worse, they establish a factory of “churros” (Spanish donuts) in the premises.

While Di Cesare tries to bring humour to this sad story, he also leaves the viewer with a taste of bitterness by depicting the way of life of simple people trying to survive in a nasty jungle by resorting to immoral procedures. The story’s unexpected denouement is a clear statement about a society in which honesty and dishonesty are on par with each other.

In this well-written drama, the director neither demonizes nor sanctifies the characters; he merely shows the dark side of a country in disarray and its dramatic effects relating to family issues, unemployment, and ruthless procedures. By and large, this well-acted and honest film represents a strong calling card for Di Cesare.

An amiable and unassuming drama about a muted love is what Argentine director Federico Hidalgo’s first movie proposes in A SILENT LOVE (Un Amor Silencioso), a Canadian production with a distinctive Latin American touch. The basic plot concerns an introverted middle-aged college professor from Montreal who looks for a bride via an Internet matchmaking agency. The chosen Mexican woman is half his age. When he travels to meet her in Mexico City, she accepts his proposal provided he accepts her widowed mother to live with them, which he agrees to.

Back in Montreal, life won’t be all roses for the newly married couple and love will elude them. When the bride’s mother becomes the marriage counsellor for both, the story takes a twist with unexpected results.

What makes this yarn different from the typical cross-cultural movies is that A SILENT LOVE is not a picture interested in contrasting different cultures, languages or ethnicities; rather, the plot deals with the generational gap and different life objectives that separate the newlyweds, as well as the mysterious complexities of love when desires are unfulfilled.

The acting is good and helped by well-depicted characters. Noel Burton comes across as the reserved man who hides his real feelings beneath an extreme gentlemanly behaviour. Vanessa Bauche, remembered for her good participation in “Amores Perros”, shines as the beautiful, determined, and smart bride searching for happiness, while Susana Salazar, the best of the trio, excels as the young widow with plenty of energy and innate psychology that becomes the focus of his son-in-law’s passion.

The film’s adopted low-key tone makes the story lose momentum and fails to graft enough emotion. Still, with its subdued and contemplative tone as well as some subtle notes of humour, this is an unpretentious and gentle drama worth seeing.

Juan José Campanella returns to Montreal with LUNA DE AVELLANEDA, a follow-up to “The Son of the Bride”, which won the jury’s Special Grand Prix and the best Latin American film of the Montreal WFF in 2001. While his latest movie does not hit the mark in the same way as the previous one, Campanella does know how to reach a real and sincere feeling with a touch of nostalgia.

In this story penned by Campanella, Fernando Castets, and Juan Pablo Domenech, a social, sports, cultural and recreational club named “Luna de Avellaneda” is the focal point of the movie.

Like many other clubs which prevailed during most of the last century in Latin-American countries, this family-oriented institution was like a second home for its members, and also represented the very essence of their neighbourhood. Nowadays, with the Argentine debacle which started in the 90s, the change in moral values of an impoverished society, and new winds blowing in opposite directions, “Luna’s existence is in serious danger due to its difficult financial conditions.

Through protagonist Román (Ricardo Darín), a middle-aged family man and prominent member of the club’s Board of Administration, the spectator is introduced to the various members of the institution who hold different viewpoints on how to save “Luna” from its imminent bankruptcy.

In some minor instances, Campanella can’t avoid falling into false and idealistic situations. However, in general he manages to spin a touching story without being manipulative or condescending. On the whole, the movie is genuinely witty and humorous, offsetting the intrinsic remembrance of better times.

The cast, like in most Campanella’s movies, is almost perfect. Ricardo Darín deserves kudos for his great performance.

Children’s adoption by homosexual parents is one of the world’s most debatable topics and has long ways to go before reaching a general consensus. However, Spanish director Miguel Albaladejo dares to tackle this thorny issue with boldness in the clever film CACHORRO (Bear Cub).

This genuinely candid and moving chronicle depicts Pedro (José Luis García Pérez), a gay man who is looking after his little 9 years old nephew Bernardo (David Castillo) while his hippie mother (Elvira Lindo) is away on a trip to India. The script never intends to deal directly with parenthood adoption; however it does touch the subject when the irresponsible mother is detained and imprisoned in India for drug dealing problems and her return is uncertain. The dramatic issue arises when the estranged paternal grandmother claims her right to keep the child under her protection, alleging that Pedro’s homosexual style of living is not recommendable for Bernardo’s best interest.

Opposing the grandmother’s moralistic attitudes which reflect a total lack of affection to the warm relationship of tenderness between Pedro and Bernardo, the film’s message is straightforward and clear: real compassion, love and tenderness is what a child needs from those taking care of him, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Performances are solid down the line, as well as the crafted script which nurtures the story. However, what diminishes the real impact of CACHORRO is its unnecessary long sequence of explicit sex in the opening scene, as well as another one in a gay bathhouse. It is difficult to understand why Albaladejo resorted to such images when they are completely useless within the context of the narrative, which otherwise is characterized by its subtle treatment.

Victor Manuel Arregui’s first feature FUERA DE JUEGO (Offsides) has plenty of good intentions, but that’s not enough to become a successful movie project. With the social and political unrest and economic depression in Ecuador, the filmmaker portrays the routine life of a teenager who ignores how to face his future. His dysfunctional and impoverished family does not help him to provide with a useful direction. His friends, like him, are dreaming and scheming for ways to flee the country in search of a better life in Europe, mainly in Spain. What other choice is there but crime?

The ever repetitive narrative thread is hampered by an amateurish style. The melodramatic soap-opera tone does little to improve the situation. Good performances from Manolo Santillán, Danny Bustamante, Ximena Ganchala, Gerardo Pinto, Silvia Ruales and Alejandro Cruz, among others, are the only saving grace of this movie. Technical work is unpretentious, and the rudimentary camera by German Valverde does not bring to life the beauty of Quito, where the story is set.

If “Buena Vista Social Club” was a tribute to Cuba’s music and its musicians, SUITE HABANA (Havana Suite) is Fernando Pérez’s homage to Havana, the beautiful capital of the Caribbean island. The director provides an affectionate look at the city and its people on a given day. A young man peddling his bicycle, a child with Downs Syndrome, his father who used to be an architect and now is a builder, a retired professor, a worker at a hospital, a woman working in a perfume factory, a railway repairman playing the saxophone, a doctor who devotes part of his time acting like a clown and magician in children parties, and a dancer performing Swan Lake are among the different types of people introduced by Pérez through very interesting and sometimes moving snapshots. There are neither interviews nor dialogues — only well-captured images as well as natural sounds expressing a totally different reality than the one the tourist industry promotes of Havana. When the lyrics of a heart-warming bolero close the movie by saying, “cuando se quiere de veras, como te quiero yo a ti…”, Pérez reflects his love for his city in which the faces of its denizens speak louder than words. A sensitive, poetic and lyrical film, SUITE HABANA successfully explores the soul and mood of this urban metropolis.

Marcos Bernstein, the well known screenwriter of Walter Salles’ “Central Station”, offers a well-crafted character study in O OUTRO LADO DA RÚA (The Other Side of the Street). Inspired by Hitchcock’s suspenseful classics and Chabrol’s French thrillers, the movie stars the acclaimed Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro as a divorced woman who works as an informer for the police department denouncing crimes taking place in Rio de Janeiro. From her apartment, she witnesses a judge (Raúl Cortez) supposedly killing his wife. The plot revolves around her investigation that leads to her getting close to him and eventually an autumnal romance develops. While the script could have been a little more elaborated, the perceptive story is well told and achieves a satisfactory level of intimacy by approaching the human feelings of its characters in a compelling and emotional way.

If potential filmmakers want to shoot a movie about love I strongly recommend attending Brazilian José Roberto Torero’s master class about this subject. His debut feature COMO FAZER UN FILM DE AMOR (Manual for Love Stories) is a brilliant, amusing and hilarious comedy that proves once more that with intelligence and a lot of imagination the sky is the limit. This ingenious script, written by the talented director, deals with making a romantic comedy from A to Z. Using a clever mechanism (a kind and ironic narrator), the public is invited to participate in the casting of the central characters that become the couple of the story, the choosing of their professions, how they meet, how they detest each other, how they fall in love, etc. With clichés and stereotypic situations exploited for fun, plus many original twists and unexpected surprises, this fast-paced film provides 85 minutes of great entertainment. In brief, a little great comedy with charming performances by Denise Fraga, Cassio Gabus Mendes, Marisa Orth, and André Abujamra. Special mention goes to Paolo Jose’s excellent voiceover narration.

PALOMA DE PAPEL (Paper Dove) is a Peruvian film from newcomer director Fabrizio Aguilar set in an Andean mountain village during the decade of the eighties and early nineties when Sendero Luminoso guerrillas were terrifying poor peasants and corrupted governments in order to bring their own concept of revolutionary justice. With well-portrayed characters and a well-constructed script also written by Aguilar, the story recounts the coming-of-age of an eleven year-old boy who is abducted by the guerrillas in order to undergo a brainwashing procedure to transform him, along with other children of his age, into a terrorist child and bloody murderer. The depiction of the characters is very good and both the children and adult actors bring strong realism and conviction to their roles. In spite of some flaws, specifically during the first reels in which the film takes its time to take off, the director shows an unusual maturity in reflecting a turmoil era in which many innocent youngsters were trapped between the sanguinary Shining Path movement and the inefficiency of local authorities. By and large, a very interesting portrait of socio-political cinema.