Children of Purgatory

in 26th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Brian Johnson

Being at a film festival is like being on a train. A landscape of cinema rolls by the widescreen window, uninterrupted. Along the way, you sometimes drift into dream, or are jolted into hyperawareness. When it’s over, and you arrive at your “destination”, you wonder what remains. Chances are you’ve discovered a fresh talent or two that you never knew existed; you’ve seen the language of cinema reinvented, yet again; and in that rolling landscape you’ve noticed certain thematic contours that are so bold, and contiguous, that they must have greater significance than the sum of the images spliced into your memory.

Among Latin American films at the Havana Festival this year, what stood out for me was the portrayal of children. Time and again, the most disturbing, exciting or touching moments in a film would pivot on an ending of childhood innocence-whether it was horrific, erotic, romantic or simply cute. In La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl), Lucrecia Martel constructs an oblique drama about an older man preying on a post-pubescent girl in an hotel. And what drives the story is a sense of impending violation, which is powerful enough to destroy the man even without consummation. The girl is a passive actor in the drama, unaware of the consequences, yet so much of what happens stems from her desires.

In Familia Rodante (The Rolling Family), Argentine director Pablo Trapero offers a bittersweet comedy about a dysfunctional clan heading off to a wedding in a camper van. The transgression that fuels the narrative’s nuclear fission is an act of comic-then-tragic infidelity between in-laws. But to the viewer, what seems most shocking is a casual subplot involving a young teenage girl who voraciously pursues her cousin, and initiates him into the art of French kissing, until the two are eating each other alive. It’s not the incest angle that’s alarming, it’s the queasy voyeurism of watching two quite young teenagers exploring sex onscreen-breaking a taboo first smashed by the infamous Larry Clark (Kids). Unlike Clark’s work, however, the adolescent necking in Familia Rodante doesn’t seem lurid or exploitative. These kids just look like they’re having loads of harmless fun. If anything, they’re trying too hard for the camera, a crime of overacting that’s more sweet that sensational.

Then there’s Chile ‘s Machuca, from director Andrés Wood. Here we experience the political drama of the military coup that topples Chilean president Salvador Allende almost entirely through the eyes of children-two boys from opposite sides of the tracks who become friends. Once again there’s some loss of sexual innocence, involving a precocious teenage girl who takes a boy in hand. There’s even a kind of kindergarten stab at a ménage-a-trois. The coup, of course, will come between these class-crossed characters like a thunderbolt. What’s fascinating about Machuca is that by letting us witness a national tragedy through a child’s uncomprehending eyes, the injustice registers as much more raw and immediate.

Finally, we have El Cielito (Little Sky), our FIPRESCI prize-winner. Directed by Argentina ‘s María Victoria Menis, it’s the story of a 20-year-old vagabond who finds work on a farm, and rescues a baby from a violent father and an abused wife. He exhibits a gentle, doting affection for the baby, something we don’t see in a lot of male protagonists. And the child’s innocence is reflected in the hero’s own character-played by Leonardo Ramirez, an aboriginal actor from Patagonia , who delivers a wealth of thought and emotion with very few words. In a sense, the baby, mirrored through Ramirez’s eyes, is the star of the picture. One could argue that Ramirez is just another noble savage, but the honesty of the performance transcends the cliché. He’s an adult naïf who knows more about what’s right and wrong than those around him, an adult with a child’s heart. He shows us that native intuition doesn’t lie, and neither does the lens: nothing conveys more truth on camera than that of a child’s eyes discovering the world with no preconceptions, and seeing it shattered.

Brian D. Johnson