Death and All His Friends

in 35th Cinélatino – Rencontres de Toulouse

by Daniel Oliveira Silva

The best movies in competition at the 35th CinéLatino were all about dying, killing, and how to deal with it.

Sol wishes to stop death. Irene embraces death. Theo, like Derek Jarman before him, wants to fuck with the dead. Three different characters. Three different countries. Three completely different movies. But just one Latin America, revealed in all its violent and rich complexity at the 35th edition of CinéLatino in Toulouse.

Death, absence, losing someone or something dear, and having to cope with it, seemed to be a recurring theme in the movies that made up this year’s main competition. It offered a great opportunity to reflect on how cinema deals with death, how it presents it, overcomes it, has fun with, or subverts it. If Deleuze says that art is that which resists—resists time, ignores mortality—how is that true (or not) in movies? The trio of films alluded to above, the best in show, displayed very different ways to answer that question.

First, there is Totem (Tótem, 2023). In it, we follow little Sol (Naíma Sentíes), along with her family, during preparations for a birthday party for her cancer-stricken father, Tona (Mateo Garcia), who clearly is not long for this world. It is, mostly, a day of denial. And denial has many forms. A bonsai. A never-ending cake. A dangerous and disastrous fire balloon. A stupid and obviously useless moment of brujería.

In all these situational metaphors (perhaps, one too many), Mexican director Lila Avilés allows her characters to grieve however they are able to. Making a cake, working on a bonsai, or launching a balloon is a way of not looking death in the face, of not having to deal with the inevitable, the unavoidable, with the cruelty of incurable randomness. It is a way to persist in the airless presence of death.

Editor Omar Guzmán has to service and balance all these characters and moments—and at times he (and the movie) struggles, especially when friends, hitherto unknown to the audience, arrive at the final act of the party, and the film nearly spreads itself too thin. Totem works best when it focuses on little Sol. She is not in denial. She knows what is happening, she wants her father not to die, and is very clear about it. Tona’s ongoing survival is not likely: however, it is in Sol that Tona will live. In the way she looks at a painting he made especially for her (and will look again, and again, and again), in her memory of him, in her memory of that day that will forever linger inside her–sometimes stronger, sometimes more elusive–like a movie.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Charcoal (Carvão, 2022). Its characters do not want to deny or ignore death. They embrace it as a means of survival. In order to support her son, Jean (Jean de Almeida Costa), and her lazy closeted alcoholic husband, Jairo (Rômulo Braga), Irene (Maeve Jinkings) kills her comatose father and replaces him with Miguel (César Bordón), a drug dealer in need of a hiding place, in exchange for money.

The movie takes place in a remote redneck backwater in Brazil, but it could just as well have been a forest in the Middle Ages, because this is essentially a dark medieval farce. Just as Carnival was born during that period as an interlude of inversion/subversion—the rich dress as poor, the men as women, the children as adults—in which Christian rules do not apply, Charcoal’s characters dispose themselves of their strict catholic morality very early on in the film: men are revealed to be weak/vulnerable/gay, women are masculine breadwinners, prone to crime and violence, and children are treated as adults. Taking that analogy one step further, they might all be stuck in one of Dante’s circles of hell – represented by their tiny, cluttered, ugly, poorly lit house, which the movie almost never leaves: we are stranded in there with them.

Charcoal is a suffocating, amoral, uncomfortable movie that combines certain social-realistic aesthetics of contemporary independent cinema with a very artificial, plot-heavy approach. Poor people and their environment are depicted with very naturalistic and authentic costumes and production design, however, director Carolina Markowicz does not resort to long tracking shots nor to the condescending documentary-like attitude of “woe is them, look at how they suffer.” The film has a very classic decoupage and mise-en-scène that relies on strong performances to sell the extremes of its farcical plot, and allows for moments of dark humor, such as when Irene and Miguel have a very (in)tense, important argument and, once the drug dealer walks out of the frame, we see that Jairo was sleeping on the couch the whole time. Or when a school principal suggests, after Jean tries to buy drugs for his friend Miguel, that the problem is that it was cocaine and not pot, which, for a nine-year-old, would have been more acceptable.  

Jean, like Sol in Totem, is the moral center of Charcoal. He is a part of all the plans, schemes, and misdeeds of his parents, but his is the only voice that actually points out the hypocrisy of their actions. The movie’s best shot finds him standing by the front door while Irene and Jairo make an ostensibly necessary killing. Jean is not just observing; rather, he is guarding, to make sure no one is coming to witness the murder of someone to whom he had just given a very loving and genuine gift. Jean is learning that, in Charcoal’s universe, it’s kill or be killed. But it’s not Miguel that turns the family into killers. Just like Brazil’s ex-president, Jair Bolsonaro, he is merely an opportunity for the evil that had always been inside them to come out and express itself, permanently contaminating the rest of their lives with stains of death and seeds of doubt about how wicked people can actually be.

Finally, there is Anhell69 (2022). Colombian director Theo Montoya´s work is a brutal, nihilistic gut-punch of queer cinema that hovers within the fine line between life and death. The movie is a eulogy for a feature that Montoya never got to make, but it’s also a eulogy for all the friends that were supposed to collaborate with him on that film, and who have since passed on.

The feature was some sort of sci-fi B-production about a queer dystopia in which people cruise underground parties in search of the outlawed practice of fucking ghosts. And Montoya, like Derek Jarman and the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, now uses Anhell69 to fuck with the literal ghosts of his friends, to have one last chance at a lustful, defiant, rowdy, provocatively non-normative moment with them. If everyone is dying—and we never know exactly why: Covid? Overdose? Homo/transphobic violence? Suicide? All of the above? It does not matter—cinema becomes the only thing that lives and resists. A “place to cry,” as the director puts it early in the movie, but also a place to defy death, to mock it, to spit in its face, then fuck it to try and numb the pain.

Montoya is from Medellín, a city that, in his words, has no horizon, no way out. It is a place haunted by the absence of generations of fathers killed by the cartel violence, where the youth hopelessly and fruitlessly dream of escaping. Anhell69 becomes, thus, a movie of chimeras. A beautiful and gut-wrenchingly painful shrine to all these phantoms, these lives cut too short, these dreams that never were, these works of art never created, these moments of joy, freedom, and possibility never actually felt.

In the face of all these impossibilities and potentials unfulfilled, cinema becomes a last resort, a final chance of some sort of survival. And Montoya’s movie turns into what he calls an experience in trans cinema: a defiant fiction in the body of a harrowing documentary, a harrowing reality in the body of cinema as an act of fabulation and resistance.

Daniel Oliveira Silva
Edited by José Teodoro