Elegies from Latin America

in 28th Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Melis Behlil

Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival is known as a showcase for Latin American cinema. Now in its 28th edition, the festival has three main competitions: International, Latin American and Argentinian. Within the Latin American section, the main jury awarded its Best Film prize to The Amazing Catfish (Los insólitos peces gato) by Claudia Sainte-Luce from Mexico, with a special mention for The Quispe Girls (Las niñas Quispe), a Chile-France-Argentina co-production by Sebastián Sepúlveda. The International Film Critics’ Prize in the same competition went to Mexico’s Penumbra by Eduardo Villanueva.

The Amazing Catfish, while telling the story of a family’s transformation through the mother’s battle with a terminal illness, was the more cheerful film among the three. Energetic performances by its young cast and a penchant for bright daytime shots built a clear contrast with what could have easily become a sob story that exploited the emotions of the audience. Instead, what we have is a first feature that is distanced yet heartwarming.

The other two films that have been recognized at the festival share quite a lot, both in terms of theme and style. In their own ways, both are elegies to disappearing lifestyles. The Quispe Girls is adapted from a play set in the remoteAndean plateaus of Chile during the Pinochet regime. Three goat-farming sisters, mourning a fourth who is no longer with them,live isolated lives, oblivious to the political turmoil in the country. The daily routines they seem to fulfill with vigor and pleasure have been beautifully shot, with excellent acting by a mix of professional and non-professional actors. It is only when the sisters notice that all other farmers in the region have sold their flocks under the threat of government confiscation that they become aware this may be the end of the only way of life that they know.

True to its title, Penumbra was shot mostly in twilight hours, providing the film with a darker feel. It tells the story of a hunter and his wife on the remote border region between the states of Jalisco and Colima in Mexico. The characters are portrayingtheir own lives, placing the film somewhere between documentary and fiction. The couple is alone, haunted by the absence of a son they have lost and the animals who are no longer there to be hunted. From its impressive opening shot, Penumbra is a beautifully crafted film that invites the viewer into the world of its characters, yet refuses to provide an easy way in.

Edited by José Teodoro