Existential Itineraries in Latin America

in 28th Cinelatino - Toulouse Dating

by Giovanni Ottone

These days it is not appropriate to refer to Latin American cinema as a single movement, or even a panorama. There is no common cultural manifesto or aesthetic program which unites Latin American filmmakers. On the other hand, we can see in many Latin American films the strong mark of the auteur which rejects the old archetypes of magical realism and costumbrism, proposing instead new forms of realism and a different relation between fiction and documentary.

Central and South America are currently a world of social and political contradictions, in which people’s existential itineraries must come to terms with sorrow, discrimination and uncertainty, as well as new needs and rights. In this context, the young Latin American independent filmmakers of the 2000s are presenting a wide variety of styles and narrative approaches, without any kind of thematic dogmatism. Their goal is to look closely at people and families, discovering the core of relationships between individuals of different generations and the facets of their identities.

I will review five films from the main competition – all debut features, eligible for the award from the FIPRESCI jury. Our prize went to the Ecuadorian film Alba by Ana Cristina Barragán. It is an authentic coming-of-age film, truthful and subtle, heart-rending yet unsentimental. Alba is an 11-year-old girl: thin, terribly shy, and given to nosebleeds at inconvenient moments. She is gifted with a special sensibility, silently determined to stand up to the bullying of her classmates. As she faces the discoveries and quandaries of pre-adolescence, Alba must deal with a very distressing situation: her beloved, seriously ill mother is hospitalized, and she is left with her father – virtually a stranger since her parents’ divorce when she was three. Igor is a low-level civil servant: a humble, lonely, rather eccentric man. While he loves his daughter, he is clearly very cautious about forming emotional connections. Alba is ashamed of him. Around the same time, she is accepted into a circle of wealthy middle-class girls. Very slowly, father and daughter get to know each other.

Barragán does not present stereotypes or predictable melodrama. She shows a very mature attitude in composing, with discreet empathy, a detailed portrait of Alba’s inner world, everyday life and sensory experiences: how she acts when she is alone, observing little insects and butterflies and doing jigsaw puzzles, and how she is among friends and adults. This minimalist investigation of a young woman’s journey, both strange and universally recognizable, to puberty and self-acceptance is achieved without didactic or moralistic overtones. The mechanism of progressive revelation creates a delicate and intimate feel. As Alba, Macarena Arias is a striking presence in every scene with a minimum of dialogue. The director, who says she is influenced by the Dardenne brothers, places the hand-held camera close to her protagonist, but without using aggressive semi-subjective shots and close-ups. Barragán is not looking to make a very intense film, and through precise and calm editing, she avoids creating anxiety and claustrophobic effects.

Siembra, by Colombian directors Santiago Lozano Álvares and Ángela Osorio Rojas, won the award for Grand Prix Coup de Coeur for best film from Cinélatino’s main jury. It’s a touching family drama which also offers a very interesting portrait of Afro-Colombian cultural heritage. Turco, a 60-year-old black fisherman, is tall and hieratic, a victim of the violently cruel armed conflicts – almost a civil war – which have taken place in Colombia since 1964 between the leftish narco-guerillas, the right-wing paramilitary groups, and the National army. Turco and his teenage son are displaced, driven out of their lands like millions of their countrymen. Forced to leave their village on the Pacific Coast, father and son now live in a slum on the outskirts of Cali, one of the major inland towns. Turco is trapped by sad homesickness and yearning and hopes to regain his land, while his son goes out in the streets, dancing, singing and trying to make a living with other youngsters. One night, Yosner is shot dead under controversial circumstances. The old man is devastated, now aware that there is no possibility of homecoming. He must now perform the terrible task of giving a decent burial to his son in an unfamiliar town. While the town is overwhelmed with Christmas festivities, he wanders around like a pained soul. Finally, with the help of some neighbours, he goes through the difficult grieving process while trying to find his ancestral roots and restore his dignity. He organizes a vigil, buries his son, and finds a reason to stay in this town.

Shot in nuanced black-and-white, with the clear intention to go beyond conventional realism, the film has a rich, multi-toned texture: it is an intimate drama as well as an anthropological and social documentary about urban immigration in Colombia, and also a kinetic art and musical performance, with stunningly beautiful songs. Álvares and Rojas avoid any kind of sterile psychological analysis. They elaborate a poetic narrative which departs from atmosphere to throw into sharp contrast the nature of mourning and the need for day to-day life to continue. The film focuses on the rural lower-class customs, taste and culture brought into the city: a form of resistance for the displaced individuals. Their past is constructed from glimpses of little details, through their rituals, dialogue, and the way in which they deal with other people. In fact, the directors succeed in offering a full and genuine immersion in the ancient folk traditions of the Afro-Colombian characters, who are played by non-professional actors gifted in dance, music and theater.

Last Land (La última tierra), by the Paraguayan director Pablo Lamar, won the French film critics’ jury award, the Prix Découverte de La Critique Française. It’s a very stylized drama about death and loss. An elderly peasant couple live in an adobe hut on an isolated hill in the middle of the subtropical forest. We have no way of knowing who they are: we assume they are poor, like everyone else in that rural area. The woman, who has probably been sick for a long time, is bedridden in agony. During her final night, the man sits close to his wife in a small room lit by candles. We hear her irregular gasping, a labored death rattle. The man chews food and feeds it to her. He watches over and reassures her, with almost incomprehensible whispers, through the long dark hours before dawn, when she dies. At the moment of death, the screen fades to a blinding blackness, accompanied by a chorus of bird and insect sounds.

The rest of the film shows the man’s attempt to come to terms with his loss. He takes charge of the burial, his actions infused with the power of private rituals. He bathes in a river, chops wood, washes and wraps the woman’s body, and digs a grave. Then he sets a bonfire which consumes both the hut and the woman’s body. At the end of the day, the man lowers his wife’s remains into the ground. In this mood of silent sorrow, his calmness seems radical.

Lamar reduces his narrative to the essentials: around forty takes. There is no dialogue and the sound design is filled with evocative natural noise. The film’s pacing is extremely slow and sometimes languid, with long static shots and fixed-camera images exquisitely framed like photographs in a gallery. The film shows strong narrative and aesthetic similarities with Hamaca Paraguaya (2006) by Paz Encima, another Paraguayan director. Lamar’s film is meditative and austere, but in the end, he creates empty poetry and places beauty over emotion. At first glance we might be reminded of Carlos Reygadas and the early films of Lisandro Alonso, even the work of Béla Tarr and Tarkovsky, but those directors’ styles are actually very different. Lamar’s impressionist approach looks more like an exercise of style, rationally planned and excessively refined. He combines the physical hyperrealism of aged and suffering bodies with an introspective study of man’s place in nature, but becomes bogged down in trite symbolism. The film is presumptuous and manipulative, ultimately unwilling or unable to offer a profound statement about life and death.

Rara, by Chilean director Pepa San Martín, is inspired by the case of Karen Atala, a Chilean judge who came out as a lesbian and lost custody of her child. The film is set in Viña del Mar, a famous tourist hub on the Pacific coast, 120 kilometers from Santiago. The film doesn’t restage Atala’s complex court trial, focusing instead on the family tale. It is part comedy, part coming-of-age film, set in a middle-class milieu. Since their parents split up, preadolescent Sara and her younger sister Cata live with their mother Paula, whose new partner is named Lia. Paula is a 40-year-old magistrate, while her younger girlfriend is a veterinarian. Their everyday life is not so different from that of other families, and Lia has an active role in bringing up the two children. At the beginning, the situation seems to be totally fine with Sara. But her father Victor, now married to another woman, has his doubts. As Sara’s 13th birthday approaches, she feels rather overwhelmed by the combination of her first crush, her changing body, and conflicts over loyalty to her parents. After an insignificant accident, Victor applies for his children’s custody, claiming that his ex-wife’s relationship is detrimental to their children’s education.

San Martín chooses to tell the story through Sara’s eyes and conscience. Little by little, the audience finds out the girl’s feelings about her “non-standard” family, her transforming body, and the attitudes of her classmates and school principal. The director has a sincere approach, but her effort to target the film at a family audience has some drawbacks. The script, by San Martín and Alicia Scherson, shows too many stereotypes, an uncertain depiction of adult relationships, a sense of complacency versus grotesque emphasis, and a precarious balance between comic hints and dramatic twists.

Días extraños, by Colombian filmmaker Juan Sebastián Quebrada, is set in Buenos Aires, where the director studied cinema. It is a portrait of a Colombian couple in their 20s, Federica and Carlos. These two are anarcho-punks living in a crumbling flat, acting out a mix of grotesque bohemian clichés, taking drugs and totally focused on themselves. They have excited compulsive sex and claim to love each other, but they constantly argue, with explosions of rage and intolerance. During the day, when they are not engaged in empty talks, they spend time drifting, with their bored and destructive impulses, through different areas of the city: streets, subways, parks. At night, they attend multiple parties in a vortex of game-playing, jealousy, betrayal and weirdness: getting drunk, having sex with other people, and provoking each other.

One day they drug a Uruguayan girl in order to get her into bed. After this experience, Federica begins an emotional and sexual relationship with the newcomer, excluding Carlos. Phone calls reveal that these two “heroes” belong to middle-class families and demand financial support from their relatives. Shot in black-and-white, the film shows an atypically multi-ethnic and timeless Buenos Aires, almost void of Argentinians. Quebrada strains to connect with the contemporary reality of these problematic youngsters, and the film lacks authenticity and real drama: stereotypes and predictable devices are prevalent. The presentation of sensation, nerve and audacity is rather dated: a poor imitation of well-known American indies. And regrettably, Quebrada romanticizes these characters, for their presumed marginality and even their dilapidated locations. The direction of the actors is unsatisfactory – there is constant overacting. So, at the end, this very boring film, full of mannerisms, depicts both a caricature of a madly extreme love story and a fictitious and falsely provocative image of youth’s malaise.

Edited by Lesley Chow