Naked Mambo

in 28th Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Eduardo Antin

Predictably enough, the official jury of the Latin American competition awarded the Mexican film The Amazing Cat Fish (Los insólitos peces gato), by Claudia Sainte-Luce, and also gave special mention to Chile’s The Quispe Girls (Las niñas Quispe), by Sebastián Sepúlveda. Both represent the recent growth of what can be called the “independent industry” in the region, which is particularly noticeable in both of the countries from which the awarded films originate. By “independent industry”, I mean the continuous output of films that are co-financed by foreign funds, chosen by festivals and recognized by jurors because of a carefully written script, the presence of trained actors (usually with a theater-like intensity in their performance), the high standard of technical quality in sound and image, the politically correctness of the subjects, and the emotional appeal of the stories. An optimist could praise this state of things as a true advance in Latin-American production in recent years. A less favorable perspective will state that this is a sort of Hollywood filmmaking for the Third World, with a neorealist touch.

Two films in the section judged by FIPRESCI didn’t quite match this type, being less narrative and connected to different cultural issues. One of them is our winner, the Mexican film Penumbra, by Eduardo Villanueva. “Penumbra” may be translated as “twilight,” and indeed, the film deals with the evaporation of a hunter’s way of life and the gloomy presence of the past, bearing ghostly traces of the writings of Juan Rulfo, whose small but seminal oeuvre was set in the same locations. Penumbra is a peaceful film, without emotional somersaults, where the protagonist’s obsession with a deer that he finally manages to hunt is less a plot device than another touch of grey in the somber color palette of the film.

Much more alien to the Latin American festival mainstream was the remarkable Mambo Cool, a Colombian film by Chris Gude, a native from New York. Following in the footsteps of Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, the film takes place in semi-abandoned buildings, among drug consumers with whom the filmmaker built a creative collaboration during a long shooting period. But instead of  the sad and silent Cabo Verdean immigrants Costa finds in Lisbon, the Medellín people portrayed in Mambo Cool are talkative and funny. Adventurous, uncertain of its results, Mambo Cool has no plot; its running time is just an hour and the core of the film — its true finding — is the connection between the characters’ passion for mambo dancing, music and history. Mambo was born in Cuba, connected with modern jazz in New York and gradually spread to the rest of Latin America, in particular to Colombia, where the film shows that the genre still has devoted followers. In these mambo fans are echoes of New York bohemian life in the 50s, the sense of freedom emanating from Beat Generation writers like Burroughs or Kerouac, but also from a great Colombian bohemian, Andrés Caicedo, the poet, novelist, music fan, film critic and pop star who was born in Cali and died in 1977, when he was only 25. These links are not explicit statements in the film, but hints of the joy associated with its music and poetry, of the explosive energy that the protagonists feel despite their poverty and marginality. As one of the more colorful character states, true music is not only supposed to touch the heart, but to reach the spirit, too. This subtle difference accounts for the big gap between the mambo tradition and the more domesticated versions of salsa for export, either as pop material or the soft arrangements of Buena Vista Social Club. In a way, also, the gap between emotion and spirit serves as a metaphor to understand what is missing — in spite of the sentimentality of the films — in the Latin American mainstream genre addressed at the beginning of this article.

Edited by José Teodoro