New Latin American Directors

in 55th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Dennis West

The meaty New Directors Showcase at the 55th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) presented recent fiction features by first- and second-time directors emerging on the international scene. Latin America was well represented in this section by films from Mexico, Chile, and Brazil. Because of the severe time constraints imposed on those of us who must write quickly as a film festival unfolds, only brief descriptive and evaluative notes can be offered concerning the following films.

Mexican screenwriter-director Gabriel Mariño’s A Secret World (Un mundo secreto) is his second feature film. The presentation of this work was billed by the festival as a North American premiere. A Secret World offers a disturbing psychological-emotional portrait of María — well played by Lucía Uribe — an alienated, recent graduate of a high school in Mexico City. The narrative begins in the capital city, where we follow the introverted María’s desolate everyday routine, which includes degrading and unfulfilling on-demand sexual encounters with neighborhood punks. In order to find the meaning of existence, or perhaps simply to restart her life, she decides, without informing her mother, to go on the road — specifically to Mexico’s Pacific Coast à la a character in a María Novaro film. Mariño ably employs the standard conventions of the road movie genre, such as chance encounters with intriguing strangers and the interplay of landscape and human emotion. María’s journey ends literally out on the Pacific Ocean with a thrilling, difficult-to-film sequence in which she appears to actually pet breaching whales. A Secret World is adequately crafted in terms of cinematic technique, but, unfortunately, it suffers from debilitating script deficiencies. The most serious defect is a lack of depth in the portrayal of María. By the end of the film, we still know little about her and the recent emotional-psychological journey she has undergone.

Another film that paints a portrait is Chilean screenwriter-director Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ drama By the Fire (Sentados frente al fuego). Fernández Almendras intimately portrays a heterosexual middle-aged working class couple in rural southern Chile who struggle to make ends meet and to maintain their relationship when the wife becomes increasingly ill. The director’s style is rigorously realist; and the dominant stylistic features are the long take and the long shot. Thus the director does succeed in his all-important goal of showing his characters working and living within their social and physical environment. However, the problem with this approach is basically the same as in the case of A Secret World — by the end of the narrative we simply do not know much about either protagonist as individuals — their motivation, psychology, etc. The characters are not well rounded and complete, and viewers are left frustrated.

The two best Latin American features in the New Directors Showcase were both Brazilian. Screenwriter-director Kleber Mendoça Filho’s outstanding first feature, Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor) draws on fine ensemble acting and an intriguing interwoven and crisscrossing narrative structure to explore the troubled lives of characters residing on an upscale street in his native northeastern coastal city of Recife. The film’s narrative frame is chronologically limited to a few days, but in this short time period Mendoça Filho explores in depth and creatively some of the most pressing socioeconomic themes currently facing Brazil as it emerges onto the world stage: the profound divisions that have traditionally and stubbornly separated the country’s haves and have-nots; the long-standing tendency of certain Brazilians to resort to extrajudicial violence to settle personal differences; the Brazilian penchant to seek advantage not through merit but through influence peddling involving personal contacts with powerful relatives, friends, and other influential persons; and the urgent social problems that have arisen with the rapid growth of Brazilian mega-cities, from pervasive street crime to the high cost and competing uses of urban real estate. For some time now Mendoça Filho has been known as a creative maker of shorts and as a perceptive critic. With Neighboring Sounds he emerges onto the Brazilian film scene as a major up-and-coming talent. And this talent is now being recognized internationally — for instance, by the awarding of a prestigious FIPRESCI Prize to Neighboring Sounds even before it showed up at SFIFF.

Another excellent Brazilian fiction feature to have already captured a FIPRESCI Prize before arriving at the 55th edition of SFIFF is director and co-screenwriter Júlia Murat’s moving Found Memories (Histórias que so Existem cuando Lembradas). Thematically, Found Memories is highly reminiscent of Spanish director Mercedes Alvarez’ superb recent documentary feature The Sky Turns (El cielo gira) in that both films provide engaging and sympathetic looks at remote, down-and-out rural towns that are dying away as young people have already left in search of a better life and only elders remain — oldsters who stubbornly cling to their outmoded ways of life. In the fictional Found Memories, a young woman, a photographer, appears out of nowhere and begins to record life in a poor remote town in a coffee-growing region of Brazil. The photographer brings with her extensive photographic equipment, including old-style cameras such as the pinhole. Murat’s observational style meshes well with her themes, such as the work of visually recording disappearing folkways being conducted by the photographer. Cinematographer Lúcio Bonelli is to be congratulated for his creative work in depicting the protagonist’s ancient-looking photographs as well as for his ability to capture the plays of light and dark in buildings where electricity has not — and will not — reach.

A fifth feature, the Chilean Christián Jiménez’ Bonsái, appeared in the New Directors Showcase; but I was unable to see it because of scheduling difficulties. The four Latin American features discussed above, however, do give an adequate idea of the importance of Latin America in this strong selection.