No Father in Sight

in 54th Cartagena International Film Festival

by Michał Oleszczyk

Despite its gorgeous setting and infinite good cheer of its organizers, this year’s Cartagena film festival didn’t shy away from bleak visions of the world, in which violence, dread and class inequality reigned supreme. The Official Dramatic Competition, which showcased twelve features from all over South America, was varied enough to include comedies, coming-of-age stories and even a soupçon of magical realism (most welcome in Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s homeland), but had also a prevailing motif. In fact, the latter was so strong as to make the entire competition line-up feel almost like a deliberately programmed theme section.

That theme was the figure of the father: absent, wayward, or downright abusive, as well as steeped in self-defeating ideology of machismo. Of the twelve films screened, majority tackled the subject of masculinity in crisis, either by focusing on a character scarred by their father, or else on a father figure undergoing severe pressure. Even some of the lightweight entries, like the barely sketched Root (Raíz) by Matías Rojas Valencia from Chile, or Matías Lucchesi’s Natural sciences (Ciencias naturales) from Argentina focused on children in dogged search of their fathers, craving an indentity they were robbed of by abandonment. As agreeable as those two films were, they also felt too soft around the edges and too unwilling to confront any but the most stereotypical emotions (it didn’t help that Root’s child actor, Cristóbal Ruiz, seemed bored and barely directed, unlike Natural Sciences’ resilient and perky Paula Galinelli Hertzog).

That was not the case with The Third Side of the River (La tercera orilla): one of the strongest competition entries, basking in the glory of a clinched distribution deal backed by Martin Scorsese himself. Celina Murga’s meticulously directed third feature tells a story of Nicolás (Alián Devetac), a teenage son of a burly, overbearing father (Daniel Veronese, in the single best performance seen in competition). Although Nicolás remains silent for most of the picture, we can see his filial resentment grow with every condescending gesture his father makes in order to instill virility in his offspring. Murga’s stunning attention to detail, combined with impeccable casting and constant awareness of both the apparent and the hidden rhythms of family life, make The Third Side of the River feel a bit like a Tennessee Williams play with all the dialogue cut out — the tension and marrow-deep perversity of patriarchal power structure are always palpable, but never verbalized.

The same strategy of focusing on silent characters and allowing the viewers to figure out their motivations was also present in The Mute (El Mudo), Daniel and Diego Vega’s Mexican-Peruvian co-production, dealing with the aftermath of an attempted assassination of a powerful judge. The man suddenly finds himself with an gun wound in his neck, thus devoid of his most powerful tool — his voice. Equally silent, albeit for purely psychological reasons, was the protagonist of the FIPRESCI-awarded Sundance success, the Chilean thriller To Kill a Man (Matar a un hombre), directed by Alejandro Fernández Almendras. Clearly inspired by such masters of prolonged dread as Alfred Hitchcock (especially by his gas-stove murder sequence in Torn Curtain) and the Coen brothers, Almendras tells a story of an anguished father’s attempt to defend his family. By setting off to kill an intimidating lowlife bully (the frightfully effective Daniel Antivilo), Jorge (Daniel Canida) abandons his humanity to preserve his livelihood — but finds himself unable to silence his conscience. The movie shows a weak, depressed (as well as symbolically diabetic) man discovering what it means to be inhuman, but unlike the glib and cynical TV series Breaking Bad, it doesn’t relish in its protagonist moral degradation. To Kill a Man is a powerful story of death and revenge in the face of mindless violence and bureaucratic inertia — as well as a movie of stunning, unforgettable images and set pieces that are hard to get rid of one’s head long after the screening is over.

Far away from the starkness and violence of Almendras’ existential thriller were the harmless pleasures of Bad Hair (Pelo malo) and Lock Charmer (El Cerraejero) — from Venezuela and Argentina, respectively — both of which indulged in audience-friendly calculation with enough intelligence not to offend or bore. The first film, directed by Mariana Rondón, has a great premise: a little boy from the projects dreams of straightening out his nappy mane of black hair to impersonate a TV singer he idolizes. It’s rarely that movies focus on the ways little boys imagine themselves as anything other than action figures incarnate, and Rondón is very good at showing both the depressing milieu and the boy’s mother’s gender panic (she’s afraid her son may be gay). In the end, though, there’s too much commercial shrewdness to the movie for its social concern to remain plausible (the Glee-inspired end credits sequence is a terrible mistake). Lock Charmer, on the other hand, has a much more authentic feel, as well as some refreshingly heartfelt scenes between its titular character (a locksmith with unwanted oracular powers) and the two women in his life — but director Natalia Smirnoff doesn’t find a look for the film that would reflect its magical-realist premise, thus creating an annoying discord. By contrast, Samuel Kishi Leopo’s imperfect but refreshing We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) felt like a treasury of perfectly observed moments: this far too loose story of a teenage Mexican punk rock band, shouting out obscene lyrics with all the innocence its members are about to shed in favor of adulthood, gave me so much pleasure I expect Leopo to grow into a major talent in the future. He has a feel for authenticity and a craft to support it — not bad things for a movie director.

Speaking of authenticity, it may be telling that the worst movies in the competition were also the most glib and bogus ones: the Brazilian blind gay teen melodrama The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho), featuring as much emotion and truth as a fashion photo shoot, and the Colombian entry Mateo (Mateo), whose director María Gamboa seemed bent on creating a social message picture that would somehow be as upbeat and cuddly as Silver Linings Playbook. A whole different kind of failure could be observed in Club Sandwich (Club sandwich), Fernando Eimbcke’s stripped-down, symbolic coming-of-age drama which completely missed the mark in its attempt to become a Dogtooth-like exercise in behavioral austerity and minimalism. Even that, however, was more welcome than the Colombian family drama Dust on the Tongue (Tierra en la lengua), inexplicably awarded by the main jury with the festival’s first prize. Rubén Mendoza’s god-awful rumination on (you guessed it) an abusive father was suggestive of a bad imitation of the most annoying elements in Bruno Dumont and Carlos Reygadas (suffice to say that a character chopping off her foot by the end seemed an almost obligatory touch: as shocking as it was inconsequential).

Despite those occasional glitches, the Official Dramatic Competition at Cartagena offered a wide palette of cinematic pleasures and testified to the rich cultural background of South America. It’s refreshing to see movies from all around this beautiful continent — scarred yet flourishing — that address head-on some of the most burning issues of the day, as well as the land’s convoluted colonial heritage. South American cinema is very much alive, and Cartagena is a perfect place to get a taste of it.

Michal Oleszczyk