Reality Shock

in 15th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Ricardo Largman

At a time when Hollywood is directing its spotlight to films about the influence of new technologies and social media in the globalized world of the 21st century, Latin American cinema is turning itself to more prosaic themes in which cinematographic harshness mingles with the recurrent misfortune of its characters. This natural and visceral tendency can be found in most of the titles selected for the competition sections of this year’s Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.

Almost all films hold in common an obsession with portraying human misery, spread and mirrored throughout the most distinct microcosms of the continent. In a small Mexican village, in a modern-day Brazilian metropolis, in the past and in the present, pain and loneliness are commonplace characters. Sometimes the setbacks explode onscreen in a scatological manner; in others they are unjustified, exposed for the pure and simple intention of shocking the viewer. The pathological lethargy of the main character of Halley, directed by Mexican newcomer Sebastián Hofmann, is halfway between these two paths by recreating, with hints of Kafka and Cronenberg, the story of an ordinary man brutally and physically transformed (this time) into a zombie.

His more experienced fellow countryman Amat Escalante depicts with Heli, one of the festival’s highlights, the violent and crude reality imposed by the drug trafficking war on the outskirts of Mexico. With his characters, Escalante doesn’t make concessions. At one point a bloodied body is thrown from the top of a footbridge; at others the viewer comes across scenes of atrocious affliction and humiliation. No matter how absurd, these images cannot be compared to the coldness and indifference in which the hit men promote the barbarity. From the filmmakers’ standpoint, other people’s lives are worth as much to them as an empty beer bottle.

Oppression — of the psychological kind — sets the tone in Dog Flesh (Carne de Perro) by Chile’s Fernando Guzzoni, The Man of the Crowd (O Homem das Multidões) by Brazil’s Marcelo Gomes and Cao Guimarães, and La Paz by Argentina’s Santiago Loza. These are three films completely unlike each other: the first can be summarized as the “existential crisis” of an ex-torturer on the verge of an emotional breakdown; the second, with a narrative punctuated by long, slow close-up takes, portrays the stale and tedious life of two employees, a man and a woman, of Belo Horizonte’s subway system; and the last follows the struggle of a young suicidal man as he exits a psychiatric hospital and searches for a new north of a geographical nature in order to set a course for his life. They are three films completely alike, nevertheless, where the loneliness seems to numb their protagonists and tear them apart. Here lies an undistorted reflection of the evil that, silently and indistinctly, devastates modern Latin American society, diminishing in a dramatic fashion the resilience of the individual and of their families.

A breath of optimism comes from the sensitive The Life After (La Vida Después), by Mexico’s David Pablos, which deals with a mother afflicted by mental illness and her two teenage sons. The writer-director adopts here a filmic approach that is very conventional, but appropriate and well-executed under every scrutiny. The result is a poignant and delicate drama which perhaps does not dare greater merit.

Boldness, on the other hand, is what is not lacking to Tattoo (Tatuagem), by Brazil’s Hilton Lacerda. In an outstanding performance, actor Irandhir Santos heads a theatrical troupe that in the late 1970s — a time still under the Brazilian military dictatorship’s control and censorship of the arts — defies power and contemporary social conventions. Their abundance of critiques of religion, family and traditions are done with humor and sarcasm, as well as offering the viewer generous doses of nudity and inspired musicality.

In a section with so many similarities and at the same time so varied, there is even space for veterans such as Brazilian director Sérgio Bianchi. The author of Chronically Unfeasible (Cronicamente Inviável) brings to the surface, more than 40 years later, the anguish of the leftists who survived the Brazilian military dictatorship in The Beheading Game (Jogo das Decapitações). The connection with the recent protests that have occupied the country’s streets is more than explicit: on the day of the official screening, in a film theater a few meters away from Rio de Janeiro’s City Council, the audience could listen to the boisterous clash between the population and the police force. If in fact Latin American cinema nowadays keeps itself disconnected from Hollywood themes, it has never been so close to its own reality.

Edited by Carmen Gray