Refugiado Means Fugitive

in 19th Kerala International Film Festival

by Tadeusz Lubelski

A European visitor at the Kerala International Film Festival must be amazed by the local audience’s great interest in cinema, a passion which far surpasses that seen in Europe. One is also impressed by the high level of the festival’s competition. Of the 14 films in competition, we considered at least half of the titles for the FIPRESCI Prize, finally narrowing the selection down to three contenders.

The Mexican film One for the Road (En el Ultimo Trago) by Jack Zagha Kababie is a sentimental yet finely executed comic road movie, which should gain international popularity. The narrative refinement of the Moroccan They Are the Dogs (C’est eux les chiens) by Hicham Lasri might find it harder to reach an audience; therefore, after some discussion, we decided to present this mockumentary with the FIPRESCI Prize. However, for me, the best film of the competition was the Argentinian movie (co-produced with France) Refugiado by Diego Lerman. This film was awarded the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Lerman’s fourth film has already been shown at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, but with all the competition at Cannes it might have slipped under the radar. Now, with this big victory in Thiruvananghapuram, the film should receive the attention it rightfully deserves.

Refugiado means “fugitive” in Spanish, and since its titular hero is a seven-year-old boy, this film might be compared with a similarly titled classic, The Little Fugitive (1953), directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Like its American predecessor, Refugiado attempts to portray the world through the eyes of a child. But in contrast to the earlier film, Lerman’s work contains a second, parallel theme, introduced by the character of the boy’s mother, who is an ally in his escape. We see the social problem of domestic violence as well as the women’s solidarity against it. It is the combination of these two topics which makes for such an original movie, a suspenseful coming-of-age film.

The Polish cinematographer Wojciech Staron was an important collaborator and co-author of the film. He is known for creating films from a child’s perspective, including the outstanding Argentinian Lesson (2011), a film he shot while living in Argentina with his family thanks to his wife’s appointment as a teacher in the local Polish community. During this period, he also had a chance to work with Paula Markovitch on the great El Premio (2011). As in those two films, the camera in Refugiado is often placed at the child’s eye-level, in order to convey the emotions that accompany his discovery of the world.

In the opening scene, where Matias (the stunning child actor Sebastian Molinaro) celebrates his seventh birthday, the world still seems to be a friendly place. But in the very next scene, when Matias is taken home by a teacher after no-one collects him from school, he finds his injured mother lying on the floor, and a more menacing reality is revealed. As we soon learn, during a fine scene where testimony is made before an all-female committee, the pregnant mother, Laura (Julier Diaz), was beaten by her husband, who suspects her of having an affair with a colleague. Since her life is in danger, Laura needs to hide out with Matias. First she arrives at a women’s shelter (a great sequence which shows that her case is not isolated), then she moves to a second-rate hotel, and finally she reaches the suburban house of Matias’ former nanny. The child’s sense of security will never be regained, and he will have to learn to live without it.

It is not difficult to see that in Argentina, this scenario has an added political resonance, connected to the memory of the junta regime. The character of the father is actually absent from the film; only once, during a risky visit by Laura and Matias to their house, do we see the father’s fuzzy silhouette. The father represents the many facets of machismo in Argentina.

However, the film’s primary emotion is independent of political context: the recognition that, due to the nature of the world, people have to arm themselves. Matias’ final act (which I will not spoil) proves that he is capable of gaining that armor. Although his gesture prompted a burst of applause from the audience in Thiruvananghapuram, it is a move irreconcilable with innocence.

Edited by Lesley Chow