The Latin American Debutantes in the Search for the Oscar

in 15th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Marcelo Janot

Unlike most film festivals, where the exhibited films are selected by the festivals programmers, for the Oscar competition, each country has the opportunity to submit its own entry. Usually, an official committee, under the responsibility of the government, is responsible for choosing this film, under a criteria that can range from the artistic value to the business interest. In any case, it is interesting to note how that choice may reflect the way these countries would like to be seen worldwide. Another consideration is how they would like their cinema to be seen.

One of the many things that we might notice after watching the nine Latin American films submitted to the Academy this year, is that five of the directors make their feature debuts, which sounds like a very interesting fresh breath. Three of those first features are loyal to the tradition of the classic Latin American cinema, with strong political and melodramatic background: the Peruvian “Paloma de Papel – Paper Dove”, by Fabrizio Aguilar, the Colombian “La Primera Noche – The First Night”, by Luis Alberto Restrepo, and the Uruguayan “El Viaje Hacia El Mar – Seawards Journey”, by Guillermo Casanova.

“Paloma de Papel” and “La Primera Noche” have the same leitmotif: to show how terrorism in Peru and Colombia have crucially affected the life of countryside habitants from those countries. Under a surprisingly good narrative control, Aguilar offers an interesting investigation on Sendero Luminoso guerilla group activities during the eighties. On the same hand, Restrepo, even facing series of technical and dramaturgical problems in his film (like bad acting and the obvious plot, structured upon a flashback), is able to establish a connection between the countryside guerilla and the violence in the urban center. It tells the story of a couple who is forced to migrate to escape the terrorist threat.

In “El Viaje Hacia El Mar”, the political subtext is very subtle, quite imperceptible, but the rural landscape has great importance in the story, almost as a character that interacts with the group of countryside citizens who decide to go on a journey to the coast for the first time. It’s clear the effort made by director and screenwriter Guillermo Casanova to avoid that the nostalgic atmosphere could lead to an overdose of melodramatic clichés, and he succeeds in that aspect, although the main characters are stereotyped and trapped into some naïve dialogues and situations.

The other two first feature films show a different face of Latin American cinema. The 25 year old Bolivian Rodrigo Bellot (“Dependencia Sexual – Sexual Dependency”) and the 30 year old Chilean Andrés Waissbluth (“Los Debutantes – The Debutantes”) seem to belong to a generation of young directors clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino and his Latin disciple, the Mexican Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu (“Amores Perros”, “21 Grams”). They tell stories from different points of view, that merge into only one at the end. With high doses of sex and graphic violence and an intense rhythm, as it is in the commandments of the MTV generation.

Bellot tries to reflect on today youth’s sexual dilemmas establishing a connection between the Bolivian and American youth, setting the story in both countries. His characters are a good example of the youth idiotized by globalization and mass media, which reduces to almost zero the cultural differences that should exist between Bolivian and American people – it’s not necessary to underline that it’s the Bolivians who behave like the Americans, and not vice-versa. Waissbluth offers a sex and violence cocktail within a context that shows two brothers trapped almost by chance into a gangster’s world in contemporary Chile, but that could be set in New York or any other big city. There’s too little of Chile in that story.

We are neither criticizing the directors’ esthetic and thematic choices, nor pushing them forward to reflect deeply their countries’ cultural and social background. “Amores Perros” and “City of God” are both good examples of this emerging Latin American cinema. The problem with “Dependencia Sexual” and “The Debutantes” is that the style seems more important to the filmmakers than the ideas they want to transmit. Even in their production values both failed by trying to fly higher than their wings allow them to (especially in the very pretentious “Dependencia Sexual”), which makes the bad scripts and spotty continuity more apparent. In those cases, the rupture with the Latin American cinema traditions sounded more like a frustrated attempt to copy the Hollywood formula than any other thing.

The visibility offered by the Oscar may be a good way for Latin cinema to show its new face. But the directors had better be careful especially with what to say, otherwise all their efforts might be in vain.