May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 14, 2009
The Silver Anniversary edition of the Chicago Latino Film Festival gets underway this week in the Windy City, featuring over one-hundred films from more than a dozen countries across Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Called the “biggest, oldest, and best Latino Film Festival in the United States,” by Hispanic magazine, the festival will screen a wide variety of high-profile and edgy features and shorts at a dozen venues around the city, including a special presentation Saturday with special guest Father Ernesto Cardenal. The one-time Sandinista priest’s story will be told in the documentary Ernesto Cardenal – Solentiname. The opening night film is the Chilean box-office hit El Regalo (The Gift), a romantic comedy road trip, and the closing film will be a darker comedy, Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), from Columbia. In between — well, like any film festival, there’s hits and misses and it’s often tough to tell which will be which from the capsule description in the program. The random sampling of films I was able to preview included a couple at both ends of the spectrum. Hopefully the brief reviews below will be of at least some use to anyone puzzling over the catalog descriptions.
La Buena Nueva The Good News
Helena Taberna (Spain, 2007)
Sometimes it only takes a few shots to get a sense of whether or not a director can be trusted. With this film, the very first shot of the hunky priest happily exhausted after a hand-ball game seemed contrived, and indeed, portended what followed. A Vatican-fresh priest is sent to a troubled village in Civil War era Spain. The trouble is that the village and government are Republicans and the Church is with Franco – officially, at least, for this priest believes the Gospel compels him to take the side of the people; he’s inevitably drawn into the conflict. However, its hard to be inspired with TV-movie production values, by-the-numbers plot and shots, and almost zero sense of motivation for anybody — Church, radicals, priest: we just get cardboard characters maneuvered through stock responses. I assume that at least part of the motivation of the filmmaker was to show that Christians could be on the side of democratic values. Instead, we see that even democratic values can be delivered in the fascist mode – for, indeed, this film, puts the materials on the rack and forces them to make the confession the filmmaker demands. For a more realistic take on the Spanish Civil War, I recommend Pan’s Labyrinth.
La Cámara Oscura Obscure Camera
María Victoria Menis (Argentina, 2008)
I had a bad feeling when the woman went into labor on the gangway of a ship bringing European immigrants into Argentina. This film makes points in a heavy-handed way – not as painfully as the last one, since there is no gratuitous religion or politics. Here, the cause is Beauty. Gertrudis, that baby born on the gangplank, is pronounced ugly ever after, a blemish on family and school photos. Despite this, circumstances conspire to marry her off to a rich widower and into motherhood and what seems a decent-enough life. Yet Gertrudis always seems unappreciated – and unhappy, except when she is bringing beauty (as with a vase of flowers on the dinner table) or enjoying it (as in a sunset or sparkling stream). It takes a traveling photographer who’s seen the ugliness of war to appreciate Gertrudis’ beauty. Now, it may be somewhat debatable where a love story might move from fairy-tale romance to romance-novel schlock, but I’d argue this slides into the latter. The film wants very badly to say something about Beauty, and does so: but in a prosaic rather than a poetic fashion (though it does include repeated shots of nature and some tonally questionable animation sequences). The lack of poetry in the film itself throws into doubt either the filmmaker’s ability or honesty; in any case, there’s not enough diamond here and too much rough.
Julio Hernández Cordón (Guatemala, 2008)
From the opening shot of this film – of a young vandal shoplifting the title substance via siphon – I sensed this director was in such impressive control, I trusted him immediately. This guy’s got something up his sleeve, I thought; I want to stick around and find out what it is. The action, such as it is, takes place on one of those hot and endless summer nights of youth, which the film put me right back into — where not a lot is going on, and you spend most of the time talking about what you’re gonna get going. Moreover, it’s mostly just talk: the big schemes, the hot air of intoxicated potential. Often at that age, that’s all you need. Three teenagers – Nano, Gerardo and Ray – fritter away the night driving around, trying to con money out of an aunt, avoiding their parents, and staying out as late as they can. The night is thick with testosterone – to be a fag is the worst thing, to know how to fight the best, or at least to talk trash: but all of it is just posturing. The film takes place almost in real time, but definitely not in documentary style. The camera is firmly screwed onto a tripod and never moves within the shots, which are cut from one delightfully unexpected angle to another, a static staccato that reinforces the tension, the weight of possibility. The director has an exquisite sense for line and compositions, so stark and controlled, and in such contrast to the sense of infinite leisure among the guys. It’s as if the filmmaker doesn’t have anything more to do than they do – though nobody in this much control is going nowhere. Not that I wouldn’t have been content to just wallow in expectation and nostalgia and lost youth, but this director did have something up his sleeve and that wasn’t it. The action unfolds like a taut short story, as all those controlled lines meet in one of those “last nights of youth” films that is closer to I Vittelloni than American Graffiti, perhaps closer still to Flannery O’Connor or even Michael Haneke.
El Nido Vacío The Empty Nest
Daniel Burman (Argentina, 2008)
This film explores transitions at another end of the life-spectrum, as a married couple copes with being alone together for the first time in years after all their children have moved away. Leonardo and Martha are bored and restless, each letting eye and mind wander to new possibilities. Martha throws herself back into the education she interrupted to be a mother. Leonardo skitters around his creative dead end as a playwrite with hobbies and fantasies. This is a sophisticated urban comedy of manners, of the educated middle-class-middle-aged; it reminded me of a French domestic ensemble piece. I don’t know all the ways Latin dysfunction and angst differs than the Gallic variety, but this film felt so easy to me, very gentle – no shouting or hilarity – like slipping into an old shoe and finding, after a pinch in the middle, that it was the most comfortable thing in the world. Leonardo’s friendship with a neurologist who studies a rare condition in which fantasies and memories become mixed up sets the stage for ambiguity over whether what we see is real or imagined, very subtly for the most part (though there is a great moment when Leonardo imagines a marching band following him playing “Bolero”.) “Whether its real or it’s a fantasy, it’s a lovely story,” someone says, and “Family stories, they’re always true.” Now, I’m not sure I agree with either statement blankly applied, but I appreciate the sentiment: that you have to hold onto the right things and let go of the right things. This one’s a keeper.