The stage was set for the opening night of the 11th International Latino Film Festival with giant paper-maché calaveras and cacti propped up at the entrance to the Castro Theatre and flanking its main stage, along with iconic tributes to Frida Kahlo and the Virgin of Guadelupe, lending a visual muertos flourish. Adding excitement to the evening was the presence of Diego Luna in the audience, along with director Sebastián Silva (El Viaje de la Nonna), actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (Glue), and actress Ximena Ayala (Malos Hábitos).
Pairing El Viaje de la Nonna (Nonna's Trip, 2007) with Chuecatown (Boystown, 2007) proved to be an opening night doublebill of contrasts and resemblances. Both were U.S. premieres; both dealt with the theme of the elderly; both contained gay characters. Equally, I resisted both for their annoyingly stylistic extravagances yet found myself eventually won over thematically by both, though in varying degree.
El Viaje de la Nonna provided a portrait of a grandmother "deceived" by her offspring who—to quiet her constant requests to take the family to visit the Italian hometown of her deceased husband—stage a family vacation to Italy. They drug Grandma asleep, transport her to a local town where they've hired actors to pretend they're Italians and carry on a grand pretense, which they film with a video camera, in order to "prove" to her they visited Italy, should she later forget and begin requesting the trip again.
This film often seemed just on the verge of tilting out of control, as if director Sebastián Silva costumed his cast and let them run riot. Its frantic antics stretched credibility thin though, as one critic put it, the audience seemed to have as much fun watching the film as the actors undoubtedly did filming. Certainly, that proved to be the case with Silva's ILFF opening night audience, who were warm and receptive to the film. The redeeming value of El Viaje de la Nonna lies squarely on the stately performance of Ana Ofelia Murguía whose address in the final scene shifted the tone from ridiculous frenzy to a heartfelt rumination on the adaptive and accommodating strengths of familial love. I was especially touched by how Nonna accepted the faults in each of her children and grandchildren, identifying them as unique and distinctive characteristics of personality rather than failings in character, aligning that which is flawed in individuals with that which makes them resonantly human. Addressing her lesbian granddaughter, Nonna smiles winsomely yet generously, admitting she loves her granddaughter just for who she is, encouraging her to be who she is, and bequeathing her string of pearls which always brought Nonna love luck. The image of this young lesbian wearing her grandmother's pearls is an image that will stay with me for some time.
Introducing his film, Sebastián Silva admitted that—not only was it a U.S. premiere—but only the second time the film had been shown to an audience. So he was understandably terrified by being honored as the festival's opening night film. He said the film was based on his own grandmother Francisca who recently passed away and that—in deference to the Day of the Dead tradition—he wanted to celebrate all our dead loved ones with the screening of the film. After his warm reception, he admitted the experience was better than he thought it was going to be. "It's amazing," he said, "as far as I know not even one person left! But that's why I sat in front." He added that he found it ironic that he was never able to take his grandmother to Italy, or anywhere for that matter, and now this film about her is taking him on a trip around the world.
Chuecatown (picked up by TLA Releasing and soon to be renamed Boystown) explores Spanish gays and their problematic, frequently Oedipal, relationships with overbearing mothers. If that cloying cliché doesn't make you flinch right off, I don't know what will. Here, grandmothers who would rather die in their apartments than leave them to encroaching gentrification, are granted their wish by ruthless realtor Pablo Puyol (last fluttering gay hearts in 21 Centimeters). Rendered in crude broad humor, Chuecatown joins the ranks of Almadovar's oeuvre, Bearcub, Queens, and 21 Centimeters, articulating gay situations with rapid-fire dialogue and over-the-top physicality, but with much less heart and accomplishment.
What distinguishes Chuecatown is its assertion that—if looks could kill—they would. Despite its critique of the perils and pitfalls of gay gentrification and modernity's disregard for traditional ways, and despite its critique of the valorized virility of the gym-toned gay body, Chuecatown rings a bit hypocritical for attempting to convey this theme precisely through gym-toned bodies. Perhaps to cure this subcultural hangover a little "hair of the dog that bit ya" is required? Though that's not really an apt analogy as most of these gay bodies are waxed hairless. Chuecatown doesn't quite hit the mark, yet somehow I have to at least minimally respect it for even attempting to criticize homonormativity; the calcified result of years' worth of purposeful commodification of the so-called "gay lifestyle."
But my beef with the opening night selection of Chuecatown runs a bit deeper. Drawing a respectable late-night gay crowd, the audience was informed as the film was about to begin that the print had not arrived from Spain. To rally, the festival offered a projection of the dvd screener, counter numbers and all. Though I can respect the festival for insisting "the show must go on", I cannot respect it for not posting a simple disclaimer at the box office stating that the print had not arrived and that a dvd (let alone a dvd screener) would be shown in its stead. I don't want to keep biting the hand that feeds me because I remain grateful that ILFF granted me press credentials this year, but I must insist the International Latino Film Festival live up to its claim of being a festival of international caliber. To do so, they must be professional and they must be fair to their paying audiences. The opening night strategy for Chuecatown was unpardonable. It caused much ill feeling among a grumbling audience and all it would have taken was a simple note at the box office to grant audiences the sovereignty of their own decisions. Instead, they were lulled into the Castro Theatre under false pretenses after paying good money. But perhaps all the key players had already rushed off to the opening night party to congratulate themselves after the warm reception of El Viaje de la Nonna and couldn't be bothered with the Chuecatown audience? Or with maintaining a necessary integrity to the festival? I take back what I said about Sylvia Perel deserving a standing ovation for bringing 35mm prints to the Castro. It makes me sad to report she did not follow through.
Cross-published on Twitch.