Early on at this year's Toronto International, I had the chance to sit down with programmer Diana Sanchez to discuss the Latin American fare she'd programmed for the festival. Interested in whether or not she targeted Latin American audiences for Latino-themed TIFF films, she admitted she did not because there's not much of a Latino demographic in Toronto to target and, truthfully, most Latinos are not interested in the kind of Latin American art house fare favored by film festivals; preferring, instead, testosterone-charged action and sexy rom-coms. It's primarily non-Latinos who are interested in films by such art house luminaries as Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel, Sanchez suggested; a sobering if familiar insight I've heard from programmers of Latin American cinema, especially in the States, and now from Canada.
Nowhere was that divide in public taste more apparent than at the world premiere of Josh Crook's La Soga, a U.S./Dominican Republic co-production which is the only film I caught at this year's festival that received a standing ovation (the first of several, I understand, among its public screenings). The TIFF emcee for the world premiere commented that she hadn't seen such a public reaction since Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps more important than La Soga being the most popular Dominican film at TIFF is its claim as the first Dominican film to play the fest. My thanks to Lauren Tracy and Scott Feinstein of 42West for pulling me a ticket for the world premiere screening.
As Jane Schoettle writes in her TIFF program capsule, "La Soga is a film of such raw energy and ragged beauty that these elements alone would justify its viewing. Beyond this, though, it contains a story both timely and timeless, brutal and elegant, for what is at stake is the redemption of a man's soul." Schoettle adds that La Soga is "a work of such poetic ferocity that much of its imagery will be stamped on the viewer forever." Well, forever is a long time. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that La Soga delivers what its audience seems to want right now: favela thrills, sultry erotics, torturous violence, and poverty beautifully lensed by Zeus Morand. If you're a fan of City of God (an acknowledged influence on La Soga) or Elite Squad, or even Sin Nombre, the film's flashy visuals and driving music score will fully satisfy you. It's not my café con leche, but I respect that it was beloved by its audience, some who bragged driving all the way from Boston to see it. At the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein writes that "La Soga is as much a meditation on the embattled Dominican culture as it is a crime drama" with a "soulful intensity."
There's no question that La Soga's writer/producer/lead actor Manny Perez has—as Stephen Holden at The New York Times phrases it—"charisma to burn." Whether or not his "redemption" is believable is another negotiation altogether, as it concerns recovering a lost innocence ("We all are born innocent," the poster's tagline reminds us) more than expatiating for murders too numerous to count. As director Crook states in the press notes: "In the film we follow a lost, hollowed-out shell of a man. He is a professional killer searching for the soul he lost a long time ago. I tried to bring to life that space we all live in when we were innocent, before we lost our way, when we knew who we were intuitively. The world changes all of us and while this is inevitable, we feel a longing for that self that was lost in the process. La Soga takes place mostly in the neighborhoods outside of Santiago, but La Soga, the man, searches for his soul in a place we all visit; a dream of what we were like before the world corrupted us."
Perez admirably tackles the conflicting nuances of Luisito, the sensitive vegetarian son of a village butcher (the film's original title was El Hijo del Carnicero / The Son of the Butcher) who—after witnessing his father's death at the hand of Rafa (Paul Calderon), a drug dealer deported from the U.S.—becomes the chosen assassin of General Colon (Juan Fernández), the head of the Dominican secret police who keeps promising to deliver Rafa to him for revenge. Luisito becomes "La Soga", which refers to the rope noosed around a pig being led to slaughter. The film addresses how the blind thirst for vengeance can leave one susceptible to corrupting forces; i.e., law enforcement in both the D.R. and the U.S. Lots of pigs get butchered in this film, as do a lot of deported drug dealers, and the resemblance is intentional if not overbearing. By film's end you want all these meatheads to be led to the chopping block, even if you don't necessarily want to hear them squeal. It's akin to not wanting to know how packaged meat gets into your local Safeway.
The audience for the world premiere had the opportunity to interact with director Josh Crook, writer/producer/lead actor Manny Perez, actor Juan Fernández, and actress Denise Quinones in her first feature role as Jenny, the childhood sweetheart who restores "La Soga" to his original innocence.
Perez related that he had worked on the script for La Soga for seven years, which grew from two seeds of experience. Born and raised in a small town called Baitoa in a rural area outside of Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, Manny and his family moved to Washington Heights in the United States when he was 11. Returning to Baitoa one summer, he adopted a piglet. The day before he and his Father were getting ready to return to the States, he woke up to what sounded like a child screaming. It was six in the morning. Manny got up and ran outside to find the local butcher stabbing the piglet to death, preparing it for his going-away party. The screaming of that little pig left a traumatized impression on him.
On a subsequent summer vacation, Manny met up with a childhood friend who had "gone bad" and been deported back to the D.R. from the U.S. While they were chatting, a bullet-ridden car pulled up, three men chased and apprehended his friend, who they dragged to the middle of the town and shot summarily in the head. Having witnessed both events, Perez later learned in test screenings of the film that such executions were happening not only in the Dominican Republic, but in every third world country. "So it's a universal theme," he emphasized. "It's not just about corruption in D.R.; it's about corruption worldwide." He's unsure of how the film, which offers a frank critique of political corruption in the Dominican Republic, will be received in its home country; but, he hopes La Soga will put the Dominican Republic on the Hollywood map in the same way City of God put Brazil on the map.
Asked what La Soga meant, Perez said it referenced a rope and that it became the nickname of his character. In the film when "La Soga" fucks with one of his victims, he says he's going to tighten the rope around his neck. It's a secondary meaning of what the rope means: to play with a victim, to let them go and then pull them back in.
Of all the stories that could be told about the Dominican Republic, Perez was asked why this one? After witnessing the death of his friend (on whom La Soga's character Fellito was based) Perez had to come to some kind of understanding of what he had seen. Without saying a word, this man dragged his friend to the middle of the town and shot him in the head. "I had to find the heart to get to the man who did that to a friend of mine. That's the reason for why this story came about."
Though Josh Crook admitted shooting the film was a complete pain in the ass, he acknowledged it was equally a profound experience to stay true to Manny's vision. Refusing auteurial credit, he emphasized the film was a thoroughly collaborative venture, from everyone in the crew, to all the people of Baitoa who fed them food and kept them going during the shoot.
Juan Fernández added that—when he first read the script—he recognized it as a story about the human heart. "It's a love story. That's what I felt after I read it. I made my decision after a second." Then he arrived early on the set to look into the eyes of Josh Crook to gauge who he was, how genuine he was, and how committed to the work.
Seeing La Soga at its world premiere was the first time Denise Quinones had seen the completed project and she was visibly proud of her first feature role. "I fell in love with Jenny's character," she confessed. "She's like La Soga's conscience that brings him back to life. She reminds us that those people we think are monsters really aren't; they're human beings."
Cross-published on Twitch.