Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF)—now in its 24th edition, January 3-14, 2013—is to sample films from Latin America and Spain / Portugal. Unable to attend the Toronto International this past September, I find myself particularly looking forward to catching up with this year's bumper crop of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking films currently on the festival circuit.
I look first towards those films that have been annointed as their country's official submissions to the foreign language category of the 2013 Academy Awards®. Each year, PSIFF's Awards Buzz program highlights a robust sampling of these international submissions and all but four of the "Latin" submissions are screening in Palm Springs this year. Missing in action are, most notably, Pablo Larraín's Chilean feature No (2012), which won the Art Cinema Award (the top prize in the Directors' Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival); Peruvian helmer Rosario Garcia-Montero's The Bad Intentions (2011), winner of the Best Latin American Feature Film at the 2011 Mar del Plata Film Festival (and currently available on Netflix Instant Watch); Rodrigo Plá's Uruguayan entry The Delay (2012); and Venezuelan director Hernán Jabes' Rock, Paper, Scissors (2012). Incorporating PSIFF's program capsules with critical overviews (where available), here's a preview of what will be screening come January.
Clandestine Childhood / Infancia Clandestina (Dir. Benjamín Ávila, Argentina, 2012, 110m)—In 1979, after four years living in exile, a family of dissidents returns to Argentina incognito to fight the military junta from within. Their 12-year-old son Juan has to hide his Cuban accent as he leads a double life, registered in school as "Ernesto" but privy to his parents' guerilla activities. Typical coming-of-age experiences, like advice on girls from his dad and a budding romance with a pretty classmate, occur in a surreal world of guns, ammo, and the constant fear that his family could be found out and destroyed.
Winner of the prestigious Casa de América Award at the San Sebastián Film Festival [and the Coral Award at the Havana International Film Festival], Clandestine Childhood is based on the real-life story of first-time director Benjamín Ávila, whose mother was one of the many thousands of dissidents who "disappeared" in Argentina's Dirty War. Ávila's naturalistic style highlights the humanity of his characters as seen through Juan's eyes; Teo Gutiérrez Moreno, in the lead role, belies his age with a layered and nuanced performance. When the action gets violent, Ávila boldly switches from live action to graphic-novel-style illustrations. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.
As Diana Sanchez wrote when she programmed the film at TIFF: "A gripping, intensely personal account of a turbulent time and a meditation on the skewed perceptions of memory—with stylized animation used to depict the street violence that was all too common during the period—Clandestine Childhood blends vivid recollection and imaginative recreation. This exceptional first feature not only captures the spirit and passion of the freedom fighters who gave their lives for a cause, but also gives voice to their children, caught in a battle that was not their own yet rising heroically to the challenge." Sweeping Argentina's recent Sur Awards, presented by the Argentine Film Academy, Clandestine Childhood picked up 10 awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Male and Female Leading Performances, Best Male and Female Supporting Performances, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costuming Design, and Best Sound Design. Film Movement has picked up the film for theatrical distribution (PDF press kit).
Despite these accolades, the trades have damned the film with faint praise. At Variety, Jay Weissberg writes, "Designed to highlight the uneasy coexistence between everyday childhood experiences and the intense pressures of living with parents secretly fighting the junta, the pic has strong moments, but is bogged down by a script that regurgitates standard-issue ideas without finding anything interesting to say." At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young deems Clandestine Childhood "the latest in a seemingly endless run of features about innocent children coping with the horrors of South American political oppression in the 1970s" and complains that "otherwise Ávila brings very little that's new, surprising or fresh to an already over-filled table—the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes, and outside Argentina, where the wounds depicted are still raw, its best prospects lie as a mid-range festival pick." At Cineuropa, Vitor Pinto is more appreciative: "Instead of showing its characters' political commitment from a dark or predictable angle, the film focuses more on the domestic, family side of the issue. Although the film never hides the dangers of the situation, it chooses to give ample room to humor and radiant happiness personified by Uncle Beto: a character as revolutionary as he is romantic, and played by the Spanish actor of Argentinian origin, Ernesto Alterio. ...As the screenplay moves forward, his character is idealized (as we tend to idealize all those we lose), but this idealization is also, in a way, a homage to all those who have repeatedly brought their encouragement and optimism to the darkest times. This idealization is also clear in other characters, and in other moments of the plot: whether in the ideal way that Juan's first love's dance is filmed, or in the delicious tranquility of his mother's voice when she sings and plays guitar for her fellow activists."
The Clown / O Palhaço (Dir. Selton Mello, Brazil, 2011, 88m)—Actor turned writer / director Selton Mello's talents shine in his second time at the helm in The Clown. Aging circus clown Valdemar has accepted his lot in life as an entertainer and the owner of the Circo Esperança but his son Benjamin is beginning to have doubts about life as a clown. He starts to see fans in unexpected places—the electrical kind. They haunt him and he becomes obsessed with owning one. But in order to purchase a fan on loan he will need a permanent address, so it becomes his mission to seek out a stable job, a home, and maybe even a girl. This whimsical comedy recalls the aesthetics of Wes Anderson with its cultivated visual style and meticulous costuming and set design. Mello embraces this odd story with refreshing creativity and humor. Winner: Best Film, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Cinema Brazil Grand Prize. IMDb. Wikipedia.
"Remember Alan Moore's Watchmen?", Jacob Vangelisti recalls at Digital Hippos, "Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says 'Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.' Man bursts into tears, Says 'But, doctor ... I am Pagliacci.' " Vangelisti concludes: "The film industry does not make enough bildungsroman flicks, The Clown is this. It has peaceful exuberance in this coming of age tale. I'm ready to go to Brazil to find myself. Dance the dance of the eternal clown that is man."
The Snitch Cartel / El Cartel de los Sapos (Dir. Carlos Moreno, Colombia, 2012, 107m)—Based on true events, The Snitch Cartel is the wildly kinetic story of Martin, a poor Colombian boy driven to rise within the ranks of a ruthless drug cartel and to win over the sophisticated Sophia, his first love. Against the violent backdrop of Colombia's drug wars of the 1990s, Martin fights his way into a powerful position within the "Cartel Norte del Valle." He gets his girl, but when the cartel's kingpin is murdered there's a power shake-up and he fears for his survival. He rolls the dice again, accepting an offer from an American DEA agent to serve a short prison term and become an informant, setting in motion a relentless escalation to an explosive finale.
Acclaimed director Carlos Moreno (Dog Eat Dog, All Your Dead Ones) helms this lavish production, shot in five different cities, blending raw and bloody, masterfully choreographed and edited action sequences with a frank and passionate love story. Colombian heartthrob Manolo Cardona (last seen in Contracorriente) plays Martin with power, vulnerability and sex appeal, heading up a cast that features some of the biggest names in Latin American cinema. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.
At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Farber summarizes that The Snitch Cartel "is lively but doesn't offer nearly enough fresh variations on the Scarface formula." Farber explains, "The film is adapted from a longer TV miniseries. The compression involved in creating a two-hour feature is obvious and not always very graceful. The film jumps back and forth in time and hopscotches over North and South America as it follows a young man, Martin (Manolo Cardona), who rises to a top position in the Colombian cartel before being forced to become an informer for the DEA. ...To incorporate a lot of information about the various Colombian cartels during a 15-year period, the film relies heavily on voice-over narration, along with printed titles and newsreel footage to sketch the real events of the period. The narrative progresses in fits and starts as well as lumps of exposition, but it’s edited with flair to keep tension building." At The Huffington Post, Dan Lybarger writes, "Despite recounting a volatile era in the Colombian cocaine trade, director Carlos Moreno's take on the aftermath of the battle between the Cali and Medellin cartels after the death of Medellin leader Pablo Escobar features some familiar faces, some adequate action and an odd sense of indifference." Lybarger adds: "While the backdrop offers lots of potential, The Snitch Cartel never really comes to life. Most of the characters are one note and not terribly sympathetic. ...Because we see only fleeting glimpses of what life on the streets of Cali or New York, we learn only fragmentary information about the cocaine trade and its cost. Considering the ongoing cost of the war on drugs, that's as disappointing as a missed shipment." At Awards Circuit, Joseph Braverman wraps it up: "In all, The Snitch Cartel is perfectly serviceable as a slice of international entertainment, one that will titillate the senses of action enthusiasts everywhere. Aside from perhaps the Colombian people themselves, the film lacks the emotional pull to really shake up the masses. ...The film is positioned as one of great importance, but these ambitions are shrouded by high-octane action, a formulaic Hollywood narrative and an abundance of visual pizzazz. The Snitch Cartel is a triumph for international commercialism, but a step back from the all-encompassing thematic power of a great foreign language production."
Checkmate / Jaque Mate (Dir. José María Cabral, Dominican Republic, 2011, 90m)—Television host David Hernandez seems to have everything—a beautiful wife, a big house, fancy car and a beautiful son. But when a caller to his show reveals that he is holding his family hostage, David is forced to watch as his darkest secrets are revealed on live television. A tense story of kidnapping, drugs and infidelity, Checkmate is more than the usual crime drama but a complicated tale of one man's dark past and a city, glued to their televisions, watching his downfall in real time.
This directorial debut for José María Cabral is only the Dominican Republic's fourth ever submission to the Academy Awards but comes at a time when the local industry is booming—recent changes in legislation have boosted production from an average of two features a year to ten last year. Cabral's thriller boasts slick cinematography and a story that only gets more complicated as it progresses. Actors Adrián Mas and Sergio Carlo give breakout performances as the besieged David and his maniacal tormentor. For Fox News Latino, Alexandra Gratereaux interviews Cabral at the New York International Latino Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.
After Lucia / Después de Lucía (Dir. Michel Franco, Mexico, 2012, 102m)—In the aftermath of a Mexican woman's death in a car accident, her husband and daughter, Roberto and Alejandra, move from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City, where Roberto plans to open a restaurant. Alejandra quickly makes friends with the popular kids in high school, but when a drunken sexual experience gets recorded and circulated she becomes the object of vicious bullying. She keeps it all a secret from her father, concerned for his state of mind. Roberto's struggle to cope with the loss of his wife blinds him to what's happening to his daughter until it's already gone too far.
Winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the searing, intense After Lucia establishes Michel Franco as a major talent. Employing a rigorous and highly personal style that elevates subtext and visual clues over straightforward dialogue, Franco nails the emotionally devastating story, drawing restrained but utterly intense performances from leads Hernán Mendoza and Tessa Ia. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.
Shortly after its win at Cannes, David Hudson gathered initial reviews for his Daily (now hosted by Fandor's blog Keyframe), namely National Post remarks by James Quandt; Charles Gant at Variety: "In no particular rush to articulate what exactly his characters are thinking and feeling, or to provide easy mood cues through music (there is none), Franco aims to engage through careful withholding"; and David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter: "The film is of a piece stylistically with Franco's debut, Daniel & Ana, which premiered in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2009. Austerity and rigorous control are his signature notes, with an unflinching realism marked by extended silences and a distinct preference for conveying information via oblique glimpses rather than in dialogue."
At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha cautions: "If there is one film you should warn viewers beforehand about, that would be Mexican director Michel Franco's disturbing sophomore effort, winner of Cannes 2012's sidebar Un Certain Regard and a film at moments so unbearable you may well ask whether the director worships at the shrine of Michael Haneke's clinical entomology." Notwithstanding, Mourinha proclaims After Lucia "a work of staggering formal and narrative control."
Blancanieves (Dir. Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012, 96m)—A wildly imaginative re-invention of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Snow White", brought to life silent-movie style in gorgeous monochrome. Antonio, a famous matador, is gored by a bull; his wife dies during childbirth. Now crippled, Antonio marries his wicked nurse, who confines him to an upstairs room and treats his daughter, Blancanieves, like a lowly servant. Eventually Blancanieves escapes and joins up with a clan of dwarfs. When they discover her talent as a bullfighter she becomes a sensation, but her stepmother quickly starts plotting to bring her down.
Director Pablo Berger has created a visually dazzling, unique film experience, turbo-charging the language of silent film with thrilling music and dance sequences scored by Alfonso de Vilallonga, and effortlessly shifting in tone from comedic to tragic, knowingly campy to genuinely frightening. Macarena García won the Best Actress Award at San Sebastián for her bright and sexy portrayal of the adult Blancanieves; Maribel Verdú (Y tu mama tambien) is a villain for the ages as the wicked stepmother. Winner: Grand Jury Prize & Best Actress, San Sebastian Film Festival. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.
"If The Artist is a love letter to the heyday of Hollywood silent cinema," Diana Sanchez poses in her TIFF program capsule, "then Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves ... is an homage to the sumptuous European silent melodrama. Relocating the Grimm fairy tale to a romantic vision of 1920s Spain and working in atmospheric black and white, Berger takes full advantage of the silent film's expressive potential to depict the golden age of toreros with gory, Goyaesque violence."
At Toronto Screenshots, James McNally writes: "The variety of musical styles along with the use of different rhythms of film editing make Blancanieves a more formally daring film than The Artist. Berger's influences are the masters of silent filmmaking from its latter, more developed stage: Gance, Murnau." McNally generously offers his recording of Berger's Q&A with his TIFF audience. Likewise dispatching from Toronto to The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney synopsizes, "Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger's reinvention of the Brothers Grimm classic is the most original of the year's Snow White makeovers."
Although none of the above submissions achieved the Oscar® short list for the foreign language category (see Guy Lodge's Hitfix assessment of that controversy), their inclusion in PSIFF's Awards Buzz program remains welcome and admirable. Moving on, of the 76 representative titles in PSIFF's World Cinema Now program, several fall within our purview.
The Dead Man and Being Happy / El muerto y ser feliz (Dir. Javier Rebollo, Spain, 2012, 92m)—Santos (José Sacristán), an aging hit man diagnosed with cancer, reneges on a job he's been paid for and leaves Buenos Aires with a stock of morphine to manage his pain. A much younger woman, Érika, jumps in his car at a gas station and tags along; their journey takes them to a series of fascinating, idiosyncratic locales throughout Argentina, as Santos tries to remember the names of all the people he has killed. Érika is estranged from her family since an affair with her father's cousin came to light on the eve of her wedding; a visit to her family estate builds to a romantic payoff and a dramatic showdown.
Shooting on grainy 16mm film, director Javier Rebollo (Woman Without Piano) cleverly undercuts his weighty dramatic themes with subtle, playful, deadpan voiceovers, striking a uniquely offbeat tone. He gets pitch-perfect performances from his two leads, and takes his time to let their attraction build. Winner: Best Actor and FIPRESCI Award, San Sebastián Film Festival. Official site. IMDb.
At Variety, Jonathan Holland writes: "A dying Spanish hitman makes his final journey through the interiors of Argentina and himself in the quietly surreal, intermittently intriguing road movie The Dead Man and Being Happy. As free-rolling and unstructured as the journey itself, the pic demands submission to the helmer's skewed, ironic take on just about everything his protag encounters, and as with his two previous films, reactions will be divided between those who appreciate Rebollo's look-at-me auteur quirks and those for whom they're cinematic death." Holland continues: "Auds seeking any sense of cumulative dramatic force will be disappointed as the pic moves from one disjointed sequence to another, generating interest as much through the locations themselves (a haunting abandoned spa, a residence for aging former Nazis) as through what takes place there. The final 15 minutes are the most evocative, with a rousing folk song, its lyrics composed by the helmer, powerfully highlighting the difference between legends and the often pathetic realities behind them." Or as Neil Young abbreviates it at The Hollywood Reporter: "A strain of quirkily deadpan humor narrowly steers an ambitiously self-deconstructing screenplay away from becoming just another arid exercise in tricky formal techniques." Matthew Connolly adds at Slant: "At once familiar and enigmatic, The Dead Man and Being Happy feels like a connect-the-dots film with a few lines artfully blurred."
Here and There / Aquí y Allá (Dir. Antonio Méndez Esparza, Spain, 2012, 110m)—Pedro comes home to his wife and two adolescent girls in his home village in Guerrero, Mexico, after several years working illegally in the United States. There's a palpable sense of relief but also some distance from the elder of his two daughters—his absence has taken its toll. Still, he has some savings now, and dreams of starting his own band, the Copa Kings. But a dramatic change—one of those strokes of misfortune that could befall anyone, anytime—reminds Pedro just how fragile life in an impoverished rural community can be, and we're forced to wonder if he can resist the economic argument for leaving his family again and returning "over there".
Winner of multiple awards, including the prestigious Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Here and There establishes first-time director Antonio Méndez Esparza as a rising star of the international film world. He has a masterful ability to draw quiet intensity from simply staged scenes, conveying the unassuming dignity and humanity of his characters. Pedro De los Santos turns in a touchingly subtle and sensitive portrayal of a man who embodies the wider struggles of the Mexican emigrant experience. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.
At Variety, Jonathan Holland observes: "Combining moments of lyricism with a documentary-like feel for truth, Antonio Méndez Esparza's debut feature is far from hard-hitting, aestheticizing its tale with artful ellipses and juxtapositions. But its delicate portrayal of the emotional effects of immigration nonetheless amounts to a punchy social critique." At Indiewire, Eric Kohn adds: "Esparza constructs a family drama with supreme restraint while fleshing out his characters to the point where their problems take root in a fully realized environment where socio-economic conditions pull them apart. It's incredibly uneventful and devastating all at once." And here on The Evening Class, Ryan Lattanzio dispatched from Cannes where he served as a student juror for the Critics Week competition. Lattanzio states: "There is no big drama in Aquí y Allá, not a voice raised, nor even a tinge of hysteria. The people in Esparaza's film understand the smallness of their existence and despite having little money and modest dwellings, they seem grateful just to be alive. Esparaza imposes no agenda on his film. He simply wants us to encounter people in a place we have not seen, and his cast is comprised of non-professional actors whose restrained performances provide the film's naturalist underpin."
La Playa D.C. (Juan Andrés Arango Garcia, Colombia, 2012, 90m)—When their father is killed in the seaside town of Buenaventura, three teenage Afro-Colombian brothers flee the civil war and land in the capital, Bogotá. Their mother's new boyfriend soon kicks them out and they must fend for themselves. The sounds of local hip-hop pour forth from the streets as Chaco dreams of going to the U.S. and Jairo falls into crack addiction and debt. Thirteen-year-old Tomas first tries his hand at cleaning hubcaps, then finds a place for his creative talent working as an apprentice in a barbershop, creating tropas, the elaborate and fanciful hair designs popular with young Afro-Colombian men.
With a probing, hand-held camera and an instinctive feel for the throbbing pulse of his native Bogotá, director Juan Andres Arango brings his highly topical narrative to life with a commitment to social realism. The story is ultimately a hopeful one, eschewing sentimentality but affirming the possibility for youths like Tomas to find their way on the tough streets of Bogotá rather than emigrating or escaping into crime and drug addiction. An official selection of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook.
At Variety, Peter LeBruge considers La Playa D.C. "a well-intentioned coming-of-ager strong on ethnographic interest but disappointingly lax on narrative." At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young describes the film as "a minutely-observed peek into hardscrabble lives that pours intoxicatingly fresh aguardiente into a rather dusty old bottle." Both critics emphasize Garcia's bold directorial talent, auspicious in how it reflects Colombian filmmaking.
The Passion of Michelangelo / La Pasión de Michelangelo (Dir. Esteban Larraín, Chile, 2012, 70m)—In 1983, as Chilean demonstrations against Pinochet's military regime gathered strength, the government seized upon the strange story of 14-year-old street teen Miguel Angel as a means of diverting attention from the public's growing discontent. In Peñablanca, not far from Valparaíso, the charismatic Angel swore he could see the Virgin Mary at the top of a local hill and, with the government doing all it could to promote this "miracle", hundreds of thousands of people made the pilgrimage to the "holy" spot. Soon Angel had attained rock-star status—with all the perks the term implies—until, inevitably, he fell fast and hard…
Shot on 16mm film for a documentary feel, the film follow the investigation of an increasingly skeptical priest into this affair. Both a cultural critique of what director Esteban Larraín sees as Chile's need for affirmation in the face of a collective inferiority complex and a succinct illustration of Juvenal's "bread and circuses" concept of governmental appeasement, Larraín’s political drama speaks volumes about how the Pinochet years deeply scarred a nation's already fragile psyche. IMDb. North American Premiere.
At Variety, Boyd van Hoeij notes that Larraín's "background in documentary helps lend urgency, immediacy and credibility to the unbelievable tale of a teenage orphan whose supposed contact with the Virgin Mary attracted huge crowds just when the dictatorship needed some popular distraction. Despite an unfocused p.o.v., the pic is a nonetheless a gripping, almost mythical rise-and-fall yarn...." Van Hoeij winnows out "a natural homoeroticism" to the rapport between Michelangelo and Lazaro, one of his "pint-sized disciples", as well as with the village priest Father Alcazar. "[S]omewhat disturbingly, a sexual element also arises in the adored youth's evolving relationship with the kind-hearted Alcazar, who is not immune to temptation. Larraín's sense of restraint is key in making it clear that Michelangelo is starting to experiment with his uncontested authority and, more specifically, the power of his allure, even if the young teen is perhaps a long way away from understanding anything about his sexuality."
The Sleeping Voice / La Voz Dormida (Dir. Benito Zambrano, Spain, 2011, 128m)—Hortensia is an imprisoned Resistance fighter awaiting execution in aftermath of the Spanish Civil War; she's seven months pregnant when her apolitical sister Pepita comes to Madrid to be near her. Pepita finds work in a wealthy Nationalist household and hopes to win custody of the child. An adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dulce Chacón, based on testimony from actual survivors, The Sleeping Voice delves into the horrific conditions inside the prison and the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia on the outside, as Pepita gets drawn deeper into the underground struggle and falls in love with Felipe, a Resistance fighter hiding out in the mountains.
Director Benito Zambrano (Solas, Habana Blues) has created a gripping dramatic tour-de-force that brings to the big screen, at last, the bravery and determination of the women who lived through some of the darkest years of Spanish history. He gets a searing, career-defining performance from María León (previously best known as a comedic actress) as Pepita, and a beautifully understated turn from Inma Cuesta (Blancanieves) as Hortensia. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.
At Variety, Jonathan Holland observes: "A harrowing drama that transforms the sorry plight of female prisoners in post-Civil War Spain into a bleak examination of man's inhumanity to women, The Sleeping Voice magnificently tells a tale that needs to be told and retold. Shrewdly remaining mainstream while plumbing the depths of grief and violence, this engrossing pic is often unbearably intense in its depiction of atrocities, and affecting in its portrayal of its protags' doomed fight against politics and patriarchy." At The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young stages complaints about the film, but admits the "vivid performances by attractive leads María León, who won Best Actress kudos at the San Sebastian festival, and the fiery Inma Cuesta do add interest."
Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 2012, 120m)—A rising star on the film festival circuit, Miguel Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August) has fashioned one of the most distinctive and distinguished movies of the year in Tabu, a desperately romantic love story filtered through old age and the remembered past.
The conceit is simple yet original: Gomes begins the film in contemporary Lisbon, where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) takes a kindly interest in several elderly friends, including her next door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose failing faculties are a cause for concern. This section, "Paradise Lost", then segues into "Paradise", the reminiscence of Aurora's long-lost lover, Ventura, who astonishes Pilar with his tale of passion and murder in colonial Africa in the early 1960s.
Referencing Murnau's film of the same name, Gomes shoots in silvery monochrome, "Paradise Lost" in 35mm, while "Paradise" is on much grainier 16mm stock, and in the style of a silent film melodrama (albeit with sound effects, voice over, and music—including a Portuguese version of "Be My Baby" that will haunt your dreams). This is cinema: whimsical, wistful, and so melancholy even the crocodiles are moved. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.
Volumes have already been written about Tabu, clearly one of the year's best. For starters, I recommend David Hudson's critical overview at Fandor. That should keep you busy.
Una Noche (Dir. Lucy Mulloy, Cuba, 2012, 90m)—A young Cuban, Elio, pulls back from his close relationship with his twin sister Lila when he befriends Raul, a sexy, volatile co-worker who dreams of emigrating to Miami. That dream becomes more desperate when Raul gets in trouble with the law, and with Elio's help he sets out to hustle up the equipment and supplies they need to set sail. Lila impulsively joins in the harrowing 90-mile voyage.
First-time director Lucy Mulloy boldly explores a side of Havana never before seen on film, displaying an impressive visual flair and a grasp of the complexities and contradictions in the hearts and minds of today's young Cubans, while the section of the film shot on water is as emotionally intense as it is technically impressive. Winner: Best New Director, Best Actor (Arrecaga and Florian), Best Cinematography, Tribeca Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.
Una Noche premiered at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival and 2012 Tribeca Film Festival to international critical acclaim. The film shot to international media attention, ahead of its U.S. premiere, when two of the film's lead actors, Javier Nuñez Florian and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, disappeared on their way to present the film at its Tribeca premiere, reportedly defecting to the U.S. In a highly publicized twist Javier Nuñez Florian and his co-star Dariel Arrechaga went on to win the Best Actor Award even as Florian remained in hiding during the ensuing media frenzy.
At Variety, Justin Chang writes: "Marked by a vibrant evocation of Havana street life and excellent performances from three non-pro naturals, Una noche throws off a restless energy well attuned to its tale of impetuous Cuban teens preparing to make the dangerous ocean journey to Florida. Writer-director Lucy Mulloy's sexy, pulsing debut feature has an undercurrent of ribald comedy that doesn't entirely prepare the viewer for the harrowing turn it eventually takes, but it nonetheless amounts to a bracing snapshot of desperate youths putting their immigrant dreams into action." At Indiewire, Gabe Toro adds: "There's a youthful energy running through Una Noche… [It's] alive and vibrant … at times funny, heartfelt, naughty and nice, a tale of three youngsters who deserve better than the forces that limit them, the corruption that eats away at their powerfully-beating hearts." At Slant, Ed Gonzalez notes: "Lucy Mulloy is a tourist, but she understands Havana's complex sociopolitical situation better than most. Granted unprecedented and unbelievable access to shoot in the city ... the film realistically reveals the largest city in the Caribbean as a maze of history and discontent, it conveys the struggle of its characters to facilitate their escape from their island prison as a ramshackle puzzle desperately pieced together from a hodgepodge of ill-fitting pieces, some stolen, others acquired through bartering. ...Una Noche shines a light on the balseros phenomenon without miring itself in politics, such as discussions of the 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' policy."
White Elephant / Elefante Blanco (Dir. Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 2012, 110m)—Can a Catholic priest really make a difference in the lives of the poor and destitute who make up his congregation in a Buenos Aires shanty town? Come to that, should he, if it means getting his hands dirty in ways that the Church would surely frown on?
These are the urgent moral questions that confront Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier—from the Dardennes' The Child and The Kid with a Bike)—when he joins Father Julian (Ricardo Darín, The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens) after a violent, faith-shaking experience in a jungle mission. Working closely with the more experienced and politically astute Julian in his bid to get a long-promised housing development back on track (the eponymous white elephant), Nicolas is exposed to the drug economy, gang wars, and to pretty social worker Luciana (director Trapero's wife and muse, Martina Gusmán). This social and spiritual melodrama carries extra heft because of its palpable authenticity. Everything—even the abandoned, never finished hospital where the priests take up residence—is real, and no doubt that goes for the endemic corruption and exploitation depicted on screen too. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish].
As Diana Sanchez contextualizes in her TIFF program capsule: "From the haunting, literally incendiary opening sequence to the final stand-off between the police and the slum-dwellers, Trapero keeps the tension at a high boil while also depicting the existence of his marginalized subjects with unerring realism, immediacy and impartiality. Drug addicts, lapsed priests, social activists—all are equal under Trapero's unsparing yet empathetic gaze, demonstrating once again that his interest resides with neither saints nor sinners, but with men." At The Argentina Independent, Melissa Macaya explains further: "In the opening scenes of the film, the viewer is taken to the Elefante Blanco, a massive and dilapidated grey building in the heart of a Buenos Aires villa. The building was once destined to be the largest hospital in all of Latin America but was never finished. After President Juan Domingo Perón was ousted in 1955, the building remained abandoned and became synonymous with stagnant poverty. Elefante Blanco not only serves as the title of the film, but also captures the spirit and tone of the story. Like the building, the people living and working in the villas in and around Buenos Aires find themselves rundown but still standing with hope that things will one day improve. The film takes the audience to this reality and gives them a taste of its bitterness."
Accompanying this healthy representation in the World Cinema Now sidebar, PSIFF offers a few more entries in their New Voices, New Visions programme.
7 Boxes / 7 Cajas (Dirs. Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schémbori, Paraguay, 2012, 105m)—In a crowded outdoor marketplace in Asunción, Paraguay, 17-year-old Victor is offered $100 to deliver seven boxes. A movie nut, he believes that to get famous he needs a cell-phone that shoots video, so he eagerly agrees, but the boxes are linked to a serious crime and a large stash of money, and soon he's being pursued by cops as well as an array of bad guys with sinister agendas. Victor has to use all his wits, with help from his cute friend Liz (who's becoming more than a friend), to stay a step ahead of his pursuers, in an adrenaline-fueled game of cat and mouse.
This low budget first feature by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori is a breakneck joyride that rivals Hollywood action movies for inventiveness and thrills-per-minute, but also conveys a rich and gritty sense of place, with a range of vivid characters. Meneglia and Schémbori make impressive use of their location, choreographing exciting and elaborate chase scenes using little more than people pushing long, wooden wheelbarrows. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish]. U.S. Premiere.
At Variety, Robert Koehler assesses: "Turning the Paraguayan capital's biggest public market into an arena for a wild and cunningly plotted chase movie, filmmaking partners Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori build a rollicking entertainment with 7 Boxes. Certain to be one of the first titles from Paraguay to make a serious dent in the international marketplace, the pic makes a pleasurable surplus from minimal resources and plenty of ironic-comic-violent storytelling energy." At Indiewire, Boyd van Hoeij describes 7 Boxes as "The Fast and the Furious with wheelbarrows" and adds: "Maneglia, who wrote the intricately structured screenplay, excels in keeping the twists and turns coming while keeping all his narrative balls in the air. And the final payoff is a doozy. City of God-like, agile camerawork by commercials cinematographer Richard Careaga is smudgy yet breathtaking, and combined with a pumping score that mixes electronic music and local, traditional instruments it delivers, well, the goods." At Twitch, Kurt Halfyard deems 7 Boxes "genre-film bliss" and claims there are as many surprises in this film "as there are retail opportunities in the market." He concludes, "The storytelling confidence, the unaffectated acting, and, above all, a heightened grasp of plotting and logistics on display in 7 Boxes is astonishing."
Beauty / Nosilatiaj. La Belleza (Dir. Daniela Seggiaro, Argentina, 2012, 83m)—Yola is a teenage maid from an indigenous people, the Wichi, working in a middle-class home in a village in northern Argentina to support her family. Her unique beauty is in her thick, black, waist-length hair. Yola's employer, Sara, is in a bit of a frenzy, planning the ultimate quinceañera for her daughter Antonella. She takes both teenage girls to the beauty parlor and surreptitiously has Yola's hair chopped off to above the shoulder, causing her to fall into illness and despair. The story is intercut with Yola's effortlessly poetic, off-screen monologues in her native language, which reveal a specific, nature-based understanding of the world.
The debut feature from Daniela Seggiaro, Beauty won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Latin American Film at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival. Its central image is a powerful metaphor for the small-scale violence and lack of sensitivity toward indigenous people by Argentina's dominant social class, but Seggiaro has a light and confident touch, and elegantly folds her strong polemic into an exquisitely subtle narrative, where characters and choices are far from black and white. Official site. IMDb.
At Variety, Boyd van Hoeij writes: "Scribe-helmer Daniela Seggiaro's deceptively simple debut feature poses as a small-scale domestic drama but contains a subtle yet harsh critique of Argentineans' ignorance and dismissal of the marginalized Wichi people. Like Peruvian helmer Claudia Llosa, whose The Milk of Sorrow copped Berlin's Golden Bear, Seggiaro reps a strong new female voice from South America." At The Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore notes the film's "effect is simple but transporting, particularly powerful thanks to its thoroughly unpretentious delivery. As Yola adjusts to the removal of one more link to her community, the film needs little more than a string of remembered words and a carefully chosen image to suggest an entire culture at risk of losing its foothold in the world." At The Stranger, Anna Minard adds: "Nosilatiaj spends most of its time conveying the larger meanings behind small moments—an unasked for haircut, a glance across a room."
Sadourni's Butterflies / Las Mariposas de Sadourni (Dir. Dario Nardi, Argentina, 2012, 94m)—Not all silent films are created equal, and if it seems a little strange that so soon after The Artist we have two more black and white neo-silents (they both have musical scores) at the festival—the other is Blancanieves, the Spanish Snow White—you may be interested to know first-time feature director Dario Nardi embarked on Sadourni’s Butterflies as far back as 1998.
It just took him some time to find a producer willing to finance a surrealistic melodrama about a circus dwarf jailed for a crime of passion; coming out of prison 10 years later he refuses to play the clown, and decides to go into porn instead. (The right fairy godfather did come along eventually: Don Ranvaud, the man behind City of God, Central Station and Rolling Family.) Trained in animation, Nardi has created a visually stunning film, something redolent of film noir, German expressionism, Tod Browning and Alejandro Jodorowski (El Topo; Santa Sangre). But this is not simply pastiche; Nardi has made a strange and magical movie about identity, alienation, and thinking big—nothing at all like The Artist. IMDb. North American Premiere.
At Screen, Mark Adams writes: "Beautifully shot and structured and packed with funny, strange and memorable moments, Sadourni's Butterflies is always intriguing and unusual with Cristian Medrano impressive as Sadourni, a darkly determined character driven to violence who simply wants to fit into society. It is a complex and self-consciously surreal film, but certainly one that is relentlessly intriguing and stylish."
Wrapping up with PSIFF's documentary sidebar, Mexico is featured twice in the festival's True Stories line-up.
Drought / Cuates de Australia (Dir. Everardo González, Mexico, 2011, 83m)—The stark landscape of a remote stretch of plains in Coahuila, Mexico is as harsh as it is spectacular. The inhabitants of Cuates de Australia—rancheros, mostly—work from dawn 'til dusk every day to eke out their survival, as their water supply dwindles and clouds drift by yielding not a drop of rain. And yet these people maintain their good cheer, with a combination of humility, acceptance, and work ethic. Their connection to the earth and sky seems to give them strength, and the hope for rain and new life—expressed most vividly in a through-story of a young couple expecting their first child—doesn't waver even when they have no choice but to leave their land, temporarily, in a mass exodus.
Drought is the most accomplished work yet from award-winning Mexican director Everardo González. He weaves together his beautifully rounded narrative with unforgettable images of the Cuates de Australia ecosystem: humans, animals, land, and great, God-revealing skies. The richly textured sound design incorporates the gorgeous a cappella three-part harmonies of local folk music. Winner: Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Festival. IMDb. Facebook.
At Slant, Andrew Schenker writes: "Fixing its gaze on the parched landscapes of rural, northern Mexico and the people who survive the region's unforgiving climes, Drought is a portrait of a community under siege by forces beyond its control and its attempts to go about the daily stuff of life. Employing largely unobtrusive observational camerawork, spliced with a few interviews with the locals, Everado González's documentary brings to the screen both an eye for stark beauty in desolation and a sympathetic look at the citizens of the communal town of Cuates de Australia." At The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden offers: "As he intended, González’s feature transcends the genre of ethnography; he has shaped his eye-opening chronicle with a powerful aesthetic sensibility. Pablo Tamez and Matías Barberis' ambient sound is a fine complement to the visuals. Further heightening the material's impact, to haunting effect, are 1970s recordings of cantos cardenches—folk songs that are, fittingly, named after a type of cactus. With their aching melancholy, these a cappella numbers for three voices are the perfect accompaniment to the understated drama unfolding in this dusty terrain."
Multiple Visions (The Crazy Machine) / Miradas Múltiples, la máquina loca (Dir. Emilio Maillé, Mexico, 2012, 95m)—The mesmerizing images of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (1907-97) catalyze a fascinating master class in cinematographic philosophy in this gorgeous-looking, experimental documentary. Alternating glowing black-and-white excerpts from films shot by Figueroa with sharply composed, sensitively stylized talking-head interviews with 40 cameramen from different countries and generations, director Emilio Maille brings front and center men more used to being behind the lens and finds them, in most cases, highly capable of articulating their craft.
Revered for the great beauty and complexity of his cinematography, Figueroa had a long career in his homeland and Hollywood, working for top-drawer directors including Luis Buñuel, Emilio Fernandez, John Ford and John Huston. He shot more than 200 films, although here Maillé draws solely on his Mexican films from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The cinematographers discuss a wide range of topics, including the portrayal of emotion through faces; the expressionist terrain of black-and-white; monochrome vs. color; and the future of cinematography in a digital age. Official site. IMDb. U.S. Premiere.
The PSIFF program capsule is largely cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review, which also notes: "Maillé removes the film excerpts from their narrative context, stripping them of sound so his interviewees can focus on the essence of the image and the depth of the frame. As he cuts together thematic sequences (for instance, landscapes, women walking, couples kissing, musicians performing, people dancing or sleeping), hypnotic minimalist music composed by Michael Nyman and Manuel Rocha draws viewers into the visuals and elevates their intensity."
A final sweep of the PSIFF lineup reveals a few stray films that don't appear to be grouped within any specific sidebar.
The Cleaner / El Limpiador (Dir. Adrian Saba, Peru, 2012, 95m)—In the midst of a mysterious epidemic, Eusebio (Víctor Prada, last seen in Octubre), a depressed and isolated Peruvian man, cleans up the bloody pools of liquid left behind by the dying. He finds a young boy, Joaquin (Adrian Du Bois), hiding out in an apartment, and brings him home to look after him until he can find his aunt. Eusebio makes eyeholes in a cardboard box, and convinces a frightened Joaquin that if he wears it on his head it will protect him. A tentative trust and sense of caring gradually builds between the two; Eusebio is quietly transformed as the epidemic rages on.
Making an impressive debut feature as writer/director, Adrian Saba shows admirable restraint in letting the relationship between two deeply guarded souls gently unfold, incorporating drily comedic touches and bravura, artfully composed long takes. Prada and Du Bois bring to life the pained humanity of their characters with a remarkably controlled intensity. IMDb. Facebook.
Little World / Mon Petit (Dir. Marcel Barrena, Spain, 2012, 83m)—This inspiring documentary from Spain, winner of the Youth Jury Prize at a prestigious documentary film festival, will be screened for the first time in the U.S. The movie celebrates the buoyant spirit of Albert Casals, a 20-year-old from Spain. A prolific world traveler, Albert decides that he and his girlfriend, Anna, will travel from their home in Barcelona literally half way around the world to East Cape, New Zealand ... and to do so with only 20 Euros in their pockets. The fact that Albert uses a wheelchair is but one more aspect of his life. His mobility is as unrestricted as his sense of freedom and adventure. Official site. IMDb.
At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young describes Little World as "heartwarming but without a scintilla of mawkishness" and "a straightforwardly effective introduction to an unforgettable individual and his disarmingly persuasive attitudes to life."
The End / Fin (Dir. Jorge Torregrossa, Spain, 2012, 90m)—Felix takes his girlfriend Eva to a remote cabin in the Pyrenees to meet a group of friends he hasn't seen in 20 years. An initial camaraderie soon turns to finger pointing, as they realize that "The Prophet," a friend who they had played a trick on back in the day, isn't coming. Suddenly there's a burst of light in the sky. All power goes out; there's no cell phone service, cars won't start, watches stop. When the group sets out on foot, it appears that the world has been completely depopulated. The characters disappear one by one, and the film shifts gears again, to a thoughtful meditation on human connectedness and individual identity.
Shot in a spectacular mountain locale, from a script co-written with acclaimed screenwriters Jorge Guerricaechevarría (Live Flesh, Cell 211, The Oxford Murders) and Sergio G. Sánchez (The Orphanage, The Impossible), first-time feature director Jorge Torregrossa has created the rare genre film that's artful and thought-provoking as well as gripping entertainment. The top-notch cast features, amongst others, top Spanish film star Maribel Verdú (Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También). Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.
TIFF programmer, Diana Sanchez writes: "Brilliantly and relentlessly building the tension to a hair-raising pitch, Torregrossa's end-of-the-world allegory milks its sci-fi conceit for maximum suspense. Framing his protagonists against the majesty of a towering landscape that seems to dwarf the human drama played out beneath its indifferent gaze, Torregrossa transcends the boundaries of genre to offer a profound meditation on a fundamental philosophical question: what does it mean to exist, and to share that existence with others?" The Q&A for The End's TIFF screening is up at YouTube. At Cineuropa, Alfonso Rivera states: "Beneath its appearance of a mainstream film, The End is, more than anything else, an existential film. It speaks of destiny, what we are, wounds from the past, and how we are conditioned by the gaze of those who surround us. ...A melancholy, psychological, and nihilist nightmare that Torregrossa has nourished with his obsessions: ambiguity, suppressed desire, and disenchantment. The result is a film that looks commercial—it is already being compared to the television series Lost—but that hides strong doses of depth." Cineuropa also hosts Rivera's interview with Torregrossa.