Wednesday, January 01, 2014


The concept of the national cinema and its symbiotic relationship with the programming of an international film festival is seamlessly administered in the 25th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF). Although this edition's national spotlight focuses on Canadian cinema, PSIFF continues to advance films from Spain, Mexico, Central America, and South America. Incorporated into its various sidebars, this selection of 23 Spanish (and Portuguese)-language titles unofficially constitutes a spotlight of its own, representing films from eight countries: seven from Spain, six from Mexico, and the remainder from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay. What follows is a blend of PSIFF capsules and critical overview.

Anina (dir. Alfredo Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013)—Soderguit based his animated film on a popular children's book by Sergio López Suárez, which he illustrated. He went against the current trend of slick, digital, 3D animation—instead employing a sweetly handcrafted, pencil-and-watercolor visual style. Audience award winner at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (where it was described as having "the homemade flavor of a warm and happy afternoon tea on a rainy day," Anina was chosen as Uruguay's official Best Foreign Language Film submission for the 86th Academy Awards®. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Indiewire, Carlos Aguilar concurs that Anina is "a ray of light" coming directly from South America "to reignite the flame of traditional animation." He praises: "Few animated films can convey a classic tale with a message about family and friendship packed with intelligent humor … Soderguit's film is lively, witty, and full of heart […] Destined to become a classic."

Costa de Morte / Coast of Death (Lois Patiño, Spain, 2013)—Winner of the Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Film Festival, Lois Patiño directed, shot and edited this debut feature, an experimental documentary billed by PSIFF as a gorgeous and magical film about the people, land and sea that make up this special place in the far northwest region of Galicia, Spain. Costa de Morte has already sold out both of its scheduled screenings. Official site. IMDb.

At Nonfics, Daniel Walber describes Costa da Morte as "a starkly beautiful documentary about nature's troubled relationship with mankind, set on the rough coast of Northeastern Spain. Director Lois Patiño transcends the typical fare of this genre with an inspired device that splits the audience's perspective between the landscape and its people." Walber observes that the "governing style of the film, present[s] the inhabitants of Galicia as tiny figures surrounded by the towering beauty of their environment" but that Patiño allows the audience to hear what these Galicians are saying, no matter how distant. "With this device," Walber concludes, "Patiño can play with the relationship between Galicia and the Galicians. …The people are in the landscape and the landscape is in the people, and Costa da Morte is a beautifully crafted exploration of this simultaneity. And while it enmeshes itself in the particular topography of Galicia, it's hard to imagine a place that wouldn't have some relationship with this same natural dialog."

Wakolda / The German Doctor (Lucía Puenzo, Argentina, 2013)—Director Lucía Puenzo won a berth in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival for this, her third film, which she adapted from her own speculative novel. The film was selected as the Argentine entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards®. Àlex Brendemühl is quietly terrifying in the lead role as the infamous Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele who takes a genetic interest in the undersized daughter of his innkeeper host. Cinematographer Nicolás Puenzo takes full advantage of evocative landscapes and the unique, Alpine character of the remote town of Bariloche. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish].

Winner of nine awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Argentina, including Best Director, The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young characterizes Wakolda as "a chilling, original tale" and "a creepy story with a lot of morbid fascination, set off by the captivating young Florencia Bado in her first screen role." At Screen International, Mark Adams notes: "Puenzo's fascination with the period and the Argentinean government opening its doors to many Nazi is evident as she impressively crafts an atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust in amongst the German-speaking community, some of whom clearly have deep, dark secrets." At Filmmaker, Chuck Tryon furthers: "Wakolda uses one family's experience to explore Argentina's complicated past, in which many families and communities were complicit with hiding Nazi war criminals like Mengele." Extended critical commentary has been gathered by David Hudson at Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, Chile, 2013)—Sebastián Lelio's Gloria is a touchingly detailed and intimate look at a divorced, middle-aged Chilean woman's quest to navigate the dating world and find romance. Lelio finds gentle humor in Gloria's awkward maneuvers in a mundane dance bar, and the story takes a sharp turn when she gets involved with Rodolfo, a wealthy older man. His affection helps her in the process of letting go of her grown-up children, who are becoming increasingly distant. But Rodolfo's unhealthy relationship with his own adult daughters becomes a burden on their budding relationship. Winner of multiple awards at the Berlin Film Festival, Gloria features an unforgettable performance by Paulina García, who conveys the strength and vulnerability of a woman who's not afraid to give of herself. It's a refreshingly raw and candid look into the heart of the kind of compelling character that's too often overlooked in mainstream films. The film was selected as Chile's official Best Foreign Language Film submission for the 86th Academy Awards®. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish].

At Variety, Jay Weissberg describes Gloria as "pitch perfect", "terrifically written", "perceptive" and "unerringly sympathetic." He offers two keen observations. He aligns the film's use of Tom Jobim's classic "Aguas de Marco (Waters of March)" with the film's essential rejection of sentimentalism. Just as "Aguas de Marco" descends in its rhythms to locate core emotions, it satisfyingly honors that promise. "Lelio's thoroughgoing understanding of music's function, how it consoles but most of all elides with mood," Weissberg asserts, "is matched by his sensitivity to Gloria's search." In further praise of the director, Weissberg writes: "Ever since his debut with The Sacred Family, Lelio has been exploring what he's referred to as 'family as a sacred trap,' and he remains just as concerned with this dynamic of obligation and restraint, and the individual's sense of self within that necessary constriction." David Rooney's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "Funny, melancholy and ultimately uplifting, Sebastián Lelio's enormously satisfying spell inside the head and heart of a middle-aged woman never puts a foot wrong." At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha suggests: "Most modern Latin American cinema seems to carry within it the memory and seed of the region's political turmoil throughout the second half of the 20th century, waiting to be unleashed whether directly or metaphorically—and Gloria is produced by Pablo Larraín, whose own work as a director has been rooted in Chile's recent and tragic history." David Hudson has gathered much more at Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

A Ras Del Cielo / Grazing the Sky (Horacio Alcalá, Spain, 2013)—Grazing the Sky takes a revealing look at the incredible physical exploits of circus acrobats, and finds compelling stories of men and women confronting adversity—including the real risk of severe, debilitating injury. The price of life in the limelight includes years of study and practice, an iron discipline, an ongoing commitment to learning new skills, and constant travel far from home.

Director Horacio Alcalá follows eight different acrobats from all over the world, intercutting interviews with artfully staged footage of his subjects performing breathtaking feats with poise and grace. Alcalá—who has been involved with the circus arts for seven years, including with Cirque du Soleil—travelled to 11 different countries over the course of five years to capture these stories. He finds a new reality where aspiring circus performers can learn their craft in specialized schools rather than through family apprenticeships. The trapeze becomes a metaphor for life ambitions, given contrast and poignancy by the ever-present risk of a fall. Vimeo trailer. Official site.

Heli (Amat Escalante, Mexico, 2013)—Amat Escalante, winner of the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, has hammered out a gripping, brutal film about a well-meaning, naïve, impoverished family visited by shocking, ugly violence; more collateral damage in the devastating drug trade. IMDb. Wikipedia.

I defer to David Hudson's comprehensive aggregation of critical commentary at Fandor's Keyframe Daily. Also at Fandor, Anna Tatarska's interview with Escalante.

Ignasi M. (Ventura Pons, Spain, 2013)—A window into the heart, mind and psyche of museum expert Ignasi Millet, Pons' documentary reveals a refreshingly fearless and thoughtful character and a bubbling source of wisdom, humor and self-acceptance with a clear-eyed and joyful approach to life. IMDb.

La Jaula De Oro / The Gilded Cage aka The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Diéz, Mexico, 2013)—In his ambitious debut feature, director Quemada-Diéz brings a gritty, near-documentary realism and social conscience to a story about the excitement and horror young Central American migrants regularly face. Quemada-Diéz—a camera assistant to Ken Loach on films like Carla's Song and Land and Freedom—captures his characters' youthful sense of adventure as they pursue a dream that may not be all that it seems. The remarkable cast of untrained actors won a special prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Official site. The Evening Class video of the Q&A session at the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM). Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

David Hudson does the honors of gathering up the critical response for Fandor's Keyframe Daily.

Tercera Llamada / Last Call (Mexico, Francisco Franco, 2013)—Winner of multiple prizes, including the audience award, at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, Last Call is the kind of character-driven comedy that recalls the early films of Almodóvar. Anchored by a captivating performance by Karina Gidi as the director of a Mexican theater company, the hilarious cast features a range of top-level Mexican actors, including rising star Irene Azuela (Miss Bala) and the legendary Silvia Pinal, who worked with Buñuel on classics like Viridiana and Exterminating Angel. Official site. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].

At The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Holland's bottom line: "The performances are bigger than the movie itself in this sprightly, slick homage to the high-strung world of grease paint and pancake."

Vivir es fácil con los ojos cerrados / Living is easy with eyes closed (David Trueba, Spain, 2013)—"Living is easy with eyes closed," from Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever", evokes both the spirit of the '60s and the mood of this film, which is both a lively review of a sad past and a positive road movie set during a time in Spanish history when dreams seemed impossible. IMDb.

"This small gem," Stephen Farber writes at The Hollywood Reporter, "offers a lovely evocation of Spain as well as a touching tribute to an unforgettable moment in time when the Beatles seemed to offer brand new possibilities, the idea that strawberry fields might indeed go on forever." At Screen Daily, Fionnuala Halligan adds: "David Trueba's film uses [John Lennon's] 1966 visit to Spain, when he shot a film in Almeria, considered leaving The Beatles, and started composing the song, as a backdrop to a tender, comedic, coming-of-age story which bristles with poignant references to the lingering effects of Spain's dictatorship." At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw comments: "It is an era at once more innocent than the present—and yet much more guilty. Franco-era Spain emerges from the movie as a parochial, reactionary, bullying place where young people had their spirit crushed."

Sólo Con Tu Pareja / Love in the Time of Hysteria (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, 1991)—A highlight of PSIFF's 1992 New Directors Showcase, this giddy bedroom farce was the first film by the director / writer who went on to make Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and this year's huge worldwide hit, Gravity. It returns to PSIFF as part of their 25th Anniversary sidebar. IMDb. Wikipedia.

El Árbol Magnetico / The Magnetic Tree (Isabel Ayguavives, Spain, 2013)—Winner of awards at the Valdivia International Film Festival and Madridimagen, The Magnetic Tree is Isabel de Ayguavives' debut feature film after her success with a series of shorts that played at major festivals worldwide. She brings a heartfelt, personal touch to a film that captures the specific textures of family interactions, and she finds patterns of dialogue that reveal emotional subtexts even as they strain to avoid them. IMDb.

"Lively and intimate," Jonathan Holland writes at The Hollywood Reporter, "it's a film made by someone whose interest in and compassion for her people is deep and forgiving."

El Mudo / The Mute (Daniel Vega, Peru, 2013)—A standout of the Locarno Film Festival, where lead actor Fernando Bacilio was named Best Actor, The Mute takes a wise and humorous look at endemic corruption. Directors Daniel and Diego Vega employ a playful aesthetic, in which precise framing and deadpan editing heighten a wonderfully dry comedic sensibility. They show how a justice system that lacks perspective and compassion is as much out of balance as the rudderless society it attempts to regulate. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has rounded up reviews for El Mudo from both the Locarno and Toronto film festivals.

Purgatorio: Viaje al Corazon de la Frontera / Purgatorio (Rodrigo Reyes, Mexico, 2013)—In this fresh look at the harsh realities of the border between the USA and Mexico, director Rodrigo Reyes chooses not to editorialize; instead he gives a voice to the people who live in a kind of purgatory in the shadow of the fence. He talks to Mexicans who dream of crossing over and others who have lost all hope. He talks to an American pastor who leaves water for migrants in the desert, a Minuteman who works to stop them, and a coroner who's left to deal with often-unidentifiable bodies. Reyes and DP Justin Chin find a stark poetry in the physical form of the fence itself, and powerful images of its influence on nearby communities (principally in the vicinity of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts). Official site. IMDb.

At Variety, Andrew Barker writes: "A searing, horrifying, at times starkly beautiful documentary. Brilliantly photographed, this is a strikingly assured work [...] offering an impressionistic ground-level view of the simmering humanitarian crisis occurring just outside, and often within, American borders." At Slant, Oscar Moralde warns against the film's visceral brutality but offers: "The imagery that the film deploys is striking, especially in the way that it constructs la frontera as a postlapsarian space, where idyllic apolitical nature has been obliterated and replaced by a pulsing psychic wound. The borderlands are depicted as wastes in which both oppressive government authority and anarchic violence suffuse the landscape, and that perhaps the fears and anxieties that so energized the narratives of the western haven't disappeared, but simply crystallized and mutated along a dividing line." At Plume Noir, Fred Thom advises straight off: "One thing you should know before watching Rodrigo Reyes' documentary is that it isn't an objective work. Rather this is a meditative piece designed to make us experience the filmmaker's personal feelings about the Mexican border."

Mujer Conejo / Rabbit Woman (Verónica Chen, Argentina, 2013)—Award-winning director Verónica Chen boldly mixes animated sequences with live action, bringing an element of magical realism to this taut thriller. She gives her film a vivid sense of place, casting light onto the rarely seen Chinese subculture in Buenos Aires, and deftly weaves in a subplot about human trafficking. Newcomer Haien Qiu turns in a forceful, layered performance as Ana, a beautiful but tough civil servant who's disconnected from her heritage and paralyzed by ambivalence in her romantic relationship. Official site. IMDb.

Flores Raras / Reaching for the Moon (Bruno Barreto, Brazil, 2013)—Winner of audience awards at the Outfest and Frameline film festivals, Reaching for the Moon is driven by commanding, intensely emotional performances from Miranda Otto and telenovela superstar Glória Pires, sensitive direction from acclaimed Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, and lovely photography of Rio's lush countryside. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Writes Guy Lodge at Variety: "The very private American poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously opposed to the confessional style favored by her peers: 'Art just isn't worth that much,' she once wrote to her friend Robert Lowell. It's not damning, then, to say she'd have been mortified by Bruno Barreto's intimate, affecting, somewhat lumpily paced biopic, which focuses chiefly on Bishop's 15-year lesbian relationship with headstrong Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Boasting intelligent performances by Miranda Otto and Glória Pires as the chalk-and-cheese lovers, attractively mounted pic could please older upscale auds, while also working the more genteel end of the LGBT fest circuit." Deborah Young's bottom line for The Hollywood Reporter: "An exotic love story becomes an empowering portrait of two highly gifted women who defy social convention." Conceding that the strength of Reaching For the Moon is in the strong—and very different—performances from Miranda Otto and Glória Pires, Mark Adams at Screen Daily nonetheless finds Reaching a "resolutely melodramatic film that feels engagingly old-fashioned as it revels in its lesbian love-triangle storyline." At Slant, Diego Costa pulls no punches: "Sociologist Gilberto Vasconcellos once wrote that Brazil is a country of illiterate folk where 'what isn't television has no cultural value.' One single network, Globo, monopolizes most of the country's TV programming and film production. The fact that Globo's idea of high quality involves blatantly imitating American TV and film's most familiar clichés might explain why so much of Brazilian cinema feels so soullessly glossy. This is true for Reaching for the Moon, which Globo co-produced. The mimicry of a Brazilian fantasy of what constitutes a perfectly crafted American movie, neutered of all experimentation, reduces Bishop's story to one-dimensional subject matter in the service of another project: appropriating the most orthodox way of making movies in the hopes of selling it back to the Americans as Oscar bait."

Roa (Andrés Baiz, Colombia, 2013)—This lovingly crafted period piece opened the most recent Cartagena Film Festival and PSIFF is hosting its U.S. premiere. It weaves a skillful tapestry of historical fact and creative speculation; the film's re-creation of 1940s Bogotà is both stylish and precise. Roa delves into one of the great unsolved mysteries of Colombian history—the assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. The film centers on Juan Roa Sierra, the presumptive murderer. Mauricio Puente, a virtual unknown, turns in a spectacularly layered and authentic performance in the challenging lead role, conveying the complex psychology behind his character's madness. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].

Raíz / Root (Matías Rojas Valencia, Chile, 2013)—Premiering at the prestigious San Sebastián International Film Festival and going on to take a top award at Valdivia, Root is an assured debut feature from writer-director Matías Rojas Valencia that is boasting its North American premiere at PSIFF. Valencia seamlessly incorporates documentary elements to give a human face to the problematic issue of Chile's impoverished indigenous people and draws impressive performances from actors and non-actors alike, achieving a powerful dramatic impact with a restrained style. Facebook [Spanish].

Mar adentro / The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar, Spain, 2004)—Winner of PSIFF's 2005 Audience Award and that year's Oscar® for best Foreign Language Film, this gorgeously evocative tale of a man who fought a 30-year battle for his right to end his own life brought equal acclaim for its magnificent central performance by Javier Bardem. Featured in PSIFF's 25-year anniversary sidebar. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Las Búsquedas / The Searches (José Luis Valle, Mexico, 2013)—The North American premiere of The Searches is the second feature from director José Luis Valle, whose debut Workers premiered at the 2013 Berlinale and won Best Mexican Feature at Guadalajara. For The Searches, Valle assembled a cast of top Mexican stars including Arcélia Ramirez, Gabino Rodríguez and Gustavo Sánchez Parra. With a lovely visual economy (and an economy of means—incredibly, the film was shot in a mere seven days with a four-person crew), Valle brings to the screen some of the most intriguing and touching scenes of any film this year. IMDb.

El Verano de los Peces Voladores / The Summer of Flying Fish (Marcela Said, Chile, 2013)—Director Marcela Said, already an accomplished documentarian, won a berth in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes for this, her first narrative feature. With bold, wide-angle compositions she eloquently conveys the relationship of her characters to the land. Her restrained script, co-written with Julio Rojas, conveys in subtext the subtleties of modern economic colonialism and the complicated relationship between the Mapuche and the wealthy white landowners—then builds to a chilling finale. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton—despite finding this drama "atmospheric"—criticizes: "The story is shot through with class and racial friction, but falls short of the angry social polemic or politically charged horror movie hinted at in its pressure-cooker mood and creepy backwoods setting. …After building up a powerful sense of creeping dread and imminent disaster, The Summer of Flying Fish never quite galvanizes itself into a concrete narrative. Instead it settles into a series of impressionistic tableaux, leaving viewers to infer rather too much from thinly sketched characters and obscure motivations. This is disappointing as Said and her cinematographer Inti Briones clearly share a strong visual eye and a subtle mastery of unsettling mood."

Tatuagem / Tattoo (Hilton Lacerda, Brazil, 2013)—The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted more than 20 years, from 1964 to 1985, and withstood several waves of youthful rebellion, usually by cracking down hard on any cultural movement that threatened to get out of hand (in 1969, for example, singer-songwriters Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were imprisoned and subsequently went into exile). By the mid 1970s it was possible for an anarchist theatre group to exist and put on subversive, gay, avant-garde cabaret shows, just so long as it stayed underground and criticism of the military remained implicit. …Hilton Lacerda's debut [in its North American premiere] is both a colorful time capsule and a potent drama that has earned comparisons to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Winner of the FIPRESCI and Special Jury prizes at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, along with Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor honors. Also winner of Best Film, Best Actor and Best Music at the Gramado Film Festival. Official site. IMDb.

15 años y un día / 15 Years and One Day (Gracia Querejeta, Spain, 2013)—PSIFF hosts the U.S. premiere of Spain's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Directed with great sensitivity, the film boasts a stellar cast including the always wonderful Maribel Verdú, and Arón Piper who gives a breakout performance in the lead role. 15 Years and One Day is dedicated to the director's father, the great film producer Elias Querejeta, who died last June. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

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