Tuesday, April 08, 2014


National cinemas and international film festivals go together like meat and salt, and I'm especially pleased that the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) has gone elbows on the table with no less than nine films from the IberoAmerican and Latin American sectors. In alphabetical order:

All About the Feathers / Por Las Plumas, Neto Villalobos, Costa Rica (2013)—A security guard who wants to get into the cockfighting trade buys, befriends, and becomes inseparable from his rooster protégé Rocky, in this winsome feature debut from Costa Rican director Neto Villalobos. As Nicole Gluckstern has noted in her SFIFF program capsule, All About the Feathers is a "subtle, absurdist comedy" that hinges on the stellar performances of its mostly non-professional cast. "Sedately paced, yet quietly observational, the near-documentary feel of this quixotic fiction is enhanced by ... astute cinematography." Villalobos is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Facebook.

All About the Feathers had its world premiere in the Discovery sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival where Diana Sanchez characterized the film as "a bromance between a man and his rooster." She added: "Villalobos cultivates a dry comic style reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch: cockeyed, minimalist, and affectionately attentive to behavioral quirks—both human and avian." The film followed up with its U.S. premiere last month at the Miami International, which awarded Villalobos its Encuentros Award the previous year, enabling the film to achieve completion. At Cultist, Hans Morgenstern praised the film's deadpan humor, warm wit, and resemblances to the films of Wes Anderson "without being too cute about it." He writes: "First-time director Neto Villalobos, who also wrote and edited the film, shows a keen eye for timing throughout the film, which runs a neat 85 minutes. He lets the camera linger on many scenes, building on a rhythm that seems to celebrate a love for the gradually unfolding moment and the Sisyphean myth of persistence. His original style never feels slow or dull, as it allows for the layers of ironic behavior to pile up for genuine laughs, well-earned by the charms of these characters." Univers/Ciné conducted a video interview in Spanish (with French subtitles) wherein Villalobos outlines the film's development over a persistent seven years. Another Spanish video interview can be found at LatAm Cinema.

The Amazing Catfish / Los insólitos peces gato, Claudia Sainte-Luce, Mexico (2013)—Set in Guadalajara, The Amazing Catfish follows the quiet transformation of a solitary young woman informally adopted and absorbed into a rambunctious matriarchy in a state of crisis. Filmed by Claire Denis' long-time cinematographer, Agnès Godard, Claudia Sainte-Luce's debut feature—based loosely on events from her own life—blends a wry and moving naturalism with moments of inspired comedy. IMDb. Wikipedia.

The film premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won two Junior Jury Awards and was a nominee for the Golden Leopard. It had its North American premiere in the Discovery sidebar at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where programmer Diana Sanchez noted: "Some families we're born into; some we build. And some families simply come to us, unannounced, when we least expect it. The story of The Amazing Catfish falls into that last category." Amazing Catfish went on to win Toronto's FIPRESCI Discovery Prize. Eric Ortiz Garcia interviewed Claudia Sainte-Luce for Twitch at the 2013 Morelia International. He determined that the film's title came from the fact that catfish live together in families, which Sainte-Luce likened to the family in her film. "I think every member of the family is amazing," she told Garcia, "and their force is staying together."

Bad Hair / Pelo Malo, Mariana Rondón, Peru / Venezuela (2013)—A nine-year-old boy's preening obsession with straightening his hair elicits a tidal wave of homophobic panic in his hard-working mother in this tender but clear-eyed coming-of-age tale from Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón. As Dennis Harvey amplifies in his SFIFF program capsule: "Without ever spelling anything out, Mariana Rondón's prize-winning feature addresses potent issues of economic pressure and homophobia within the family unit. She displays a fine understanding of the unspoken tensions that can create a divide—and the occasional words said in anger that can seal it. Bad Hair is a finely acted, deceptively small-scaled drama that subtly works its way toward a big impact." Mariana Rondón is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Winner of the Golden Seashell and the Sebastiane Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival; Best Director and Screenplay at the Mar del Plata Film Festival; the Bronze Alexander and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Thessaloniki Film Festival; a Special Jury Prize at the Havana Film Festival; and awards for Best Female Performance by Samantha Castillo at the Montréal Festival of New Cinema and the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema, Bad Hair has likewise garnered unanimous critical acclaim. At the Toronto International, Diana Sanchez writes: "The slippery nature of identity—how it forms in us, the ways it tells us how we might want to look or who we desire—is at the heart of this third feature from Venezuelan writer-director Marina Rondón." At Variety, Jay Weissberg proclaims that "Mariana Rondón's impressively multilayered drama brings a powerful specificity to the story of a boy and his embittered single mother." Weissberg furthers: "Though Rondón had a script, she never showed it to the cast, preferring to work with them through improvisation. The results are a testament to the skills of all concerned, and performances are uniformly strong." At The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney concurs with the film's strength as "a spare neorealist drama that holds attention and emotional involvement with its deft balance of toughness and sensitivity." He contextualizes: "In loose scenes drawn out of improvisation work with the naturalistic actors, the standoff between mother and son is etched with unflinching honesty. Rondón's detached observational approach and parsimoniousness with plot details may be frustrating for audiences wanting conventional storytelling. But a complex, compassionate picture emerges of the external forces that can cloud a mother's love, and of the lengths of abnegation to which a child will go to secure a parent's affection." At IndieWire, Vanessa Martinez finds Bad Hair "a bold, gripping drama." At Twitch, Pedro Ponte observes: "Caracas becomes a character in itself, a violent, hostile character, with its largely crowded, prison-like apartment blocks where families live cramped and hopeless."

Club Sándwich, Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico (2013)—While vacationing at a seaside resort, a single mother faces the inevitable when her 15-year-old son—and best friend—finds himself overwhelmingly drawn to a girl his own age. Mexican writer-director Fernando Eimbcke explores the awkwardness of both adolescence and parental separation anxiety with great sensitivity and a decidedly light comic touch. As stated by Gustavus Kundahl in his SFIFF program capsule: "In limning what may be the least verbal romance in cinema history, director Fernando Eimbcke employs a delightful restraint that brings forth an intimacy, acuity and comic release that few films can match." Fernando Eimbcke is expected to attend the festival. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Winner of the Silver Seashell for Best Director at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, Fernando Eimbcke proved as charming (and funny!) as his films when we met last Fall at the Morelia International Film Festival where Club Sándwich played to his enthusiastic fanbase. At Variety, Rob Nelson extols Club Sándwich as the "essence of evocative simplicity" and "a minimalist film with maximum pathos." At The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney's bottom line is that Club Sándwich is "an intimate snapshot of separation anxiety" and concludes: "This is a modestly scaled film, but a refreshing one, laced with unforced humor. Eimbcke's observational style is dry and detached yet perceptive, channeled through the limpid gaze of Maria Secco's fixed camera. The Hockney-esque composed shots of the hotel swimming pool are used with particular effectiveness, and the lethargic rhythms of Mariana Rodriguez's editing are essential to the movie's general restraint. There's not a false note in the performances, from the internalized work of the two young leads to the more expressive countenance of [Maria Renee] Prudencio's Paloma, herself not so far removed from adolescence in her tender vulnerability." The Film Experience interviews Dánae Reynaud. At Keyframe Daily, David Hudson rounds up the reviews from the film's New York Film Festival screening.

Coast of Death / Costa da Morte, Lois Patiño, Spain (2013)—At any given film festival, there always seems to be a film that eludes me and, earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), that film was Coast of Death, which sold out before I arrived, and had no screener for press review. 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. Lois Patiño is expected to attend SFIFF57. Official site. IMDb.

At Nonfics, Daniel Walber describes Coast of Death 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."

At Sound on Sight, Christopher Clemente has a more guarded perspective: "Characterized by the titled location, Costa Da Morte is an amorous tale like no other. A love affair between its maker, Lois Patiño, and its coastal surroundings, the film is a small, intimate display of compassion between cinematographer and landscape. Capturing beauty and immortalizing natural liveliness is indeed accomplished with great triumph by the young director, but unfortunately for the masses, that same director might be the film's biggest and possibly only fan." Also: "Yet this is so much more than a nature documentary; the film stimulates the senses. Close your eyes and you are transported to Galica, which isn't the worst of places to spend 80 minutes, but may feel like 70 minutes too long. Because the film doesn't use a structured script and character development, aside from the embodiment of the coast itself, the journey can seem a little too prolonged and a bit too personalized from the filmmaker's point of view." At The Film Experience, Glenn Dunks more fairly negotiates spectatorial expectation by accepting Coast of Death on its own terms: "Costa da Morte is the type of film I would expect more from the people that brought us Sweetgrass and Leviathan. Patiño’s film may have found itself under the banner of 'avant-garde' thanks to its lack of traditional documentary elements such as talking heads and overriding narrative, but it's far more standard than the term 'avant-garde' would suggest. It's a nature documentary first and foremost; an anthropological study into the way people integrate. For some I guess that's weird and strange, but for me it's just life."

History of Fear / Historia del miedo, Benjamín Naishtat, Argentina / France / Germany / Uruguay / Qatar (2014)—Paranoia runs rampant in this accomplished first feature, instilling a disorienting sense of dread in the viewer. Are the strange occurrences in an affluent Buenos Aires suburb evidence that the skittish residents are actually being targeted? Naishtat foregoes ready explanations or assurances in favor of foreboding suggestions in a film that is sprawling both in scope and implications but astonishingly exacting in its execution. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

History of Fear had its premiere in the competition section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. At Variety, Peter Debruge notes that in Naishtat's hands, "the subtext intimidates even as what's happening on the surface sometimes seems inscrutable, the helmer aiming not to confuse so much as to allow audiences to project their own interpretations." The bottom line for Boyd von Hoeij at The Hollywood Reporter is that History of Fear is "an impressive debut feature that relies on visuals and the power of suggestion to talk about abstract notions such as angst." At IndieWire, Eric Kohn writes: "Buenos Aires is a haven for paranoia and confusion in Argentinian writer-director Benjamín Naishtat's mesmerizing debut History of Fear, though its title is something of a misnomer. Rather than chronicling the timeline of the listless quality that characterizes Argentina's suburban class—and, by extension, those around the world—History of Fear hypnotically sets its gaze on the present. Borrowing the beats of a disaster movie without ever giving the invisible threat a name, Naishtat explores the tenuous constructs that allow a subset of the population to deny the harsher ingredients of the world beyond their safety zone—until it's thrust right in front of them."

Manos Sucias, Josef Wladyka, USA / Colombia (2014)—A reluctant smuggler and his eager neophyte brother shepherd a dangerous narco-torpedo up the coast of Colombia, posing as fishermen. Paramilitary, guerrillas and hardscrabble desperation suffuse every inch of the jungle and waters that surround them, eager to separate the siblings from their only opportunity to escape the circumstances of their lives. Manos Sucias is the recipient of two 2013 San Francisco Film Society KRF Filmmaking grants. Director and co-writer Josef Kubota Wladyka, co-writer Alan Blanco, and producers Elena Julia Greenlee and Márcia Nunes are expected to attend the festival. IMDb.

The Militant / El Lugar del Hijo, Manolo Nieto, Argentina / Uruguay (2013)—As noted by Miguel Pendás in his SFIFF program capsule, a packinghouse workers strike forms the backdrop to this coming-of-age story set during the economic crisis in 2002 Uruguay. "This sensitive, multilayered film, brimming with metaphor and suggestion," Pendás writes, "was the most-awarded film at the Havana Film Festival, winning second place for best narrative feature, best cinematography and the film critics' FIPRESCI Prize." IMDb. Facebook.

Jonathan Holland's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter is that The Militant is a "deceptively rambling, serious-minded coming-of-age drama with a sharp political point, built around a central performance that fascinatingly combines blankness and intensity." Comparing Nieto's effort with Santiago Mitre's El Estudiante, in its focus on "the political disenchantment of a disenfranchised generation", Holland synopsizes: "It's a comic, fish-out-of-water setup that generates some broad verbal and visual comedy, but far more urgent themes are bubbling under the surface, themes relating to a generation that has lost its way under the burden of a bad political and economic inheritance, consisting of people who are playing the roles of political activists without quite knowing what it is that political activists do."

The Reconstruction / La reconstrucción, Juan Taratuto, Argentina (2013)—"The Reconstruction's beauty," Judy Bloch writes in her SFIFF program capsule, "is in its challenge: to make an asocial character human. As in Bresson, empathy comes through the smallest revelations. Pay close attention to them, as the director Juan Taratuto and his star [Diego] Peretti have so skillfully done. Each character in this fine ensemble contributes to the others' redemption. In this way, love proves transmutable." Peretti won Best Actor at the Havana Film Festival and director Taratuto won the Critics Choice Award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. IMDb.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Holland observes that one of the film's most unique accomplishments is "its directorial U-turn from comedy to tightly focused, character-based drama for both Argentinian director Juan Taratuto and star Diego Peretti." He continues: "Particularly strong in its atmospherics and performances, especially from Peretti, who reveals previously unsuspected depths, this miniature tale of a damaged heart is admirable."


Chris Knipp said...

Some of my best festival experiences have been Latin American films and I watch to see what you say about them here. I've recently reviewed HISTORY OF FEAR, THE AMAZING CATFISH, and CLUB SANDWICH (I love Eimbcke) on Filmleaf and will be soon reviewing THE RECONSTRUCTION and BAD HAIR.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Chris, great to read your impressions!