Category: Latin American Cinema

The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas Costa Rica-Spain, 2019)

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Happy family?

This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.

The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.

I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.

Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!

The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.

The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:

‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’

She is a talent to watch.

GFF20 #9: Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre, Peru-Spain-US-Chile 2019)

Greorgina (Pamela Mendoza)

Song Without a Name proved quite a difficult film to engage with during the opening few scenes. The opening shot in a film presented in black and white, comprises two ghostly figure in long shot trudging up a slope through the mist. Photos of newspaper headlines and street graffiti etc. reveal the political conflict of Peru in the 1980s. We are then introduced to the central character Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), part of a group of indigenous people coming together to sing, seemingly on a street corner. Perhaps because the film was presented in Academy ratio on a screen without masking in GFT3, the projectionist had difficulty in registering the image so that we could read all of the text of the subtitles. The  film was re-started and from then on, I did begin to respond to the narrative. You can see in the trailer below that often there is no sharp edge to the image. Some commentators have remarked on the ‘shadowy photography’, others suggest a reference to film noir. The director and co-writer Melina Léon says she wanted black & white Academy to suggest both the monochrome newspapers and the TV image of the 1980s. The film’s story is based on real events from the early 1980s in which the director’s father had some involvement when he was setting up a newspaper. But the film is set specifically in 1988 towards the end of the first Presidency of Alan Garcia during which the Peruvian economy was in economic crisis mode and internal security was threatened by the Maoist guerrilla actions of the Shining Path and the smaller Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).

Georgina and Leo trudge from their shack into town

Georgina is heavily pregnant and she and her husband Leo make a living selling potatoes in a local market. Georgina hears a radio announcement about a clinic offering free birthing procedures. When her time is due she makes her painful way by bus and on foot to the clinic in Lima where her daughter is delivered but quickly taken away from her. Later she is told to go home and return the next day to collect her baby. But by the next day the clinic has closed and moved away. In a sadly familiar sequence of encounters, Georgina and Leo (Lucio Rojas) are turned away by different government departments and sent on another pointless trip to an office where their lack of paperwork means nothing will happen. (As indigenous people they do not have IDs.) The police seem unprepared to investigate the theft of their baby. In despair, Georgina seeks to contact the press and Leo turns for support to one of the guerrilla groups.

Selling potatoes in the market

When Georgina finally gets to see a journalist we realise we’ve seen him earlier in the film, nervously visiting a guerrilla group. Pedro (Tommy Párraga) recognises that this could be an important story and he begins to investigate with support from his boss on a major Lima paper. At this point the central narrative begins to splinter. Georgina finds other women who are supportive and she becomes more involved in music and street theatre. Pedro’s investigation begins to uncover a baby-smuggling network but also the role of the ruling class in covering up and blocking his investigation. He also has his own narrative one which makes him a potential victim as well as an investigator. This ‘unravelling’ of the central narrative and the lack of a clear resolution has been a criticism of the film from some reviewers. I can understand this but I don’t mind the ‘open ending’. Having said that, the latter stages of the narrative do take on an almost dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality. The black and white photography has also been seen as a practical decision to enable an easier representation of 1988 without too many VFX required to change contemporary Lima. Certainly the scenes of Georgina’s first home and then the shanty towns by the sea with sand dunes and footways across the landing stages offer a certain kind of marginal location. I think I may have been confused by these locations. The shacks tend to look the same. Perhaps some of the scenes towards the end of the narrative do refer to 1940s noir?

Georgina with Pedro

The music in the film is by Peruvian avant-garde musician Pauchi Sasaki and her website suggests:

Her music recreates intimate subjective landscapes through electro-acoustic sonorities mixed with field recordings and synthesis.

Along with the cinematography by Peruvian-Chilean Inti Briones, the music creates a distinctive ‘feel’. Briones and Sasaki, along with director Léon have experience of documentary shoots. Briones also shot Too Late to Die Young (Chile 2018). That film was not as successful on release in the UK as I expected. It shares some qualities with Song Without a Name which as yet hasn’t got a UK distributor. Together they represent a willingness by younger (under 40) directors to explore the social, political and cultural issues of Latin America in the 1980s and into the 1990s. I did find the coverage of the Shining Path and/or MRTA confusing in Song Without a Name. I’m not sure who the indigenous groups are that Georgina joins and I wasn’t sure what to make of bombings in Lima. Overall though, I found this an interesting film and a contrast to the few other Peruvian films I’ve seen. The performances by the leads are very good. After its Cannes showing, Song Without a Name has won prizes at several film festivals around the world. I hope it does get a UK release.

Monos (Colombia-Argentina-Netherlands-Germany-Sweden-Uruguay-USA-Switzerland-Denmark 2019)

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On the edge of the world

Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.

Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.

The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.

It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.

¡Viva! 25 #10: Pajaros de verano (Birds of Passage Colombia-Mexico-Denmark 2018)

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The ritual dance that begins the tragedy of the Wayuu with Rapayet (José Acosta) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes)

This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.

There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:

For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.

Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:

It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.

The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:

The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.

The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.

Peregrino and Rapayet. The straw hat that Rapayet wears is said to be iconic in Colombia

I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.

In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.

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Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) is a formidable leader of her clan.

The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all  professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.

The fantasy/dream images and premonitions of death

I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.

I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.

25th ¡Viva! Festival at HOME, Manchester, 22 March – 13 April

The opening film of ¡Viva 2019, Tiempo después (Some Time After)

It’s time again for another burst of Spanish and Latin American culture at the UK’s most important Spanish language festival in Manchester. This is ¡Viva!‘s 25th Anniversary edition and it’s appropriately entitled ‘Serious Fun‘. The Festival kicks off on Friday 22 March with a party open to all. The opening film on the first night is Tiempo después (Some Time After) (Spain-Portugal 2018). This absurdist comedy sets up the theme of the festival derived from the tradition of esperpento – which according to the festival brochure “uses satire, the grotesque and dark humour to skewer the foibles of contemporary society”. There are 21 new features from Spain and Latin America in the programme. Most are new releases, ten of them UK premières. But there are also archive films and, fitting the theme this time, we get the chance to see the work of masters such as Luis García Berlanga and Álex de la Iglesia and a celebration of the late great Bigas Luna with his ‘Iberian Trilogy’. These are three great directors, each with a distinctive funny bone and a commitment to biting social/political satire.

As usual, most screenings are enhanced by introductions and Q&As with special guests. This year there are five short films on the programme, presented before selected features and there are events of various kinds including ‘One Hour Intros’ to the Festival theme and to Contemporary Argentinian Cinema, Café Cervantes and the Language Lab, and a discussion about the environment and mass corporate agriculture.

This year’s festival also joins in with HOME’s year-long Celebration of Women in Global Cinema with particular films and events highlighted for the contributions of female directors, writers, producers and stars. There is also a theatre presentation by Barcelona’s Señor Serrano with their new production Kingdom running from Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th April.

Click on the image above to download the full programme brochure

We’ve been attending and reporting on ¡Viva! for a long time (going back to the 1990s) and you can find posts about the festival on the blog using this tag: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/tag/viva/ In all that time we’ve found this to be a very special festival with enthusiastic audiences, great guests and events and the opportunity to see a diverse range of films, many of which would not otherwise appear in the UK.

I can recommend the archive screenings, particularly El Verdugo (The Executioner, Spain-Italy 1963) by Luis García Berlanga on Tuesday 26 March at 18.05 with an introduction by Andy Willis. Of the new films, the only one I’ve seen is Rojo (Argentina 2018), showing on Monday 8 April at 18.15 with an introduction by Dr Carmen Herrero. I’d certainly recommend this preview screening. Argentinian cinema is definitely on the rise in terms of the number of films appearing at international festivals (even if they struggle to get seen in the UK). There are six Argentinian titles in the programme including a new documentary by one of the major figures of Latin American cinema, Fernando Solanos. Viaje a los pueblos fumigados (Argentina 2017) shows on Wednesday 27 March at 18.00 with a post-screening discussion on this investigation into the impact of global ‘agribusiness’ in Argentina. There is a second screening on Friday 29 March at 15.50 which I’m aiming to catch.

There are 18 Spanish films in all including seven archive features plus other Latin American films from Mexico, Peru and Columbia and one from The Dominican Republic. It’s a wonderful programme put together by the regular team of Rachel Hayward, Jessie Gibbs and Andy Willis and I can’t wait to get stuck in. See you there!

Tremors (Temblores, Guatemala-France-Luxemburg 2019)


There appear to be quite number of films produced in Guatemala but I cannot remember the last time that I saw one. The portrait provided here is of the power of religion in a sector of the middle classes. The country has suffered from military regimes, revolution and civil war, and most recently government corruption. But in this film we only get a sense of a particular fraction and cult. This title was screened in the Berlinale Panorama programme; definitely challenging and controversial.

The film opens as Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) drives into the grounds of a mansion to find both his family and that of his wife waiting for him. The heavy rain presages all is not well; a sense reinforced by the grim visages of the men and a note of hysterias in the women. It takes some time for the crisis to become clear but one gradually realises that either Pablo ‘has come out’ or that he has been ‘outed’ by an acquaintance. How shocking this news must be is emphasized by an earthquake shortly afterwards.

Initially Pablo has to leave home and set up his own apartment, assisted by his current gay partner, Francisco (Mauricio Armas). The film spends quite an amount of time showing Pablo adjusting to this change of life. Whilst initially coy, the first use of the word ‘gay’ is only heard thirty minute into the film, in these sequences the life of gay men is fairly explicit. The apartment is in what seems to be a slum area and we do see life on the nearby streets.


Whilst this has been taking place we have seen the family members attending a revival type religious meetings. This bears all the hallmarks of a cult with a dominant leading male and female pastors. It seems at first that Pablo will settle into his gay life. But the family are efforts to ‘rescue him’. The cult, clearly homophobic, actually has rituals to cleanse such sinners. And we see Pablo sent [more or less willingly] to a rehabilitation centre. This is a really oppressive set-up. There is religion, a sort of secular confession, group therapy and more masochistic actions. At one point we see Pablo receive an injection into his testicles.

Rather to my surprise this actually works and the film ends with Pablo, his own family and the relatives of himself and his wife, all singing, waving hands, and heavily involved in a cult ceremony.

For me there was definitely an overdose of religion in this film. And there is little sense of the theology of the cult. The cult  espouses fairly reactionary values and is extremely hierarchical. The congregations seem to be required to sing, shout, wave their hands and adulate their pastors.

The film intends a critical view of all these religious practices. The last shot of the film shows a young woman, Luisa, looking at the compliant Pablo. She is a servant in the family household but also one of the rare members who sympathises with Pablo’s situation. But I would have liked more distance throughout the film; some idea of what the cult actually stood for; and a sense of where this faction fits into the wider urban society. I would have engaged more with the film if the critical stance was more explicit.

The style of the film emphasises the intensity of the cult and of the relationships among members. Most of the film is shot in a shallow focus and with extensive use of close-ups and large close-ups.The feel of this is stronger as the film uses the widescreen of Panavision in 2.39:1. I think it is this close almost subjective feel that inhibits the sense of the critical. It is also in colour and the digital version I saw had English sub-titles.

Overall the cast and the technical work are good. I am possibly less able than some to sit through a lot of religion. I have thought that last year had an extra large slice of religion, including two films about Jehovah Witnesses. These cult members in Guatemala make them look rather limp.

The film is written and directed by Jayro Bustamante. I also noted that the actor playing Pablo has carried over his name. I incline to think that the intensity of the film is based on actual experience by someone involved in its production. The director studied in Paris and his first film at home was Ixcanul (2015), the title won a prize at the 2017 Berlinale. He has founded his own production company, and, interestingly, Guatemala City’s first cinema dedicated to independent film.

This title has been supported by European funding and Memento Films were involved. So a British release is possible and it is a powerful drama to watch.