Category: Latin American Cinema

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany 2018)

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Looking for freedom

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience, firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose ‘Pepe’; Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

The Official Story (La historia oficial, Argentina 1985)

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Intense reality

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right-wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina 2017)

Marie battles bourgeois problems

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final Peru, 2017)

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In search of the end game

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. IMDb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)

LIFF#14: Too Late to Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven Chile-Arg-Brazil-Netherlands-Qatar 2018)

Sofía (Demian Hernández)

There are all kinds of ‘festival films’. Some are destined for special genre strands, some are début films, some are from star directors and come with promotional material. And then there are films that only seem to make sense in a festival setting. I generally like to watch films ‘cold’ in a festival. Partly, I want to get a sense of how audiences might respond. Too Late to Die Young seems to refer to the rush of growing up and indeed this is a ‘coming of age’ film of sorts with three central characters. The credits told me that it is a festival ‘workshop’ film – a film supported by major festivals and funds such as Sundance, Doha and Hubert Bals Fund on the basis that its 33 year-old director Dominga Sotomayor is ‘one to watch’ and this third feature is being supported for wide festival circulation. My worry is that audiences might struggle to place its story despite some excellent performances.

As the film began I found it difficult to locate the story, partly because of the list of co-production countries. At one point somebody mentions Mendoza which I recognised as a city/region in Argentina, but then more references appeared which pointed towards Chile. But where in Chile? I didn’t know that Ñuñoa is a middle class district on the eastern outskirts of Santiago. The actual setting is a commune up in the hills above the city which can finally be seen in the distance later in the film. But when is the story set? I’ve seen enough Chilean films to know that the Pinochet dictatorship is still a central factor in Chilean narratives but I don’t think there was any direct reference here. The clothes and battered old cars could come from any time in the past thirty years since the community in which they appear is perhaps best described as an ex-hippy arts/crafts/music commune. I should have noticed there weren’t any mobile phones or tablets and that the music seemed to be from the 1980s but it wasn’t until after the screening that I learned that it was meant to be the December (i.e. Summer in Chile) of 1989 or possibly 1990, the year that Pinochet stepped down as dictator of Chile. The film isn’t directly interested in politics as such but it seems odd not to display the contextual references – I must have missed something. I was made sleepy by the langourous feel of parts of the film. I suspect that the reviewers who gave it positive reviews at Locarno and Toronto had detailed press notes. Audiences for a standard release won’t have access in the same way. Now that I’ve read those Press Notes and several other sources it all makes sense. Dominga Sotomayor was judged ‘Best Director’ at Locarno, a festival that is trying to develop its profile as a major festival with a different overall stance to Cannes, Venice etc. Sotomayor is the first female winner at Locarno.

A typical ‘busy’ scene in the commune with characters in foreground, middle ground and background

Dominga Sotomayor was herself brought up in an ‘ecological commune’. Her script is inspired by the real-life events of January 1990 witnessed by the writer-director as a young girl. She was only four or five at the time and as part of her research she watched some VHS tapes of the period shot around the commune. From these came some inspiration for the ‘look’ of the film and also something of the ‘timelessness’ of the narrative. Her principal character is Sofía (Demian Hernández), a young woman of around 16-17. In her first role, Ms Hernández is certainly an arresting presence. Tall and slim with fine cheekbones, long legs and boyish hair she is very striking and seemingly out of reach for her childhood friend Lucas (Antar Machado). She’s already looking out for the older young men who visit the community. Lucas is a budding guitarist and Sofía plays the accordion. Her father is a luthier. Her mother is absent but expected at the New Year’s Eve party which is the endpoint of the narrative. 10 year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) is the third central character, a kind of bridge between the older and younger children in the community. Clara’s pregnant mother is a well-known actor who has to sign autographs when she is out and about.

The younger children play together

I’m certainly in agreement with the reviewers who praise the performances and the cinematography by Inti Briones as well as Dominga Sotomayor’s direction. Although the film is not directly concerned with politics, it is definitely concerned with social class (though the director does not talk about this, so it is my reading rather than a stated intention). This manifests itself in the several ways in which this distinctly middle-class artistic community rubs up against local people in the foothills of the Andes. In one specific example there is a tricky interaction with a family of indigenous people. In other instances the commune suffers break-ins and someone tampers with the water supply. The hinterland of Santiago is not 1960s California and middle-class communes are not universally welcomed. This scenario has echoes in some other Latin American films I’ve seen over the last few years. These artists are not as arrogant and aggressive as the wealthy middle-class ‘Europeans’ in other Latin American narratives but they still represent the colonial/post-colonial ‘masters’.

Sofía with Ignacio on a trip

Too Late to Die Young has been acquired by the UK independent distributor ‘day for night’ (which also acquired Sotomayor’s earlier film Thursday Till Sunday (Chile-Netherlands 2012) so it’s possible it will get a limited release before appearing on DVD. I stick by my comments above re the difficulties the film poses for audiences but as a rather beautiful art film I would recommend Too Late to Die Young, not least for the performance by Demian Hernández who sings her version of ‘Eternal Flame’ by the Bangles (a worldwide hit in 1989). If you can engage with the film’s sense of community, you will have a good time watching it. The Press Notes offer an interesting read after you’ve seen the film. Also useful is this interview recorded at Locarno which reveals something else about the production which I was too dumb to spot immediately, but which will probably become a talking point when the film is released.

 

LIFF#6: 25 Watts (Uruguay 2001)

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2001 but no mobile phones

I like to watch films having as little idea about them as possible, something that is pretty easy to do at a film festival where I’ve heard of hardly any of them. I chose this on the basis it is Uruguayan; I’ve never seen a film from that country. At first I thought it was from the 1970s, the black and white mise en scene suggested as such but then I noticed the Walkman (or equivalent), Kurt Cobain poster and DVDs. Whether the film has a retro look I have no idea as my knowledge of Uruguay is as limited as its film industry which produces very few films a year.

The subject matter and look of the film recall Clerks (US 1994) with the slackers doing little during the day (it was part of the Time Frames thread) but hanging around, trying to get a girl, watching porn, drinking and ‘doing’ drugs. However co-directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, bring a playful visual style that engages throughout. In one virtuoso shot an extreme close-up of a glass of water has a character behind it and, as he gets blown off in his attempt at a chat up, the soundtrack adds bubbles as if he’s drowning. Another shot is from beneath a bed as a (soon to be ex) girlfriend gets dressed having engaged in breakup sex.

There are lovely cameos of eccentric characters; particularly the ex Royal guard who describes the boredom of standing up all day without talking. He’s clearly lost his grip on reality as a result.

Of course such a film will tell me little of the social and political context of Uruguay at the time but it wasn’t intending to.

The Heiresses (Las herederas, Paraguay-Uruguay-Brazil-Germany-Norway-France 2018)

Angy visits Chela’s house

This is a truly ‘global’ film production as the range of funders testifies. I also noted Alan Fountain’s name on the credits. Alan was the leader of ‘alternative’ film programming for Channel 4 in the 1980s and in the 1990s a champion of independent filmmaking globally. I was shocked to discover that he died unexpectedly in 1969. Perhaps he was involved initially in this production? It must take a long time to put these kinds of films together. But if you want something different, Latin American cinema is often the best place to look these days. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film made in Paraguay by a local filmmaker before – mainly I’ve seen international or other Latin American national film industries using the country as a location.

Written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi as a first feature this is an unusual subject for a male filmmaker – a film completely about a world of women with barely a glimpse of a man in the background. Chela and ‘Chiquita’ are two women in their sixties who have lived together for thirty years and are now struggling to survive financially. The daughters of wealthy parents they are now forced to sell off the furniture and objets d’art in Chela’s family mansion in Asunción. But now the financial authorities have caught up with Chiquita’s debts and the promissory notes she has signed. She is convicted of fraud and sent to prison for what may be a few weeks or months. Chiquita is outgoing and lively and the withdrawn and now bewildered (but still cantankerous) Chela is left to contemplate life with only her new maid, Pati for company. One day, however, a neighbour calls and more or less demands that Chela drive her to her bridge game. Chela feels obliged to help and carefully navigates her father’s old Mercedes through the old residential district. Despite her protestations, Chela eventually accepts some money ‘ to pay for fuel’ and over the next few days she becomes the taxi driver for all the elderly bridge players (all women). Then she meets a younger woman at the bridge game (where she waits for her ‘clients’). Angy (Ana Ivanova) is tall and lean and street smart and Chela is smitten. I won’t spoil the narrative further but there are obvious questions. How far will Chela go in exploring her new world (at times she is almost like a teenager)? She has no driving licence and she is pocketing cash, will she end up in prison too? What will happen when Chiquita is released?

Chela waits for her bridge-playing passengers

When the film began, in the dark and gloomy mansion with the camera peering out of a wardrobe or from behind a door to watch prospective buyers sifting through the family silver and crystal glass, I wondered if watching the film might be a struggle for me. It seemed a waste of the CinemaScope frame, but within a few minutes I was engaged and I found the unfolding story totally gripping as it moved slowly forward. The script is beautifully written with characters carefully observed. Ana Brun as Chela won the Silver Bear at Berlin as Best Actress and I was amazed to discover this was her first feature film (I was convinced I’d seen her before). Angy and Chiquita are similarly key roles with strong performances by Ana Ivanova and Margarita Irun, again with limited experience of feature films. The only aspect of the film that troubled me was the role of the maid. Pati is an ‘indigenous’ or mestizo character. Paraguay is an unusual South American country in which Guarani, a language of several indigenous groups is an official language of a bi-lingual state and the majority of the people can speak it alongside Spanish. It is spoken in the film. Pati has been brought up in a convent where she has learned several skills, including how to massage Chela’s feet. I think on reflection that Martinessi makes quite subtle comments about social class and ethnicity in the film and Chela’s relationship with Pati does change over the film – much as we are required to re-think any assumptions about Pati. I mention these points because the use of maids by European élites is a common feature of the narratives of several of the Latin American films of recent years that have found their way into UK distribution or the international festival circuit.

Chiquita opens the shutters at the beginning of the film and Chela is disturbed by the light

Music is an important part of the film but Latin American music culture is not my strong point. In her Sight and Sound review (September 2018), Maria Delgado explains what she calls the songs’ ‘wry commentary’ on the narrative events (but beware this reveals spoilers about the narrative). Chela is also an artist (though it is difficult to tell whether she has real talent or if it is just a hobby to pass the time) and she will have a dialogue about painting with Angy. These potentially expressive devices and the rich detail of the mise en scène suggest to me that The Heiresses is a melodrama. The film is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird and the official website includes details of where it is playing in the next few weeks. Don’t miss it if it comes to a cinema near you.

¡Viva! Festival 2018: Los adioses (Mexico 2017)

Karina Gidi as the ‘adult’ Rosario

Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.

Tessa Ia as the young Rosario

‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.

An example pf the close-up style of the film

I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.

This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)