Category: Latin American Cinema

¡Viva! 28 #7: Clara Sola (Sweden-Costa Rica-Belgium-Germany-France-US 2021)

My final post from ¡Viva! 28 is another début feature, another film made by a creative team led by women in key roles – and it’s a cracker, one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Writer-director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén was born in Sweden. Her mother is from Costa Rica and her father from Uruguay. Nathalie went to Costa Rica as a child and returned to Sweden to go to university. (See this interview on Cineuropa) She has benefited from various film festival projects because her short films attracted critical attention. Clara Sola screened in the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2021. I’m not sure I have seen a Costa Rican film before. I know little about the country, only that it has a reputation as a stable democracy, with good education and healthcare and has become known for eco-tourism.

Clara is the centre of attention at religious festivals

Clara Sola is a narrative in which a woman has been recognised in a small, tight-knit community as having powers which bring her close to the Virgin Mary. It is believed that she can heal the sick and she becomes an important figure in religious festivals and community events. In such cases the woman is usually young and in danger of being exploited. In this case, however, Clara is older at around 40 and appears to have some form of social difficulty, perhaps she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum? She is under the control of her mother, Fresia, who she lives with alongside her niece in a house in the wooded mountains. The three women also have relatives in the nearest village. The narrative disruption which allows the development of a dramatic situation is linked to Clara’s niece Maria who is approaching her fifteenth birthday or quinceañera, a festival occasion which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Maria’s excitement is heightened by the presence of Santiago a young man who comes on most days to hire the white mare Yuca, needed as part of tourist activities in the mountains. Clara has a close attachment to Yuca and to the local flora and fauna in general. She is therefore unhappy that Yuca is taken away, but she too is interested in Santiago, an attractive young man who befriends her and teaches her new things.

Clara with Yuca

Maria’s emergence into a sexual being and her growing friendship with Santiago are followed by Clara who is slowly awakened to her own sexuality – something her controlling mother has always been anxious to curtail. Fresia goes as far as denying Clara an operation to correct a spinal deformity that affects Clara’s posture and her gait. She wants Clara kept ‘pure’, just as she was delivered by God. There is one scene involving chilli juice which will cause a wince or two for anyone familiar with preparing and cooking chillies, ouch! This is a film with not much in the way of ‘back stories’ so the audience is required to take the situation as it stands instead of wondering why this is happening to Clara now rather than twenty or more years earlier. But perhaps Clara’s late ‘awakening’ signifies her mother’s fierce control developed by a conservative religious belief?

Natalie Álvarez Mesén and her co-writer María Camila Arias (who is Colombian and co-wrote Birds of Passage, Colombia 2018) screened in ¡Viva! 25) mix several approaches to create a distinctive style. In several ways the narrative might appear to be heading for melodrama territory and the ‘return of the repressed’ as Clara begins to discover her sexuality. Instead, however, the narrative conclusion is reached almost as a calm revelation, involving magic realism. I found the ending was appropriate and somehow very satisfying.

Director Natalie Álvarez Mesén with Wendy Chinchilla Araya as Clara

The ideas in the script work because of the performances by the principals, all of whom are non-professionals as far as I am aware. Wendy Chinchilla Araya who plays Clara is a dancer. She must have used her knowledge of her body and control over her movements to create the awkward walk of the character. Daniel Castañeda Rincón as Santiago conveys the remarkably patient and sensitive young man very well and both Ana Julia Porras Espinoza as Maria and Flor María Vargas Chavez as Fresia are impressive. Performances by non-professionals require careful direction and this feels like a very assured début film. It is enhanced by the camerawork of Sophie Winqvist who is able to use big close-ups and beautiful long shot compositions in a CinemaScope ratio to place Clara in her environment and close to the flora and fauna she feels part of – she knows the secret names of animals. I think that the credits suggest that much of the footage was shot in the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, a region that includes the ‘Cloud Rainforest’. Beware, you’ll probably want to visit Costa Rica after watching the film.

Clara in the blue dress she wanted strikes out on her own

The good news is that Clara Sola is coming to the UK, having been acquired by Peccadillo Pictures with a possible release date of September 2022. I heartily recommend it. Do try to see it on a big screen if you can.

¡Viva! 28 #3: El árbol rojo (The Red Tree, Colombia 2021)

This début feature film for Colombian director Joan Gómez Endara is a conventional road movie in formal terms but it becomes something more because of its three leads, beautiful cinematography and the chance it offers to see more of Colombia than many other films from the region. For a début feature this is an accomplished piece of work, engaging and moving in its handling of the development of the relationship between two seemingly mismatched half-siblings.

Esperanza at her father’s funeral, listening to a gaita player

Élicier is a forty-something (?) man living quietly alone in a village on Colombia’s western Caribbean coast. One day a man arrives at his door with a young girl, Esperanza (‘Hope’). He announces that Élicier’s father Nolasco has died and the little girl is actually his half sister. All this is news to Élicier who hasn’t seen his father for thirty years and at first doesn’t want to face the implications of Esperanza’s sudden appearance. But he is given an address for the girl’s mother in Bogota and realises his responsibility. Getting to the capital is a long and expensive journey from the coast up into the mountains and this is 1999 when the virtual civil war between FARC guerillas and government military forces is still going on even as peace talks are being pursued. The film is not about the civil war but it does mean that travel across the vast country, and especially into the mountains, is dangerous. When the journey begins, the siblings are joined by Toño, a young man who wants to try his luck as a boxer in Bogota. The inclusion of Toño is possibly the only flaw in the film as the script doesn’t really know what to do with him once he has been used as a plot device to complicate the journey. His story then gets rather lost.

The three travellers getting a lift

The main narrative is underpinned by music and this is certainly a strength in the film. Nolasco had been a celebrated musician along the coast, playing the gaita. This is a wind instrument, something like the traditional European wooden recorder that in my day was used to introduce British schoolchildren to music. The gaita is quite a large instrument, made from dried cactus (a cardón) with a distinctive mouthpiece fashioned from beeswax, charcoal and a duck feather (now often using plastic instead). Confusingly, ‘gaita’ is also the Spanish word for a form of bagpipes. In Colombia gaita bands appear to be four or five piece outfits with one or two gaita players plus a trio of drummers. The music represents the fusion of African drumming  with the indigenous playing of the gaita. In the film, the gaita which Esperanza finds in Élicier’s house (and which she insists on taking with her on the journey) becomes important in the bonding of the two central characters and also in Élicier’s rediscovery of his own identity. This is partly represented by the way in which the sound of the gaita recalls birdsong. The film’s title is also explained during the first real conversation between Élicier and Esperanza when we discover something about the gaita that she carries.

That first real conversation between the half-siblings when Esperanza learns something about Élicier’s childhood and their father’s behaviour

Here’s a YouTube clip of a group of gaiteros playing similar music to that used at the end of the film.

Carlos Vergara is very good as the quiet and withdrawn Élicier. He is an experienced actor and producer. Shaday Velasquez as the young girl is a beautiful child who is sometimes quite solemn and determined but who is also also capable of joy and laughter. Overall the film is a humanist story, the pair meet good and bad people on their journey. There is a satisfying conclusion to the narrative which doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning that may only be accessible by a local audience, one of which refers to the fate of an iguana. However, we do get a real sense of the diversity of Colombian culture and especially of one of its several important musical genres. El árbol rojo plays again at ¡Viva! on Tuesday 29th March at HOME Manchester.

¡Viva! 28 #2: Contactado (Peru-Brazil-Norway-Venzuela 2020)

The title of this film refers to the idea of a ‘contactee’ – a person who acts as the link between a local community and alien forces. The narrative is set in Peru, in the capital Lima and along the coast. This is an area subject to earthquakes and ‘big waves’ off the coast. It is also the centre of Andean culture and the mythologies of the Incas. But this is the 21st century and the central character is Aldo, a former teacher of theology, now in his fifties, who seems to be withdrawing from the world and its troubles. He makes money selling his old books and acting as a guide to the ancient Inca sites around the city. He’s also still a landlord, attempting to collect rent from his lodgers – but the neighbouring houses are being demolished and the future for the house looks grim. His mother is in a home but whatever ails her is not clear. In fact Aldo’s background is presented to us in fragmented ways. Eventually we will learn that in his younger days he acted as a spiritual leader promising his followers access to another world through rituals which open ‘portals’.

Aldo’s daily routine of taking his surfboard for a morning dip, visiting the market and his mother and acting as a guide is disturbed by the appearance of a young man who claims to recognise Aldo from his days as a preacher and wants to know more. His promptings both annoy Aldo but also stir up his vanity. Who is this young man (named ‘Gabriel’) and what does he want? This is the enigma in the narrative and hints at a genre structure, possibly a thriller of some kind? Aldo is remembered by some of his followers but not all, some still remember their devotion, others feel he let them down.

Aldo (Baldomero Cáceres) and Miguel (Miguel Dávalos)

The ¡Viva! screening includes a recording of an introduction by Dr Rebecca Jarman of the University of Leeds (available via ‘HOMEscreen‘). She tells us that the filmmakers, director Marité Ugas and producer Mariana Rondón, have worked together for many years. They co-wrote this film and they have alternated producer and director roles. The two women trained at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution in developing Latin American cinemas. They founded Sudaca Films in Venezuela in the early 1990s and have developed links with productions in Peru and other Latin American countries as well as accessing international film festival and regional funding schemes. They are perhaps best known for their 2013 film Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) which won many prizes and was widely distributed worldwide, including in the UK. Dr Jarman points out that Aldo finds himself marginalised, drifting on the edges of what appears to be a revival of local cults associated with UFO sightings. She suggests that this could be linked to the rise of populist leaders in Latin America and that there is a possible metaphor here in which the de-stabilising of Aldo’s life is linked to a more widespread sense of a destabilising of Latin American societies and indeed global peace and security. She points specifically to the ways in which leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump have worked with evangelical Christian groups. I’m not sure, however, about her comments comparing ‘characters in crisis’ in other films such as Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (UK 2016). She suggests that unlike Daniel Blake and similar characters who are “lionised”, Aldo is an unsympathetic figure but more ‘human’ and therefore accessible for audiences. I can see the arguments she makes but the films aren’t comparable for me, having different genre elements. Loach’s film is a realist melodrama, Contactado is a more expressionistic thriller/mystery and there is no direct reference to the political situation in Peru (which has been turbulent for much of the last twenty years).

Aldo vists the beaches where his followers once performed ‘rituals’, each in their circle of stones

Ugas and Rondón have worked with a small crew on several films and have often used the same actors. The creative team on this film includes several women, Peruvian cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa also trained in Cuba and she has worked on other Sudaca productions. The film’s visual style is quite fluid, often hand-held and makes good use of the distinctive landscape in CinemaScope compositions. It is matched by the music of Pauchi Sasaki. The performances are strong with Baldomero Cáceres as Aldo and Miguel Dávalos. Overall this is an intriguing mix of a character study in set against an unsettling background of religious beliefs, traditional mythologies and the rise of cults. There are two further screenings of Contactado on Sunday 27 March and Wednesday April 6th.

¡Viva! 28, Spanish and Latin American Festival

Explota explota (Spain 2020) is the opening film of ¡Viva! 28

The full ¡Viva! film festival experience returns to HOME, Manchester at its usual time of the year after the interruptions of the last two years. The 2022 festival begins this coming Friday 18th March with Explota explota, a film featuring the songs of the 1970s superstar Raffaella Carrà,  and continues through to Thursday April 7th. A familiar programme structure sees two features each weekday and an extended programme at the weekends. A festival calendar is available here. This year’s programme features 19 new features from Spain and Latin America plus two classic archive films from Luis García Berlanga. These are later works by Berlanga, La Vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985) and Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage, 1981), both comedies.

A shot from Maixabel (Spain 2021)

A highlight of the programme will be the visit of Icíar Bollaín, who will be present for a Q&A following the screening of her 2021 film Maixabel. This film explores the potential for ‘repentance and reconciliation’ when a woman agrees to meet one of the ETA group members who killed her husband, a Basque politician eleven years earlier. ‘Live’ Q&As were not possible for the last festivals and it’s great to see them returning. The twenty one festival films are available across fifty screenings with all films being screened at least twice. Some features will be accompanied by short films. There are also other ‘added value’ elements such as film introductions and guest appearances plus the annual Café Cervantes opportunity to chat about films in Spanish and a ‘Language Lab’ session for adult students.

This year’s films come from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico. Eleven of the films are from début directors and there is a group of six ‘coming-of-age’ stories so there is a ‘youthful’ feel to the festival overall.

It can’t have been easy trying to develop a festival programme as the COVID regulations in different territories have chopped and changed over the last two years but ¡Viva! is in the safe hands of Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film. We hope to feature at least one report from the festival this year as we make our cautious re-entry into cinemas. But if you are in Manchester or can visit easily, we recommend diving in. All the details of screenings and events are on the HOME website.

¡Viva! 27 #6: Diablada (Chile-Venezuela 2020)

Andres (Daniel Candia) discovers posters for the missing girls.

Another début film, Diablada is a fiction feature based on the true story of a serial killer who raped and murdered young women, mainly teenagers between 1998 and 2001 in the Chilean region of Alto Hospicio in the North of the country. Although the names of the characters and other details have been changed, the film sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the real events. I found the film impressive in many of the aspects of its presentation but somewhat baffled by the overall approach of the filmmakers writer Omar Saavedra Santis and director Álvaro Muñoz.

The ‘Diabdala’ dance in the village. Nene is in the devil costume nearest the camera.

The film begins by introducing a small group of characters in a small desert town close to the coast. These include a single parent father Andres (Daniel Candia) and his young teenage daughter Nene as well as a female police officer Rosaura (Catalina Saavedra) who is badly treated by both her managers and her male colleagues. My first thought was that I was watching something like a Chilean version of a Nordic Noir crime thriller. Here is a crime story in which the crimes appear to be happening in a way that exposes a range of serious social and political problems in the society. The central point is that although a significant number of teenage girls have gone missing over the last few weeks and months, the local police have made no real attempt to find them and have assumed that the girls have left the town to seek more ‘excitement’ over the border in Bolivia. The point is made repeatedly that the police will not really do anything for the poor, but will act swiftly if the local wealthy people are threatened by minor crimes. My second thought was that the opening reminded me a little of Australian crime fictions involving Indigenous Australian communities such as in Mystery Road film and TV series. I’m assuming that the local community depicted in Alto Hospicio has a significant indigenous population and that their marginalisation by the authorities is a political issue. The film’s title refers to a traditional dance performed mainly in Bolivia and Peru but which appears also to have developed in Northern Chile. The dance is woven into the narrative because Nene performs in the local troupe, but wearing a costume that her father believes to be for a male rather than female role, thus linking to the gender discourse in the narrative.

The police officer in charge who ignores the need to search for the girls . . .

. . . and Rosaura, the police officer marginalised by her superiors

As the narrative progresses, more familiar genre elements are introduced, including a new young detective who arrives in the region. He is welcomed by the local wealthy ‘boss’ character but there are signs that he might not buy in to the local male dominance and abuse of women. He also introduces more modern policing methods. When Nene goes missing like the other girls, Andres joins up with Rosaura in an attempt to unite the mothers of the missing girls and to act as an amateur detective team as well as agitating for the police to do more. The problem with the film is that all the details of the community and the introduction of the characters take up most of the running time. There is no time to see how the investigators find the killer, denying the audience the resolution of what had originally been introduced as a conventional crime story. I don’t have a problem with a lack of resolution and I can see that the social/political issues are the most important part of the film. But presumably the local Chilean audience know the ending anyway – the killer was eventually arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Another film that is worth considering here is Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) with the same mix of politics and incompetent policing. Again this was a well-known serial killer case that had already been adapted several times. Bong’s film is much longer and more complex and at the time of the film’s production the crimes from 1986 had still not been solved.

One of the mothers kept waiting for no good reason in the police station

We might ask why Muñoz and Santis didn’t opt for a more straightforward genre narrative or a documentary reconstruction of the crimes and the eventual investigation, arrest and conviction. I can only think that Muñoz and his cinematographer Alvaro Cortés wished to experiment with the presentation of the landscape and the characters. The landscape of the desert and the simple wooden houses are carefully presented in widescreen and there are occasional ‘arty’ shots of isolated features which are effective in themselves, but slow down the narrative drive. There are also some fantasy/dream sequences which don’t seem signalled. I wasn’t sure if I understood a couple of sequences. It may be that the intention was to pose the social/political questions in a way that would provoke discussion. I’d love to know how the film has been received in Chile (and Venezuela) if it has been shown there. As a genre film, Diablada doesn’t focus directly on the actual killings. In that sense it isn’t exploitative but there are a couple of scenes which feature the victims in ways that are quite shocking. One of the few reviews available accuses the film of a lack of humanity towards the mothers. I’m not sure I agree but I can see that there are reasons to make that charge.

I must commend the leading players Daniel Candia and Catalina Saavedra and the production team, but I do feel in the end that something is missing. Diablada shows again at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 22nd August at 13.45.

¡Viva! 27 #4: Salvador (Colombia 2020)

Salvador and Isabel

It’s rare that I sit down to write about a film without any background information at all but Salvador is a recent film that has not been reviewed outside the Hispanic language press as far as I can see. I’m therefore reliant on Google Translate to make sense of Spanish and Latin American websites. Another shortish feature of under 90 minutes, Salvador tells a familiar tale of a middle-aged romance but situates it in a very dangerous time and place – the centre of Bogota in 1985 during action by the guerrilla forces of ‘M-19’, which included the occupation of the Ministry of Justice building in the city centre. A début feature by César Heredia Cruz, the film is inspired by the director’s own memories of his childhood and by the figure of his grandfather who was a tailor in the city. But it is a fiction, the director’s grandfather was not like the character in the film and did not react to events in the same way.

Salvador at work

Salvador Velazquez (Héctor García) is a 46 year-old tailor. He is single and lives on his own except for his dog Laika. Each day he travels into the city centre and takes the lift up to the seventh-floor of a traditional office block and his workshop. It’s an unusual location for a tailor. He works on his own and his customers come to see him in his workshop. Salvador doesn’t have much of a social life but he visits his sister-in-law and his nephew, a university student, on most days. One day he finds there is a new lift operator in the office building, an attractive woman in her late thirties, Isabel (Fabiana Medina). Over the next few days/weeks, Salvador gradually gets to know something about Isabel, though he is slightly taken aback when she has her daughter, a school-child, with her in the lift one day. Gradually a romance develops, but at the same time, tension in the city mounts as M-19 become more of a threat. The local security forces are stopping people on the street to check ID cards and a curfew is brought in.

One of the few moments the couple get to enjoy an open space . . .

The romance narrative is structured as a slow but conventional courtship. Salvador is a quiet man but tall and not unattractive, especially when he smiles. Even so, he seems an unlikely partner for Isabel who is lively and adventurous. She attracts the attention of all the men in the office block. What does she want from Salvador? His name of course denotes ‘saviour’ and she is separated from her husband and worries about her daughter. But is Salvador the man for the job? Without wanting to spoil the plot development in any way I should perhaps state that though the pleasures of the romance are present in the film, the other element in the narrative remains important throughout. The film is about the real physical, and moral, difficulties of living in a city under threat of violent action by both guerrilla groups and government forces. Writer-director Cruz provides a kind of running commentary on the escalation of the conflict with snatches of news reports on the TV set in Salvador’s sister in law’s apartment, in the cafés and bars he visits and from the radio in his workshop. This is contrasted with the music that is associated with Isabel. Their early encounters include a discussion of her love for boleros. From his position high up in the city centre Salvador is also conscious of the helicopters above and the soldiers on the streets.

Isabel visits Salvador’s workshop . . .

A tailor is an interesting character in this kind of atmosphere. Salvador has customers who might be associated with the military or the guerrillas. His is an intimate business. He deals with potentially dangerous men who he must measure accurately and fit their suits. He doesn’t usually make clothes for women, so Isabel’s entry into his workshop is provocative and creates genuine tension and excitement. Salvador is in some ways a surprising film and it marks a notable début. Colombia is a mid-range Latin-American film production centre with the potential to develop further and I enjoyed this opportunity to see a new release. Salvador plays again at HOME in Manchester on Sunday 15th August at 14.00