Leading the Spanish-language films so far is the seductively charming films is the Mexican Duck Season, from 35-year-old Fernando Eimbcke. When Americans think of teenage comedies they’re likely to imagine Hollywood productions featuring extravagant excesses of sexuality and slapstick. Eimbecke has come up with a more realistic, but still funny approach featuring one day in the lives of two close friends, Flama and Moko. The two boys have been left alone in an apartment for an afternoon they intend to while away playing video games. When an electricity black out stops their play, they call up a pizza delivery service that guarantees your pizza in half and hour; if not it’s free. The boys are confident that without the building’s elevator working, the deliveryman will be unable to climb the many flights of stairs in time. In the meantime, the next door neighbor, who fulfills every 14-year-old boys image of the good-looking 16-year-old girl, comes knocking, wanting to borrow use of the oven. When the girl turns out to be a terrible cook, but sexually curious in a mild sort of way, and the deliveryman turns out to be a sad sack who adamantly insists he beat the half-hour time limit, the movie enters a realm of steady smiles, giggles, and quiet laughs.
You could conclude from this year’s line up that Argentina’s film industry once one of Latin America’s biggest, along with Mexico and Brazil is either back on its feet or at least off the floor. Victimized by the country’s economic collapse, its films incorporate the national devastation into the background and give it its due as prompter of social stress and psychological breakdown. But, in a sign of artistic health, these works are more concerned with the concrete and individual subjects and characters they invent for themselves.
Among the festival’s most provocative efforts is the Argentine films is Little Sky, directed by Maria Victoria Menis. A plot description makes it sound utterly hackneyed: A drifter falls for a little kid and becomes a surrogate dad as the real parents bicker and fall to pieces. But when the drifter is an inarticulate and illiterate teenager and the kid is only a year old, you already begin to lose the albatross of sentimentality (no crusty avuncular types in sight). Felix, the teenager, is washed up in an unpromising backwater town vainly looking for work. A local ex-boxer, who lost his own factory job a few years earlier, takes a liking to Felix and offers him room and board in exchange for work in his small fruit and vegetable orchard. Mostly, Felix will be helping out the man’s wife, the safe keeper of the family’s preservative recipes. The owner’s forced boisterousness can’t disguise the depression that overhangs the place and the tension exacerbated by a typically difficult one-year-old.
Menis’s great achievement is in delineating the growing bond between Felix and the baby devoid of the usual emotional shortcuts. Felix is too inarticulate and the baby too much of a, well, baby to openly express any feelings (though there are inevitably the shots of the smiling, gurgling baby face). Partly they become closer thanks to the environment, a vast emptiness of fields and lonely stands of trees. The unlikely pair also benefit from low expectations, as the baby’s parents suffer from debilitating grudges over life’s false promises. Little Sky’s final act follows Felix and the baby on the sort of trip we expect them to take, but Menis once again confounds our lazy expectations and revivifies a sclerotic sub-genre.
Los Muertos, by Lisandro Alonso, follows a similar tendency to weave into an accept as the background of national impoverishment. But this hyper-realistic tale, in which a released convict makes his way back from the town prison to his isolated rain forest home, refrains from even the faintest stabs at a psychological portrait of its taciturn protagonist. Like many films which pay such exquisite attention to the material and natural worlds, Los Muertos ultimately seeks a metaphysical underpinning to life. That it doesn’t announce whether it finds one doesn’t diminish this at-times-difficult, but intriguing work.
Whiskey Romeo Zulu has a background nearly as interesting as its plot. It’s directed by and stars Enrique Pinyero, a former airline pilot who became an industry whistle blower after an Argentine airliner plunged into a Buenos Aires neighborhood, killing 67. The movie part expose, part docudrama recounts the events leading up that crash in a fictionalized narrative. Pinyero’s argument (and he argues a lot on screen) is that lust for a healthy bottom line left the airline with inadequate maintenance, poorly trained pilots, and a general disregard for investment. The movie suffers from its excessive didacticism and an over-fascination with Pinyero’s character, but it’s engrossing at times, nevertheless.
More ambitious and more problematic is Kept and Dreamless, which stars Vera Fogwill and is codirected by her and Martin Desalvo. The two central characters are a single, 30ish heroin addict and her perky 9-year-old daughter who, against her sometimes strenuously expressed will, has been dragooned by her mother’s drug addiction into being the adult of the pair. Because the mother is an essentially intelligent and educated drop off from the middle class, you might be suspicious from the start that, despite the general decadence, a happy ending awaits in the final reel. This unkind thought is reinforced by the small gallery of supporting characters, who tend towards the single-traited. But what keeps Kept and Dreamless from drifting off in a bubble of soap is its sense of humor, which turns up in the most unlikely places and guises.
The most outstanding Latin American film I’ve viewed so far originates from Peru, a nation not especially noted for its cinema. Dias de Santiago follows the ups and (mostly) downs of a former soldier trying to adjust to civilian life after three years of shooting down men, women and children (his description) and being shot at by just as ruthless guerillas. Played exquisitely by Pietro Sibille with galvanizing, suppressed rage, Santiago has become obsessed with the idea that he has to protect and rescue those around him. This near-mania an obvious hangover from his justifications of soldierly brutality affects every relationship he struggles to maintain, whether it be with his wife, some giggly office girls he meets in his taxi, or his sister-in-law, desperate to escape from here abusive husband. Director Josué Méndez has perfect control of his often hand-held camera and switches eloquently between color and black-and-white, even for cross-cuts. While it may sound schematic that the black-and-white shots are meant to express Santiago’s otherwise unseen psychological disturbance (also evident in voice-over), the impact of the technique cannot be gainsaid.
American documentarian Ellen Terry ventures into Peruvian politics with The Fall of Fujimori, the story of the Peruvian-Japanese ex-president now barricading himself against an international arrest warrant with the help of friendly Japanese anti-extradition laws. The movie’s main selling point is Terry’s unprecedented access to Fujimori, who sat down for a couple of interviews in front of the camera. But the former dictator is too slick to give much up and the interviews produce nothing so much as predictable prevarifications and self-justifications. But Terry’s recapitulation of Fujimori’s reign, with all its tragic and comic-opera elements, is quite absorbing. One clip in particular, filmed by the Peruvian security service, shows a secret trial from the mid-1990s, in which the judges and guards wear masks as they prosecute the helpless accused. It’s a chilling, unforgettable moment.
Not all documentaries are as straightforward as Terry’s, as shown by The Shape of the Moon, by Holland’s Leonard Retel Helmrich. The filmmaker’s subject is contemporary Indonesia as its experienced by one particular family living in a crowded, run-down Jakarta neighborhood. At first I was taken by the seeming spontaneity and frankness of the movie, until I encountered a couple of Malaysian filmmakers attending the festival. Both of them disdained the film as dishonest and, essentially, colonialists. One scene, I was told, in which a mullah explains to a Christian man that he’ll have to convert in order to have a legal marriage, is apparently staged for the cameras, as no Indonesian would need that aspect of Indonesian marriage law explained. Similarly, Helmrich occasional close-up of his subjects rotted teeth was declared demeaning; I was challenged to imagine an Indonesian’s documentary about Americans in which the camera focused obsessively on padded bellies. These were pretty irrefutable arguments and heedful warnings about being taken in by a slick film.
Rindu kami padamu doesn’t need to worry about the authenticity of his vision of Indonesia, as he is one of the nation’s most prolific and respected directors. His new film, Of Love and Eggs, is a multi-character, comic, bittersweet and romantic drama set entirely in a small neighborhood market square. Rindu shot the entire film on a jumbled soundstage set painted in almost celebratory colors, the upshot of which is control over mood through color and scale. A Muslim temple teacher and a goldsmith, for example, lounge before a green wall, leaning on green benches, and the color sustains a mood of peace, melancholy and hopefulness as the two talk about life’s vicissitudes. The movie alternates lightheartedness and melodrama so effectively, and the characters are so beguiling, that you can watch the movie unaware of its gradually cumulative emotional affect.
A French sensibility visits an Asian location in Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful Holy Lola, the story of a French couple attempting to adopt a child in Cambodia. Tavernier is world cinema’s most committed liberal humanist, with an undying belief in people’s ability and desire to do and be good. Why his films rarely make it into the U.S. distribution system is an utter mystery, one that becomes even murkier when you see a film like this.
Pierre (Jacques Gamblin) and Genevieve (marvelous Isabelle Carré) are a professional couple who arrive in Phnom Penh with preliminary paperwork in hand. But when they check into their hotel, they’re met by a dismaying sight: Many other French couples, some present for months, lost in the labyrinthine Cambodian regulatory maze, as they await an opportunity to adopt. Another filmmaker might have portrayed the Cambodian bureaucracy as corrupt, but Tavernier sees not a faceless administration, but basically honest people who depend on “gifts” in order to supplement salaries that simply don’t allow for more than bare subsistence. The director pays minute expression to Pierre and Genevieve’s travails, including the frictions that inevitably develop within their marriage, while never straying into a hectoring tone. As a result, we get a portrait of a post-colonial, socially stressful modern conundrum (do these babies belong in their impoverished Cambodia or in a wealthy, foreign France?) in purely human terms.
Korean films have rightly earned a reputation for provocation and shock, a trend heartily overlooked by director Park Heung-shik. His My Mother the Mermaid seems to have been designed entirely for domestic consumption with its plot of a young woman at odds with her parents. One day, she goes to visit their island-bound home village, only to discover she’s been transported back to the time of the old couple’s courtship. While not exactly a Korean Peggy Sue Got Married, you can imagine Park bringing up the comparison in a pitch meeting. Smooth and polished, it may provide an insight into what the Korean public is watching these days when they want some sentimental laughs.