Spoilt for Choice on the Crystal Frontier



Mining the open veins of a new Latin American cinema with hopes of a definitive account confronts one with the paradox of the frontier: an expansive landscape awaiting discovery of its riches, albeit transfigured by shifting borders, indigenous claims, localized histories, and long-held suspicions. The recent death of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez symbolically defined an aesthetic epoch of now-stereotypical magical realism, while effectively situating the current generation within the aegis of Bolaño and the “fabric of the particular” (and by extension Cesar Aira, Alejandro Zambra, Patricio Pron, Juan Gabriel Vasquez), in which artistic means of description and expression are held to be inexhaustible, and provide an elastic accounting of the world. The situation in cinema is perhaps analogous: the new autor is still affected by the legacies of colonialism (less tangible but still manifest) and the specter of dictatorships (since receded but not fully exonerated) but an indeterminate space opens up between memory, representation, and modernization that a new generation is staking out with a radical metabolism. A resultant realistic magic may be an apt, if too coy, description of the current onda in Latin American cinema. Though, while there may be no unifying element to the multivalent state of new Latin American cinema beyond ancestral blood, this has become a point of departure rather than a limiting threshold for the nominal genre: boundless in practice, but circumscribed by robust identity.

Call it an onda, ola, esquina, pulso, movida, whatever: it’s not only been a watershed year for Latin American cinema, it’s been an unprecedentedly fertile moment for a putatively regional cinema to explode its boundaries. No longer marginal, it is now prototypically global. The artistic success of Heli, Bad Hair, La Jaula de oro, Who is Dayani Cristal, Club Sandwich, To Kill a Man, and two takes on Cesar Chavez, among others, will be borne out in the theatrical year, but there’s a surfeit of strong work that should warrant required viewing more than outlier discovery. Credit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Latinbeat series—now in its fifteenth year—for tapping the open veins of Latin American cinema. The current series (July 11-20), under the curatorial guidance of Marcela Goglio, continues a longstanding tradition of showcasing emerging work while appearing downright prescient in the process: a general focus on youth and exciting variations on coming-of-age, by a new generation of directions, forecasts a promising future. The following notes (sketched for a series called Pulsos Latinos that I programmed at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle this past April) share several titles in common with Latinbeat; that there is so much surplus to the consensual titles is a true sign of vitality. The proverbial appearance of the Virgen might best be served by a projected image after all, with seats for enthused pilgrims, the night sky dimmed just so…

For a fierce expression of a politically and viscerally hybridized filmmaking ethos, look no further than Ricardo Silva’s sublime grotesque Navajazo, audience award winner at the recent FICUNAM. A literal translation of its title of stab, or slash, only begins to account for Silva’s cruel and poetic documentary of marginal lives on the Tijuana border, which takes the notion of wounded as artistic license and source of potential salvation.  The film is “perversely refined” (per Maximiliano Cruz’s description), more symptomatic than didactic in its roughly-hewn portrait of an accursed cast of societies’ debased archetypes, here brought to teeming if sordid life: prostitutes, active and recovering junkies, a pornographer looking for ‘true love”, migrants, an actor known as The Scorpion, a flea market evangelist musician known as “Death”, and the proud owner of a tattoed penis. Survival is a work in progress. The plaintive, folky score from Catalan Albert Pla (who has worked with Albert Serra) lends a winsome quality to the raw proceedings, underscoring a sense of innocence among its scarred inhabitants.

Scenes of euthanized dogs and random corpses washed up in the drug war, in Rodrigo Reyes’ frontera-set Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border (“Purgatorio: un viaje al corazón de la frontera”), seem less punishing in comparison. Reyes, an Angelino born in Mexico City, sets out to document the border from Juarez to Tijuana while being geographically non-specific, such is the mythic status of the liminal space attended by border angels and xenophobes alike. The film’s visual scope suggests a Herzogian damnation, but the tone is melancholic, equivocal. The two migrants who bookend the film are set against the proverbial fifty foot wall, and the fifty-one foot ladder may be determination itself. Cycles of deportation and emancipation are left undramatized in favor of a perennial condition implied by purgatory through which all must dwell: both gate to heaven and hell on earth.

A wasteland of a different sort is occupied by two widowed souls adrift in Mexico City—its subways, streets, garbage dumps, rooftops—in José Luis Valle’s improvisatory, lean, efficient feature The Searches (“Las busquedas”), shot with five friends over a week with an extremely low budget but rather high aspiration. Ostensibly the search by its affably scruffy protagonist Ulises to recover his stolen wallet, snatched Pickpocket-style on the subway, the subtly etched plot is weighted by greater loss (the only extant photograph of his wife and child disappears with it). He meets a woman who’s been widowed by the suicide of her husband – whose clothes she bequeaths to Ulises in a bid to recover, rebuild, or forget her memory. The scene that best conveys their budding relationship involves her dumping the gallons of water he delivers down the drain in order to ensure his return visits. He, rather taciturnly, obliges. An exercise in narrative conceit and open-ended observation, The Searches lit up the Maya Riviera Film Festival for good reason.

For a study in contrasts, Gueros (Alonso Ruizpalacios) and Lopez Street (Calle Lopez, Gerardo Barroso and Lisa Tillinger) share The Searches grainy black and white aesthetic, which appears to nostalgically embalm Mexico City in some historic cine-past, yet the films are each radically divergent in tone and content (the former an indie slacker indebted to Eimbcke and the nouvelle vague, the latter a street smart doc of a day in the life of D.F’s fabled commercial boulevard).

That the Searches’ little thief—a cab driver who will unsuspectingly pick up karma incarnate (Ulises) years later—is played by Gabino Rodriguez, a stock actor of Nicolas Pereda, reinforces a real or imagined sense of film community (which includes Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s Mexico-shot La ultima pelicula, wherein Rodriguez  plays local foil to Alex Ross Perry’s megalomaniacal director). Pereda’s short documentary The Palace (“El palacio,” winner of the Silver Puma at FICUNAM) structurally unpacks a large (but scarcely palatial) house in which seventeen women of varying ages live in preparation for jobs in domestic labor. It’s a rigorous and earnestly made inquiry of working conditions, both real and hoped for. Succinct and affecting, it stands in contrast to his droll and dramaturgically reflexive take on the Mexican revolution, Killing Strangers (Matar extraños, co-directed with Jacob Secher Shulsinger). The Palace would be well-situated as a programmatic companion to Reimon, Rodrigo Moreno’s observational (save for rather forced incantations of Marx’s Capital by inert middle class Porteños) take on a domestic maid’s daily labors.


‘El cuarto desnudo’

A film destined to make stones cry and parents more conscionable, Nuria Ibáñez Castañeda’s The Naked Room (“El cuarto desnudo”) ventures into the heretofore private realm of a pediatric psychiatrist office in Mexico City and listens to the kids speak. Individual traumas elicit the demons of peer and familial abuse, producing psychic scars that entice many kids to attempt relief by inflicting more pain on themselves. Rigorous, provocative, emotional, heartbreaking: you won’t see anything this candid at the movies—Latino, Wiseman, or otherwise – for some time.

The kids in We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) declare their sexual bravado in a punk rock anthem but no one’s listening, and some of them are lucky to have stolen a kiss by the time a battle of the bands rolls around over summer break. The setting is the Jalisco neighborhood outside of Guadalajara where director Samuel Kishi Leopo grew up, but the milieu smells entirely of teen spirit: band practice, skateboarding, blowing off school, porn, and parents absent, aloof, or overbearing. Bandleader Alex (Alejandro Gallardo should be destined for hangdog stardom or a record deal hereafter) is forced into maturity after his guitar gets ripped off and selling vitamin supplements appears to be the only viable job. His ailing grandmother, with whom he lives in a perpetual state of stand-off  (traditional canciones versus The Ramones), is halfway to heaven, and it’s not until she’s gone that Alex starts to take life in stride – time is like a needle at vinyl’s end, spinning well after we’ve drifted to sleep. Appropriately torpid, deceptively affecting, and yet another gem from FiGa films.

With all eyes on Brazil (World Cup notwithstanding) for leading the way in South America for setting standards at the box office and in international co-production, the most striking films are, incidentally, of a hand-made nature, radically site-specific documentaries with a more ethnographic than sensationalist bent. Maria Ramos’ Hill of Pleasures (“Morro dos Prazeres”) expands her pursuit of Brazilian social justice in a favela-set doc that plays like a streetwise drama, such is the virtuoso camerawork and an editing scheme that leaves out talking heads in favor of some truth-is-stranger-than-fictional characters, among them an androgynous drug pusher who’s also a loyal family member; a police captain who heads up the more pacific UPP force that infiltrates the favelas to inure the community against crime and violence; and a peacemaking letter carrier who takes the mail where no one else dares to tread (and who coaches the local girl’s soccer team).



Marcos Pimentel’s Sopro (“Breath”) records the daily life in the mountainous interior of Minas Gerais, where centuries old habits are maintained in the face of extinction. Villagers observe a primordial life cycle that Pimentel patiently captures without recourse to pastoral tropes. Dust and silence play crucial roles; man lives in harmony and conflict with nature; a way of life becomes extinct. Exceedingly mature work for a debut by a relatively young (b. 1977) director whose production with the Tempero film group evinces short form brilliance. A quote from his Century (Século, 2011) offers a succinct poem that could well define a certain cinema: “With us, love. Between us, time.” Documentary fests should take note.

Two islands: Irene Gutierrez and Javier Labrador’s Hotel Nueva Isla takes a crumbling, once opulent hotel, The Nueva Isla in Havana, as their ostensible subject, but reveal within its deterioration an extant inhabitant who is devotedly—in Sisyphian fashion—attempting a restoration before time, naturally, runs out. A labor of love about a labor of love, both for dweller Jorge de los Rios and the directors, who believe there’s treasure in these walls, and set about excavating it. DP Labrador’s shooting is exquisite, combining hyper-observational mode with a painterly lyricism recalling Miguel Rio Branco and Pedro Costa—a connection furthered by Jorge’s impoverished resources but dignified means, and the film’s tendency to blur fiction and documentary, one within the other. Cuba’s past is invoked by the patina of time that erodes man and matter; a corrosion of history that insinuates like briny, tropical air.

The Island (“La isla”) by Dominga Sotomayor and Katarzyna Klimkiewicz, channels memory and subtle dread through a group gathering for reunion on Chiloé Island, where the weeds have overgrown the abandoned homesteads (per a poem by Adam Zagajewski, though the film is purportedly inspired by Szymborska). A former home has been looted for its wood, is scarcely recognizable, and the emptied abode registers as an ambient metaphor of historical transition, the present moment haunted in unrecognizable ways. The fog of Pinochet’s legacy portentously shrouds the narrative thrust of so much current Chilean cinema, refracted in less explicit but more impactful means. Sebastian Sepulveda’s Quispe Girls (Las niñas Quispe) yokes the abiding historical narrative strands of indigenous peoples amid the military junta, as three Coya sisters in the arid altiplano survive seemingly outside of time and beyond reach, until the threat of forced relocation is intimated entirely off-screen. A starkly denuded tale that does not include a happy ending within its sights, let alone within an imaginable horizon.

A willfully allegorical deployment of anxiety is evident in Benjamin Naishat’s History of Fear (“Historia del medio”), the breakout film from the Argentine front that played IFFR and ND/NF and is indebted to a Hanekein grip in its portrayal of Porteño suburban unease, but without an incisive formal strategy to reflect it ( a sense of withholding, for example, can be merely performed or more challengingly realized ). Still, its a deserving reflection of the capital city’s near palpable sense of existential, historical, and financial trepidation, in spite of a middle class tendency to keep up appearances. And as imposing and similarly alien are the Cordoba mountains in which Matías Lucchesi’s Natural Sciences (“Ciencias naturales”) is steeped, it’s a conceit of the narrative picturesque kid-on-the-run road movie, dependably well-made if not closer to Carlos Sorin than Lucrecia Martel (if you’ll forgive the reductive compatriot comparisons).

Word will have to wait on Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, justly celebrated at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, to determine the seminal director’s influence on the Argentine sector (where success has bred success) but some faith meanwhile can be taken from the latest low-profile success in Argentina since Matías Piñeiro made Sarmiento cool: that of wayward Alejo Moguillansky, director of Castro, The Parrot and the Swan (“El loro y el cisne”), editor to Mariano Llinas, theater director, and chronicler of dance groups and ballet troupes in Argentina. His latest film-within-a-film folly cum musical Gold Bug (“El escarabajo de oro,” co-directed with Fia-Stina Sandlund ), is another success story from the Danish production unit DOX: LAB, who thus described this loopy endeavor: “Feminism, Victoria Benedictsson, Leandro N. Alem, the Radical Party in Argentina, suicide, stunts, the complicated relationship between low-budget films with a political aim and the film industry, greed, gold treasures left by the Jesuits in Argentina, the 19th Century vs the contemporary, are the background for this portrait of a clash between a Swedish and an Argentine artist.” It took top honors in the Argentine Competition at the recent edition of BAFICI, a possible sign that Moguillansky may be moving beyond, or boring further into, a certain vernacular, or that audiences are finding resonance in the playfully referential constructs of an emerging generation including the likes of Llinas, Piñeiro, and theatre director Mariano Pensotti.

In a terse ten or so minutes, Ezequiel Yanco’s short La Piel enjoys a clever, sardonic, and conceptually savvy romp through at least a half century’s discourse on sex in cinema, by way of  two voice-actors heavy breathing their way through the clichéd machinations of a would-be-forgotten porn reel (taking place in a phone booth, jeje). Starring Rosario Blefari and Marcelo Subiotto, and lensed by Tabu (Miguel Gomes) DP Rui Poças, La Piel plays like an INCAA (The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts in Argentina) calling-card as if surreptitiously edited by David Foster Wallace. From the director of an acutely observational doc about twin girls in their daily routines in Quilmes (Los dias), La Piel is a welcome surprise, not to be mistaken for one of those diversions programmed at festivals before the main entertainment. You can watch La Piel repeatedly and still wonder what it’s about, which could be an invitation for watching all films with a similarly scrupulous attention.


‘Looking for Adventure’

Tourism in Peru, to which ethnographic documentary is not exempt, goes under the long view in Looking for Adventure, Kimi Takesue’s gorgeous and troubling inquiry into the social and spiritual patterns of group tourist migration in the sacred Inca valleys. Keenly ambivalent toward a commodification of the exotic as well as the sublime that inspires pilgrimages, Takesue’s long takes and wide vistas privilege landscape and passing time over the enlightened incursions of travelers. Non-native, Takesue implicitly questions gestures of assimilation and appropriation occasioned by our will to cross over. Looking for Adventure offers a demystification of the traveler’s ardour, while preserving the elemental mystery of historically specific sites, their inscrutability in spite of the habitual need for convenient gratification.

The “discovery” of Machu Picchu by an American archeologist is the sort of mythology that Hollywood, for good and for bad, traffics in–nay thrives on. A certain willful negligence of history is well rewarded at the movies. But the new Latin American cinema, with its big name directors now for-hire in a seemingly neutered, non-racialized Hollywood, is nonetheless burgeoning from within; a growing crucible for counter-narratives, rich idioms, and the exoticization of the familiar rather than a familiarization of the exotic. Come and watch before subtitles become an anachronism.

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