Posted: 02/09/2002

 

Five from LaCinemaFe

by Parama Chaudhury



A look at five films from the First Annual New York Latin American Film Festival


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En la puta vida (Uruguay, 2001)
Directed by Beatriz Silva Flores, this film has all the makings of a small-scale blockbuster. Elisa, a single mother with two small boys, dumps her lover and boss, Garcia, after he keeps avoiding the subject of marriage. The best feature of this part of the film is the opening, where we see the swirling sea against a thundering sky, and hear Elisa quibbling with her mother. Played with charm and aplomb by Mariana Santángelo, Elisa gets a job at a local brothel, where she meets smoothtalking businessman Placido. The sweet, kind-hearted hooker is charmed by Placido, who becomes her pimp and takes her to Barcelona. When it is clear that Placido will not help Elisa in her dream of saving up enough money to set up a beauty salon in Montevideo, Elisa is torn between her loyalty to him and her desire to go home to Uruguay and her sons. Neither the story nor its treatment are very original or interesting, but the extraordinary performance of the fresh-faced, feisty Ms. Santángelo, as well as her character’s chemistry with the suitably macho Placido, makes this film an enjoyable experience. Add to this some stunning shots of Barcelona, a few well-placed stills of Elisa and Placido, and the vibrant colors of the hookers on the narrow ramblas of Barcelona, and you have the perfect recipe for commercial success.
3 noches (Venezuela, 2001)
This one’s a keeper. First-time director Fernando Venturini pulls of a mix of LA Confidential and Traffic with style and confidence. Some editing here and there may have helped — it’s hard for a first-time director to resist the temptation of including all of those shots that came out just right — but on the whole, a very competent take on a classic genre. In spite of the raucous colors, Victor Mayo as Ferrán, the down-and-out cop who’s holding out for this one last case, portrays the kind of despondency that gives a film like this a unique atmosphere. A gangster’s been killed, and there seems to be a conspiracy to hush it up and blame it on his lover. Only Ferrán is convinced that there is more to it. He “kidnaps” bar owner Picasso, played by the stunning Juanka Vellido, and the two follow whatever clues they can uncover in the teeming underbelly of the city’s nightlife. Each character adds a dimension to the seemingly unsolvable case, and the ending is suitably quiet to retain the sense of coolness that characterizes good noir. Since this is such a well-defined genre, it is hard to judge the director’s potential, but his technique seems to be of very high quality. Keep your eyes peeled for Venturini.

Manuela Sáenz (Venezuela, 2000)
Part historical soap opera, part patriotic epic, this movie is saved from inanity by the patterns of movement director Diego Rísquez uses to tell the story and by the screen presence of Beatriz Valdéz, who plays the title character. Manuela Sáenz is lover and loyalist to beloved el Libertador, Simón Bolivar. As Bolivar moves through the countries of Latin America, first helping them fight against Spain and then urging them to form a Union of Latin American States, Sáenz follows him, leaving her English husband in Quito. Previously loyal colonels rebel against Bolivar, the newly free states shy away from a larger Union, and the legendary Libertador becomes the butt of jokes, but Sáenz remains protective of Bolivar, even as she admonishes him for his philandering ways. What makes this movie better than others with similar potential for melodrama is the way the story is told. Soon-to-be famous author Herman Melville finds the elderly Sáenz in a backwater of Peru more than twenty years after Bolivar’s death, abandoned and forgotten. Through her trance-like reminiscences, we learn her story. But in the background, the plague is ravaging the village, so even as we work our way through this grand story of colonial power and indigenous revolt, we are reminded that time is running out. This speeds things up, since we are actually anxious to get the whole story out of Sáenz, before the epidemic claims her. The present is shot in sepia tones, while the memories are in the rich colors of colonial tales. Valdéz is a spirited heroine, and even as the sick, old woman, she captures our imagination and our sympathy.

Tomandote (Spain, 2000)
The premise of this movie from first-time director, Isabel Gardela, is promising: a writer of erotic literature meets a Muslim florist at a time when she is questioning her way of life. Unfortunately, you come away from the movie convinced that you could just edit Jalil, the florist, out of the movie without much damage to the story. The writer, Gabi, has a brief affair with Jalil, uses him in her new book just like she mercilessly uses all her friends in her writing, and ends up being used in the same way by a young Argentinian writer. The florist is Indian, so the mention of eroticism raises the expectation that the contradictions between the conversations about sex in ancient Hindu India and the conservatism of most of modern India, Hindu or Muslim, will be addressed. Since Gabi and her friends seem to be rethinking their free-love ways, such a discussion would be an interesting central core to Gabi’s early mid-life crisis. The topic of morality is visited — Jalil is a bit of a prude — but there is little exploration and seemingly little interest, so that the Indian angle seems to be gratuitous exoticism. Núria Prims puts in a credible performance as the conflicted Gabi, and Zack Qureishi charms as the alternately forward and shy Jalil. But the disconnected tone of the movie leaves us feeling like there was a lot of potential wasted here.

O dia da ca├ža (Brazil, 1999)
What impresses you most about this movie are the two central characters, Nando and Vander. Played by the handsome Marcello Antony, Nando is a sometime drug dealer who has been called in by his mentor Canosa to make one last delivery from Colombia to Brazil. Vander, the drag queen, is dead against the idea, but follows his friend out of loyalty. Vander starts out as a colorful but seemingly harmless character and it is only later that we get to see his psychopathic tendencies. Nando, on the other hand, is serious throughout, and has a vaguely attractive earnestness about him. The emotional bond between these two peeks through the mayhem every now and then, and this is what keeps you interested in the movie. The conspiracy seems overly complicated, and with two such interesting characters in front of you it is hard to care about who is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Paulo Vespúcio Garcia, as Vander, is at once menacing, pathetic, and entertaining. His onscreen chemistry with Nando makes this movie worthwhile.

Parama Chaudhury is a graduate student, an ex-writing instructor and a budding freelance writer, based in New York City.



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