Given the absence of Latin American titles from this year’s New York Film Festival and the close proximity of the event to the annual Latinbeat program, The Film Society of Lincoln Center may be sending out the message that there’s no room at the big table for films from my corner of the world. This slight wouldn’t have been so egregious if some of the 19 films featured in Latinbeat 2005 weren’t noticeably stronger than many of the new works by more established directors soon to be showcased at the more prestigious NYFF. But for a collection of films as diverse and rewarding as Latinbeat ’05 has to offer, we should probably count our blessings. From the humanist ruminations on love and aging to the more impassioned but no less resonating cries of social and political outrage, these films highlight an area of the world that is as politically engaged as any other and whose voices insist on being heard.
Argentina has emerged as one of the most exciting national cinemas of the new millennium and there are no less than 11 films in the Latinbeat program produced in some capacity in South America’s third most populated country, which four years ago went through one of the most devastating financial crises in its history. The country’s difficult period of recovery hangs over many of these films. In Moon of Avellaneda, Juan José Campanella’s follow up to Son of the Bride, the restoration of a dilapidated, 50-year-old nightclub is the backdrop for a human drama that isn’t as manic or loaded with footnotes as Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen but is every bit as well acted. Nostalgia sweetly and sensitively tinges the sobering film’s emotional politics, as it does in Leonardo Di Cesare’s Buena Vida Delivery, the story of a female gas station employee, Pato (Mariana Anghileri), who moves in with a young man, Hernán (Ignacio Toseli), whose parents leave Argentina in order to escape the ravages of the country’s economic crisis. Infinitely more charming than Daniel Burman’s self-obsessed Lost Embrace, the film is a romantic comedy that accommodates the dejected mood of the country’s people. When Pato’s parents set up their churro operation in the couple’s apartment, sadness infiltrates Hernán’s happy heart and, in effect, expands his mind. Where Lost Embrace worried only for its main character, Bunea Vida frets for an entire nation.
An almost-war between Chile and Argentina in 1978 is the subject of Alex Bowen’s My Best Enemy, in which a Chilean border patrol unit gets lost in the Argentine pampas. Surprisingly short on subtext for a film about a page in history even the people of South America seem to know very little about, My Best Enemy focuses not on the logistics of Chile and Argentina’s battle for control of three Beagle Channel islands but the human relationships that took root between both sides during the altercation. The narration is a superfluous, ostentatious downer, while the look and flow of the film is somewhat of a drag, but given that there’s only so many ways you can shoot a bunch of guys lost in endless fields of grass, the shoe fits. The Steel Helmet this ain’t, but Bowen manages some striking moments, and the sight of a soldier injuring his leg during a rabbit-hunt with his own knife and later risking amputation is an economical expression of the absurdity of war.
Argentina may be the most represented country in this year’s Latinbeat but two of the stronger entries hail from less developed film industries in Latin America. Venezuela’s official selection for the 2005 Oscars, Elia K. Schneider’s grungy DIY Step Forward, offers visions of another scarcely seen or talked about war, this one between Venezuela and Colombia in and around the drug-choked border that separates the two countries. In the up-and-down relationship between a Colombian volunteer soldier, Pedro (a striking Édgar Ramírez, soon to be seen in Tony Scott’s Domino), and a Venezuelan drug dealer and army deserter, Cheito (Roque Valero), Schneider encourages two sparring people to confront their ashes-to-ashes commonality. An air of homoeroticism underscores the film’s deft mix of wry humor, heart-pounding action and serious social insight—it’s Schneider’s way of confronting Latin machismo and the way it deters displays of brotherhood.
In The Heart of Jesus, a businessman, Jesus (Agustin Mendieta), suffers a heart attack, and after his wife leaves him and his insurance company refuses to pay his hospital bills, he uses the record of a sick man who shares his name to squeeze his insurance company dry. Director Marcos Loayza exaggerates the game of cat-and-mouse between Jesus and the ghoulish insurance honcho on his tail way past cartoonish (Julio Kempff Suarez Dura is not only shot as if he were Dr. Claw, he actually bears a striking resemblance to an older Rupert Everett), but the story is sentimental without being mawkish and Loayza never beleaguers his message about red tape and Bolivia’s class system, allowing the unaffected shots of indigenous people to say all that needs to be said on the matter.
From Cuba comes the powerful Odd People Out, a searing documentary by Manuel Zayas about Reinaldo Arenas and the oppression of gays during the first two decades of Castro’s revolution. Zayas uses homoerotic imagery of young men and campesinos, clandestinely shot interviews with Arenas’s writer friends and family, and archival footage of a vitriolic Castro enraging the masses to fashion a deeply moving, orgiastic examination of the contours of memory and a country held under the spell of an Orwellian form of mind control. (At one point, Zayas cuts from archival footage of Castro condemning authoritarian abuse to a scene in which police officials cut the director’s interview with one of Arena’s friends short.) Arena’s mother, who uses her trembling hands to cover cavernous wrinkles on her face, never understood her son’s need to record his memories. When the film ends with the revelation that Arenas insisted that his work never be published in Cuba until after Castro’s death, you get a profound sense that he was guarding against those memories being erased during his lifetime.
The stand-out of the program, though, is Carlos Sorin’s Bombón: El Perro, which grabs the warm humanist baton from the director’s Minimal Stories and heads straight for an existential finish line. With tender understatement, Sorin catalogs the depressing embarrassments an unemployed mechanic (Juan Villegas) is subjected to when he’s unable to secure work or earn money for his homemade knives. In spite of how little the world offers him, the man still chooses to give back: After aiding a woman stranded far from home, he is rewarded with a majestic white dog he and a colleague later take to the dog show circuit. In Juan’s obsession with clocks and Villega’s disillusioned gaze, Sorin evokes a powerful sense of life in stop motion, with a bombshell of a sex scene revealing itself as a powerful and amusing affront to conformity. Like Minimal Stories, one could say that the film’s message is the oldest one in the world: all you need is love. Hopefully it’s one Sorin will be allowed to sound off from the NYFF big table one day.
Federico Luppi Sidebar
Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, Federico Luppi started acting in the early 1960s, associating with directors deeply motivated by the politics of their respective countries. Tall and regal, Luppi’s imposing demeanor meant that he was often typecast as an aristocrat, but his range is scarcely limited. In recent years, he’s shown off his considerable talents in productions as wide-ranging as Andrés Wood’s Machuca (featured in Latinbeat 2004), Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and Men With Guns, John Sayles’s most visually palpable creation, a political drama and spiritual allegory about the nature of war across Latin America. This year’s Latinbeat sidebar is devoted to the work of this great Argentinean actor, and in addition to The Devil’s Backbone and Men With Guns, other Luppi vehicles featured in the program include a slew of early ’80s work (the activist Time of Revenge, the satiric, free-wheeling Funny Dirty Little War, and Easy Money, a clunky but bouncy melodrama about a business venture that puts an aristo gentleman’s family in jeopardy) and more recent productions like Adolfo Aristarain’s Common Ground and Martín (Hache), a talky but incredibly acted drama about a father and son divided by politics, art, and history and the means by which they try to meet each other half way.