The tagline for Fernando Vargas’s Say Good Morning to Father translates to “a story after the history.” This could be the theme of this year’s Latinbeat, which demonstrates throughout its spotty 25-film lineup how the ghost of history, though it may wander freely throughout the world, comes home to roost in Latin America. Vargas’s film, a co-production between Argentina, Bolivia and Cuba, takes its title from the phrase used to order the execution of Che Guevara, whose death, and the search for his body, is used as a device to frame the melodramas of a group of Vallegrande natives over the course of 30 years. Steeped in the traditions of the Bolivian city where Guevara’s body was buried and found in 1997, these stories are so seamlessly sutured that the film exudes a feeling of bloodlessness.
Argentina, which has emerged as one of the most prolific national cinemas of the new millennium, dominated the Latinbeat program last year. This year, the country is represented by six films, none more anticipated than The Aura, whose director, Fabián Bielinsky, passed away on June 28 of a heart attack at the age of 47. For many, the director’s death will hang like a specter over this story of an epileptic taxidermist who dreams of committing the perfect crime. The film’s thick stew of stuffed-animal metaphor and faux existential anxiety is never justified, suggesting a film brat’s thoughtless gene splice of Psycho and Army of Shadows. Cinematographic style trumps insight, but Bielinsky’s hollow-man noir pretenses are preferable to the seriocomic shtick of On Probation. Damián Szifron deftly mixes his genres but his point of view is one-track: His social critique is as one-dimensional as his comedy routine (much of the story’s humor seems to revolve around the spectacle of people acting like ninnies around loaded guns) and view of women.
Family Law, the third and final part in Daniel Burman’s trilogy about fatherhood, is marginally better than last year’s Lost Embrace, acknowledging through the opening voiceover of its main character, lawyer Ariel Perelman (Daniel Hendler), the unease of seeing people outside of their natural habitat. (Considering that Family Law’s social context is not so crucial to this story of sons and their difficult relationships with their fathers, perhaps Burman is being self-reflexive.) The director makes lovely use of ellipses throughout, speeding the story along without sacrificing character nuance, and though his vision veers dangerously close to the apathetic, his actors bring heart to a film that blares with fine details. Most fine is a lovely scene where Ariel stares at his young son with a mixture of confusion and dread in response to an article stating that parents take better care of children who are attractive. This moment is a subtle expression of Ariel’s desperate desire to connect with his child without the complications of his own relationship to his father.
Born in Sweden, director Solveig Hoogesteijin has been making films in Venezuela for more than 25 years, and his new movie might give Hector Babenco a thrombosis: The story of a troubled girl whose musical talents are exposed by a kind professor who takes her under her watch, Maroa is a nightmare combo of Pixote and Les Choristes you wouldn’t think was possible. Over in Chile, Alberto Fuguet directs For Rent from his own navel, err, novel. Fuguet communicates the anxieties of a group of aimless twentysomethings as a two-hour Matchbox 20 video, with film references that mean nothing and cuts to black and white that mean even less. This adult-contemporary snoozer manages the impossible by being more self-indulgent than Bart Freundlich’s Trust the Man and less sensual than Matías Bize’s Linklater put-on In Bed.
Not to be missed is Pat Jaffe and Molly McBride’s Mi Mambo!, though where you decide to catch it is entirely up to you: The film will play two dates at Latinbeat before premiering on PBS later this month. The filmmakers go to East Harlem, where they explore how different communities attempt to keep Latin dance culture alive through programs that reach out to troubled youth. This video doc bites off more than it can chew in 57 minutes, but it sweetly puts across how artistic expression can change a young person’s view of the world and themselves for the better.
Thanks largely to the festival’s salute to producer-director Alfonso Cuarón (see sidebar), Mexico easily dominates this year’s line-up, and it does so with shining examples of humanist warmth. Maryse Sistach’s The Girl on the Stone is a highlight for accomplishing more than Lucretia Martel’s La Ciénaga with greater economy: The film is both a terrifying deliberation on teenage rejection and a fascinating consideration of how the past sustains us in the present. Glossier but equally worthwhile is Gustavo Loza’s touching To the Other Side, about three children from different lands (Morocco, Cuba and Mexico) united not by narrative contrivances or faux metaphysicalisms—like, say, the flap of a butterfly’s wings—but by their shared desperation for their distant fathers’ affections. Loza’s unpretentious world-consciousness and lack of hysteria shames Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu.
Most technically accomplished is In the Pit, a documentary about the lives of construction workers responsible for building the second deck of Mexico City’s “periférico” freeway. Director Juan Carlos Rulfo needlessly succumbs to the aloofness of Workingman’s Death and the ray-of-light-isms of Koyaanisqatsi, but he manages to communicate the reality of a culture sprawling faster than its people can move. Even the weakest entry from Mexico, Carlos Bolado’s Only God Knows, starring Diego Luna and Alice Braga as unconventional lovers brought together and torn apart by the torrents of chance, is so sincerely devoted to scrutinizing the way our memories of the past can shape our present-day realities that the story’s hoary road-movie clichés become forgivable. Involuntarily, this film conspires with The Girl on the Stone and To the Other Side to convey the reality that water is always on the mind of Latin people—a great divider that disengages us from family but sometimes serves as a catalyst for our reconnection with history.
Sidebar: Alfonso Cuarón
In addition to a focus on Mexican director Maryse Sistach and a sidebar celebrating the 40th anniversary of Brazil’s Tropicália music movement, this year’s Latinbeat will salute producer-director Alfonso Cuarón. Born in Mexico City in 1961, Cuarón directed a number of shorts throughout the ’80s before making the controversial Sólo Con Tu Pareja in 1991. This bawdy comedy’s effervescence brings to mind Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, only with a more purposeful social context: Quintessentially Mexican, Cuarón filters a people’s sexual agency and panic about AIDS though a poppy telenovela scrim. Banned in Mexico for many years, the film achieved some international renown, helping to launch the director’s Hollywood career. (Sólo Con Tu Pareja will finally have its premiere in the United States on the 20th, courtesy of IFC First Take.) Cuarón’s only other feature-length Mexican production is Y Tu Mamá También, one of the highest grossing foreign films in this country. That film’s success was enough to catapult the director into the big leagues: In 2004, he saved the Harry Potter movie franchise from itself by spiking his Prisoner of Azkaban with magical realist outbursts and taking an honest look at the horny adolescent desires of the story’s characters. Cuarón will be on hand to introduce all his films with the exception of Great Expectations and Children of Men (which opens in theaters on the 29th), in addition to Felipe Cazals’s striking 1976 film Canoa, about the assault spearheaded against a group of students by a priest in the Mexican town of Canoa. Chillingly drawn-out, the story is told as a faux documentary, with many shots framed along very severe diagonal angles that work to convey a profound sense of dislocation. The film’s aesthetic is strong, but there isn’t an unnatural bone in its body—an impression that surely enticed a young Cuarón, who plans to direct his own take on the bloody 1968 incident sometime in the next year, with Gael García Bernal rumored to star.