This year’s Latinbeat, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, shows Latin-American filmmakers moving away from overtly political themes to highlight personal adversity, intimacy, and the trials of parenthood. In spite of representing varying nationalities and local flavors, most of the featured filmmakers have in common straightforward narratives, without fireworks in cinematography or storytelling, Argentina’s Matías Piñeiro being the notable exception.
A cool sobriety emanates from Gustavo Fernandez Triviño’s From Tuesday to Tuesday, the story of a bodybuilder and suit-factory worker, Juan Benitez, who dreams of opening his own gym, and who gets a break when he witnesses a horrid crime. Juan’s docile passivity, his serving as the butt of his bosses’ jokes, and his financial struggles are meant to offset his moral complicity, but never add up to a convincing portrait. Equally somber, Santiago Loza’s La Paz, a winner at this year’s Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI), focuses on a young man who must rebuild his life after leaving a psychiatric institution.
While From Tuesday to Tuesday may be said to deal obliquely with Argentina’s widespread social and economic ills, La Paz is a tale of the upper class undermined by depression and insecurity. The film’s central character, Liso, is caught between his pampering homemaker mother and industrialist father, who attributes his son’s predicament to laziness. After nearly bringing on a tragedy, Liso finds peace amid Bolivia’s poor. Though carefully gauged, the finale is a meager palliative in a story that lacks a steady pulse. And while the dialogue hints at darkness, via Liso’s perturbed ex-girlfriend, no definitive clues may be garnered about Liso’s past actions or current motives, rendering him directionless and lifeless.
Another film exploring complex family ties, The Tears, by Mexico’s Pablo Delgado Sanchez, unravels in a single day as pre-teen Gabriele (Gabriele Santoyo) and his older brother, Fernando (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), take a camping trip. Faced with the mother’s depression that results in her confining herself to her room, brought on by their father’s abandonment, the siblings must overcome their own shock. A tiny shred of equilibrium is restored when the three are able again to sit down together the next day at breakfast. Whereas Tuesday to Tuesday and La Paz’s deadpan styles create a pathological distance, The Tears coaxes some warmth even from its most shattered characters, presenting the family nucleus with more nuance, as both a source of heartache and a cause for appeasement.
Piñeiro’s movies function like cinematic tapestries: sudden character changes are treated with brisk disregard, as characters and threads pile up; lines from literary works, read out loud, punctuate the action.
Against these slice-of-life stories emerges Alicia Scherson’s more intricately layered The Future. At its center is a young woman, Bianca (Manuela Martelli), who assumes legal responsibility for her teenage brother, Tomas (Luigi Ciardo), when the siblings’ parents are killed in a car crash. Based on the novel by Roberto Bolaño, the movie throbs with Bolañesque secrecy and dread as two of Tomas’s gym buddies move in with the siblings, seduce Bianca, and manipulate her to stake out a heist on a villa of an aging, blind Hollywood star (Rutger Hauer). Set in picturesque Rome, the story unfolds as a classic noir, but turns into a haunting character study, thanks to Martelli’s confident performance, understated yet moving, and the voiceover that, while used sparingly, communicates Bianca’s inner thoughts. As her attachment to the actor deepens, accentuating her moral quandaries, Bianca learns to draw strength from her vulnerability. The luminous cinematography by Ricardo DeAngelis enhances the film’s power, drawing us into the shadow play of not just the underworld in which Bianca circulates, but of her psyche.
A different kind of luminosity emanates from the films of Matías Piñeiro, who’s given a retrospective at this year’s Latinbeat. In Viola, a group of female friends plan a seduction of a seemingly invulnerable cast member. The action then follows Viola (María Villar), who with her boyfriend sells bootleg DVDs in Buenos Aires. During various encounters, questions of love, routine, and eros are raised, as lovers cross paths and couplets are reconfigured. Slant’s John Semley described the film as “deceptively complex” in its loose mirroring of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Indeed, if Piñeiro adapts a classic in Viola, he does so subversively: His characters aren’t only actors in the play, but attempt to transplant the text’s intrigues off stage, embodying the text as a risqué experiment. The adaptation is the impact that literature has on their relationships—the way it resonates, or sometimes comically clashes, with contemporary sensibilities.
The essential adaptive scheme repeats in Piñeiro’s other films: The Stolen Man borrows from Othello, and They All Lie takes up 19th-century Argentine literature. Along with Viola, these films feature nearly the same ensemble cast, with Villar and Romina Paula as the glue for stories that revolve around agency and chance, featuring female conspirators. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is Villar’s Mercedes in The Stolen Man, who not only steals precious objects from the museum where she’s a guide, but spies on her friend’s boyfriend, and orchestrates a complex plot that leads to the couple’s breakup, thus acting as a delicious stand-in for Othello’s villainous Iago. Villar’s deceivingly waifish, innocuous looks and Piñeiro’s swiftness in plot and dialogue keep emotions under a close lid, in a tale where heartbreak is exhaustively discussed, including a long banter on dumping versus being dumped, but never fatal.