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Los Angeles Film Festival 2012: Summer Games, All Is Well, & Juan of the Dead

At this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, there are a few core themes that bind together a number of the films.

Oscar Moralde

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Summer Games
Photo: Los Angeles Film Festival

At this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, there are a few core themes that bind together a number of the films. Through some combination of a strong programming ethos and the patterns and forms that are floating in the international filmmaking zeitgeist, these thematic concerns cut across boundaries of nation, genre, and style. For example, there’s the treatment of childhood subjectivity: the capacity for a film to capture something of a child’s point of view, of that limited and imperfect awareness of the world and its adult problems, of the unfathomable (or is it?) gulf between them and their parents. It’s a gap that will only make full sense once they cross it.

Take the central figures in writer-director Rolando Colla’s Swiss coming-of-age film Summer Games. Following two different families on vacation at a seaside campground, at first Colla and his co-writers make a clear distinction between the kids and their parents. Nic (Armando Condolucci) is an angry 12-year-old boy whose callousness—sometimes approaching the sociopathic—seems borne from a childhood of witnessing his father’s brutality and his mother’s codependency. Moving from the tents to the cabins, we find Marie (Fiorella Campanella), the same age as Nic, angsty and withdrawn and longing to make contact with a father she’s never known. However, for all their internal angst, the kids seem essentially protean and resilient. On the first day, Marie and Nic get into a fight, bloodied lips and all. A day later, they’ve formed their own little band of outsiders rounded out by their younger siblings and another kid from the neighborhood.

The kids play their titular games in a shed they find in the middle of a cornfield, and it’s in these kinds of closed and confined spaces that Colla finds the dividing line between childhood and adulthood and relentlessly threatens to blur it. The games the kids play are rife with the kind of psychosexual drama that seems bundled up with coming of age. They take on imaginary roles, but even their playacting revolves around the inflicting and endurance of actual pain and humiliation, only kept in check by the mutual acknowledgment that they’re only playing and it’s not real. Their games are fun-house reflections of the patterns they see in the adults; it’s chilling yet resonant that Nic proposes a “killing game” where killers get to do whatever they want to the victims under their power, and it’s fitting that Marie tacks on the role of the cigarette-smoking detective to bring the murderers to justice. In the world of their games, there are boundaries and rules, unlike what they see on the outside. And yet in their budding relationship there’s something else, something discomfiting and pulsing. When Nic lets Marie know that he can’t feel anything that they do to him, she wants to know how he does it. “I was somebody else,” he tells her.

The film teases out these connections and separations through compelling compositions. We approach the countryside through a series of lush, warm tableaux, yet these idyllic beaches and cliffs and fields are densely layered, perfect for hiding secrets. The way that space is partitioned in the film frame makes us fully aware of how thin the boundaries between public and private, or reality and play, actually are; the veneer of a tent wall (or edge of the frame) doesn’t actually hide anything, but only makes us acutely aware of the things that we’re not directly witnessing. Most notably, Lorenz Merz’s cinematography activates the sense of touch. The fluttering of a feather, the texture of dirt and sand, the grazing of fingertips—these moments take on the quality of affective memory.

That kind of subjectivity makes its presence felt throughout the film as we become aware that the resilience of these children must inevitably slide toward the weary weight that the adults carry with them. Nic’s mother, Adriana (Alessia Barela), comes across to us as a long-suffering, tragic figure doomed to repeat the cycle of playing a game that has no rules and no way to win. Though they never really interact, parallels abound between her and Marie: similar motions and gestures, and the way they both move through the world with a kind of lonely grace. But most striking here is Condolucci’s portrayal of Nic, where the ultimate question is whether the monster that comes out in his games is really him or “somebody else.” We wonder if he will find a moment of solace and humanity in this place, or if those things belong to the realm of playacting.

Chilean writer-director Dominga Sotomayor gives us another child’s viewpoint in her debut feature Thursday Till Sunday, where the separation between kids and their parents comes in the literal space between the front and back seats of an old family car. Ten-year-old Lucía (Santi Ahumada) embarks on a weekend road trip with her family, northbound on the Chilean highway. The road trip gives structure to the real drama at play, a slow burn between Lucía’s parents (Paola Giannini and Francisco Pérez-Bannen) that alternates between the close-quarters tension of the cramped car and the agoraphobic expense of the countryside.

Sotomayor handles that drama with careful restraint; her style is beautifully indirect and understated. It lives in the long take and helps capture the restless rhythm of the long-distance car ride. Whenever the family pulls over and gets out of the car, the distant wide angles let our eyes wander over the frame, whether it’s capturing the richly textured wilderness or the subtle shifts of her characters’ expressions. It’s the cinematic equivalent of stretching your legs.

That visual control also helps mold the film around the way that Lucía sees the world. She anchors our place in those distant compositions, and the audience finds itself latching onto her viewpoint. Whatever drama is brewing between her parents, we find ourselves in the same place as Lucía, only picking up intermittently understandable pieces: elliptical snatches of dialogue, or a glance that carries far more meaning than its surface might indicate. It’s perfectly represented by a recurring shot choice from the front of the car: With her father in the driver’s seat and her mother on the passenger side, we only see half of each face; the frame is dominated by the empty space between them—and Lucía’s gaze in the background.

Sotomayor loves this bold kind of composition, where the intriguing elements pull our eyes toward the edge of the frame, with characters brushing up at that edge or lying just beneath it. She pushes this tactic to the point where in one shot there’s only a fragment of Lucía’s face in the corner of the frame; the rest is dominated by nighttime darkness and shadow. And yet this visual experimentation is ultimately in the service of the characters. Even in that kind of frame, that fragment of a face—its nuance and expression—calls out to be read.

It helps that those nuances and expressions come across so vividly; Ahumada’s performance as Lucía is immensely likeable and relatable and is ultimately what gives the film its power. It’s a performance that coalesces from a collection of tiny, believable moments: a smile of awe in the presence of the cooler older hitchhiking girls that the family picks up; the slight bratty indignance when her younger brother gets a chance to learn to drive after she had asked first; and most importantly, her impassive, observant gaze as she watches her parents and other adults in conversation. Like the adults in Summer Games, Lucía’s parents have a long history and a reservoir of secrets, and their children, like the audience, can only manage a tentative understanding of it. But in this film, Lucía is bright and observant and the perfect audience surrogate: She takes that understanding as a foundation, and she tries to take what she sees and hears and make something meaningful out of it.

Another thematic connection that runs through this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival is the crossing of international boundaries: films that explore the cultural, linguistic, and social barriers thrown up between nations and peoples. In works such as these, we see the psychic toll placed upon the people who pierce those barriers—those cast out by exile and those struggling to return home. Angolan writer-director Pocas Pascoal, along with writer Marc Pernet, examines that kind of struggle in her first feature, All Is Well. In the film, she follows a pair of teenaged sisters, the older Alda (Ciomara Morais) and younger sister Maria (Cheila Lima). It’s the 1980s, and their home of Angola is torn apart by civil war. Sent on ahead to Portugal by their mother, their temporary waiting turns into a state of uncertain exile as their mother is unable to leave the country. Alone in a strange foreign land, the sisters find their meager resources strained, and they must consider questions of survival and safety as they navigate unfamiliar streets and parse the urban landscape.

The film precisely and analytically captures the precariousness of being a stranger with no safety net to fall back on, of not knowing whether the person you’re encountering on the street is safe to talk to or not. The relative comfort and security of Alda and Maria’s initial lodgings soon give way to the perils of squatting in an abandoned flat without even a lock to secure it, and of considering bathing in sludgy industrial water because there seem to be no other alternatives. Much of the film’s precision comes from Pascoal’s choice not to hew too close to the sisters’ subjectivity; most scenes play out in a detached observational mode, where we as the audience are not given any special answers, but are posed the same questions as Alda and Maria. They encounter people that may be their friends, may offer them aid and comfort, or may be out to extort and exploit them. There are no abrupt turns of personality or shocking discoveries in the people they encounter, only gradual lessons learned through hard-won experience.

We only close the gap with the sisters’ subjectivity when they are alone together, and when they’re on the phone trying to reach back to Angola. In this film, their homeland only exists as a subject of conversations, or invisible and inaudible on the other end of a telephone line. Through the phone Alda and Maria receive trickles of information from back home, and we must gauge from their reactions the import of that information, appearing like effects without causes. Early on, there’s a beautifully controlled shot, close on Alda on the phone, as she receives bad news. We see that news wash over her as Maria expectantly hovers, out of focus in the background. Alda then steps forward, blurring as Maria takes her place at the phone; it’s her turn to go through the emotional wringer. They’re connected in one way but separated in another, a distinction that becomes clearer as the film progresses.

Above all, Pascoal is steadfast in presenting Alda and Maria as people, not symbols, regardless of how politically charged their milieu might be. The film’s clear-eyed realism helps us empathize with these sisters as psychologically nuanced characters rather than mere types standing in for an entire generation. Their bond as sisters, frayed through struggle, feels utterly genuine. The dilemma they face of whether to try and build a better life in the West or to return and piece a broken homeland back together: That may be a dilemma faced by a generation of exiles, but it’s also a specific struggle faced by a pair of siblings who have survived so much and are certain of so little.

In 2011, the Los Angeles Film Festival featured a sidebar of films that surveyed the state of contemporary Cuban cinema; there’s some poetic resonance that a year later Cuban cinema returns in the form of the living dead. Juan of the Dead is a zombie comedy that ticks off all the boxes of the genre template, but writer-director Alejandro Brugués got some laughs at the Q&A when he admitted his influences were less from the Romero ouevre and more from “movies about doing business when times are tough, like Ghostbusters or Schindler’s List.”

The tough times in this film come in the form of an unexplained wave of zombie attacks that plague Havana and which the news reports blame on American-funded “dissidents.” Down-and-out veteran Juan (Alexis Días de Villegas) and his boorish layabout sidekick Lazaro (Jorge Molina) see the chaos as a business opportunity; they’ll exterminate the zombies, but only for paying customers, of course. They even have a slogan: “Juan of the Dead, we kill your loved ones, how can we help you?” As they build their business, the pair hit all the aforementioned genre staples: the training montage where they build anti-zombie gear and learn the behavior of their enemies; getting into scraps with a crazed band of post-apocalyptic military; and recruiting other survivors to their cause. Among the survivors is Juan’s estranged daughter, Camila (Andrea Duro), who helps lend some weight and nuance to Juan’s character amid the broad comedy.

Most strikingly, Juan of the Dead understands its unique situation as a Cuban genre film, and its political awareness gives texture to the gags. The contortions and disposability of corpses are played for physical comedy, but at the same time Juan and Lazaro display nonchalance about the low value of human life, one that seems to have existed long before the appearance of the living dead. The accidental and intentional killing of civilians becomes a running gag; when a client unexpectedly dies at the end of a job, Juan callously tells his crew, “I’m not leaving without my money.” (Along with this, there’s a strain of machismo-drenched homophobic anxiety that’s played for laughs, but which the film incompletely skewers.)

Brugués salts the film with political reference after political reference, at first disconcertingly blunt: The killing techniques Juan learned in the Cuban intervention in Angola serve him well against the zombies. More to the point, Camila tells her father that he’s like Cuba because he never changes, and later they look out at Havana where “there are no cars, and the streets are deserted…just like the Special Period” of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic collapse. But the density and brazen absurdity of the commentary builds to the point where announcing the approach of a zombie horde with lines such as “Capitalism will take its toll on us!” make a twisted kind of sense.

These references don’t necessarily cohere into a smoothed-out satire; instead, they fragment and fracture the film like the disconnected vignettes that make up its gags and action sequences. Yet those disconnections and rough edges lend the film some charm, recalling the “imperfect cinema” that, like the iconic Havana breakwaters, speaks to a unique Cuban conception of the movies. And amid all of this, the film has an acute understanding of isolation; in many ways these characters are all essentially estranged and separated from each other. Only in the apocalypse do these separations collapse, and yet even with the rise of the zombie hordes, Havana and Miami still seem worlds apart. The fact that the only means for our heroes to escape from a Cuba-turned-hellhole is atop a mountain of corpses probably says more than any direct reference ever could.

The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 14—24.

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