The Havana Film Festival recently wrapped its 14th edition here in New York, displaying the cinematic best from Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, and, of course, Cuba. With venues like the Museum of the Moving Image, the Quad, and the Director’s Guild of America theater, the festival was noted for being extra busy this year, perhaps due to the increasing diversity and range of its selections; the Paraguayan closing-night entry, 7 Boxes, was so successful that an extra screening was later added for those who couldn’t gain admittance.
Breach in the Silence, from Venezuelan directors Luis and Andrés Rodríguez, debuted at the festival on April 14th, the night of the Venezuelan presidential elections, which prevented the filmmakers from attending. Melodramatic and emotionally amped, the film, which focuses on a deaf girl (played by Vanessa Di Quattro) trying to protect her brother and sister from a cruel mother and stepfather, suggests a Latin remake of Precious, albeit with a more attractive aesthetic flair. Filled with elliptical cuts and intriguing associations (such as nail polish, dumped and smudged out on the floor, representing our solar system), Breach in the Silence is a consistently moving film, but one which never earns the tears it wants from us. We’re shown the deaf daughter being raped by her evil stepfather as the unsuspecting younger brother watches, and later the stepfather attempts to rape the other daughter after giving her driving lessons. When his actions fail, he attacks and leaves her on the side of the road to make it home on her own.
As per usual, the sex-starved mother denies the problems inhabiting her home, and the viewer’s impatience grows. Since our lead character cannot for obvious reasons fully express the horrible predicament, she’s ignored. This dramatic setup, of a handicapped girl who tries to become a savior, feels awfully manipulative, as does the religious imagery on display throughout. The film’s final moments feature the three kids frolicking on a beach intercut with the mother crying outside her apartment as the rain pours down. The film tepidly flirts with religious implications, implying that these characters are either being washed away of their sins or baptized anew; an earlier close-up of a chicken’s slit throat even drills home the idea of sacrifice being needed for such redemption. In the end, Breach in the Silence is perhaps most notable for creating a lot of flash and noise, but providing little substance.
Winner of the festival’s directing prize, Fernando Lavanderos’s Things the Way They Are is a riveting character study at once sexy and detached. The film’s protagonist is the bearded Jeronimo (Cristobal Palma), who rents out rooms to people, usually from other countries, as he plays the role of hardworking maintenance man (his father owns the building). When Sanna (Ragni Orsal Skogsrod) a stunningly gorgeous girl from Norway, arrives one night, Jeronimo develops an infatuation, sneaking through her room when she’s out and taking photos of her diary and translating their pages online to learn all the good stuff.
This is a film that understands its story and enjoys flowing softly through it. After a relationship is established between Jeronimo and Sanna, who teaches acting to kids with issues of self-worth, he discovers her teenaged student, Milton (Isaac Arriagada), hiding under her bed. Lavanderos welcomingly resists the temptation of having Milton’s appearance soften Jeronimo’s unwavering solemness, focusing instead through the characters’ interactions on issues of national identity; in a notable scene, Jeronimo expresses his belief that he’s made to feel insignificant because of Chile’s small size and distance from everything. Although the man has a difficult time trusting others (he repeatedly asks Sanna if she performs her job to better herself or her students), his hardened exterior still invites pathos, especially late in the film once his brother reveals that the building is to be sold. With Jeronimo’s necessities being stripped away, the downbeat final shot favors ambiguity over a clean cut, joyous conclusion.
La Sirga, from Colombian director William Vega, was buzzed about for having played at Cannes last year, but it’s mostly notable for how its accomplished cinematography and palpable sense of impending doom is dulled by a distinctly slow pace and confused sense of character relations. The sexualization of its lead heroine is also head-scratching. At least Miguel Rueda’s short All Are the Same!, which preceded Vega’s feature, is notable for its enjoyably deft sense of irony. When an immigrant couple learns that they’ll be deported in 12 hours, the two pause to reflect on and part with their surroundings. They play a record, dance together, pack their things, and hightail it off the planet, literally, as their spaceship soars them up and away. The film, which articulates an interesting take on “alien” experience, is partly animated like an amateur school project and represented the best of the Havana Film Festival: uniquely clever and creative beyond its budgetary restrictions.
The Havana Film Festival ran from April 12—19. For more information click here.