Quick: What are some of the best Latin American movies being made today?
If you don’t know, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 15th annual Latinbeat program has some answers for you. Starting today, the series opens with the New York premiere of "Casa Grande," Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa’s searing portrait of a struggling upper class family. The festival continues through July 20, showcasing slices of Latin American life from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
From the punkish beat of the teenage musicians in "We Are Mari Pepi," to the offbeat longing of a security guard in "All About the Feathers," who hopes to enter the illegal but lucrative world of cockfighting, the films in this program capture the rhythm of life in Latin America. One of the more intriguing dramas is "The Man of the Crowd," Marcelo Gomes and Cao Guimarães’ loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name. Shot in a 3×3 format, the square frame magnifies the isolation and anonymity of the characters as they are framed and reflected in the various compositions. The use of ambient chatter and traffic sounds further heighten the film’s palpable sense of alienation.
This year’s festival features multiple films involving teenagers coming of age, as well as social dramas about economic and/or racial disparities. Here are five key films screening at LatinBeat 2014:
This hypnotic, observational character study from Argentina opens with a note from filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno detailing the cost ($34,000) as well as exact number of days and hours it took to make his 70-minute mini-masterpiece.
Moreno does this to underscore the related themes of labor and economy in his film. Reimon (Marcela Dias) travels on buses and trains to clean house in Buenos Aires. She is seen arranging pillows lackadaisically, hanging and ironing laundry, making a bed, and cleaning a desk. Moreno practically spies on his title character — waiting patiently for a creaking door to close, or focusing on the way the wind ruffles her hair while Raimon is daydreaming on a balcony. Dias’ almost imperceptibly expressionless face is a marvelous blank canvas for the viewer who absorbs — as she does — the (im)balance of power and labor the film presents. Watching Reimon interact with her clients — one of whom wants to give her old, used clothes, or another, who invites her to dance with him — is telling; her reactions to these encounters belie a deeper sense of self. Moreno includes little dialogue, but there are long, lengthy passages read aloud from Karl Marx’s "Das Capital," about the working day and free time. These excerpts echo against Reimon’s few, solitary moments outside of work: a dazzling tracking shot when she is out walking her dog, or when she lies in bed, flipping channels on TV. The effect of her loneliness juxtaposed against her interactions with others is both damning and heartbreaking.
Latinbeat’s excellent opening night feature concerns Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), the son in the family that lives in the title house in a tony Rio neighborhood. Jean’s father, Hugo (Marcello Novaes) is broke and trying to keep it a secret and save face. Director/co-writer Fellipe Barbosa precisely and effectively ratchets up the tension as the coddled Jean slowly realizes the truth behind his family’s dire financial situation. He shows his bubble-formed ignorance early on, when he does not have an opinion in his private school class about racial quotas. The family’s driver, Severino (Gentil Cordeiro), takes Jean to school until his parents fire Severino in a cost-cutting measure. They tell their son that Severino is taking a vacation.
On the bus to school, he meets Luiza (Bruna Amaya), a public school student who — in one of "Casa Grande’s" most uncomfortable scenes — expresses her strong opinions about quotas at a family lunch. Barbosa painstakingly shows how both money and values "run out," as Noemie (Maralia Coelho), the family’s shrewd cook/maid observes. Jean fails to pay back a loan — much like his father, and when the family matriarch, Sonia (Suzana Pires) discovers naked photos of Rita (Clarissa Pinheiro), the housekeeper, prompting Rita to question Sonia about her snooping. Even Jean’s sister Natalie (Alice Melo) misbehaves, stealing her allowance from her father, perhaps because he mostly ignores her. How and where Jean finds his self-worth is what makes "Casa Grande" so absorbing, and Barbosa’s precise, deliberate storytelling makes Jean’s journey of self-discovery so exciting.
A tender, compelling drama from Ecuador about Juampi (Juan Manuel Arregui), an upper-class teen who likes to view the world upside-down from his rooftop in Quito. On holiday at his uncle’s hacienda, Juampi feels out of place among his cousins, one of them even comments on his difference. One night, the quiet, mysterious Juampi assists Juano (Diego Andrés Paredes) to help him flee from being beaten for trespassing. Juampi becomes fascinated with the handsome, long-haired Quechuan, Juano. While writer/director Diego Arajuo focuses on Juampi’s unspoken attraction, there are many scenes — the guys diving into a river, and sunbathing on the banks, or changing shirts at Juampi’s apartment — that throb with sexual tension between the two youths.
Although "Holiday" is essentially a coming out story, it benefits from its presentation of race, class, and sexual difference. (An intriguing subplot features Juampi’s uncle embroiled in a banking scandal). The film, gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted by the leads, proves to be an auspicious feature debut by Araujo.
"The Summer of the Flying Fish"
Exquisitely filmed, and leisurely paced, this lyrical Chilean drama concerns Don Francisco (Gregory Coehn), the patriarch of an upper class family, battling a carp infestation on his land. This thin plot provides a striking allegory, as the local Mapuche natives (and non-pro actors) take issue with Don Francisco’s demands to kill the fish and fence in his land.
The landowner’s teenage daughter, Manena (Francisca Walker), also faces a power struggle as she wants to do what is "right," but her father warns her to be "grateful for her privileges." What distinguishes "The Summer of the Flying Fish," however, are the rich visuals, which incorporate fire, air, earth and water and freights each element with meaning. Director/co-writer Marcela Said, working with ace cinematographer Inti Briones, has created a gorgeous film. From a mesmerizing sequence shot from inside a car illuminated by just the headlights, or a birthday party in a swimming pool in which the camera lingers on the floating characters, “The Summer of the Flying Fish” offers pure cinematic poetry along with is socially-conscious messages.
An absorbing coming of age story from Colombia. The title character (Carlos Hernandez) joins a theater troupe run by David (Felipe Botero), the local priest, to avoid being kicked out of school. Mateo initially dismisses the drama club until his uncle Walter (Samuel Lazcano), a local kingpin, asks him to spy on the group’s members. Mateo soon relents, and even finds some pleasure in acting. His proud mother Made (Miriam Gutierrez) remarks to her friends that there is something special about her son. When Mateo resists singing, "because it looks silly," David uses his fear to teach him respect and help him transform. However, when Mateo gets embroiled in a bad situation with Walter, he becomes anxious about confessing his actions to David.
"Mateo" is a simple but affecting film in part because director Maria Gamboa imbues her efficient drama with a gritty realism and coaxes naturalistic performances from her cast. Inspired by true events, "Mateo" shows the strength and transformative power of a supportive community.