"The Boy Who Smells Like Fish"
The 28th edition of the Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara, or Guadalajara International Film Festival, came to a close this weekend in the eponymous town, Mexico’s second biggest metropolis after Mexico City.
What started in 1986 as the Muestra de Cine Mexicano, a program dedicated entirely to home-grown productions, has grown into a showcase of what the festival calls “Ibero-American” films, which comprises films from the Iberian peninsula and all of Middle and South America (i.e., the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world), as well as films from further afield, including the Nordic Countries, which were featured in a special focus after opening film and Oscar nominee “Kon-Tiki” kicked off the festivities.
Until last year, the festival showcased Mexican and Ibero-American films separately but this year, they have been united for the first time in one large Ibero-American competition, though the local films in the festival’s various sections still qualify for a separate Mezcal Award for Best Mexican film, which was won this year by Berlinale title “Workers,” from José Luis Valle Gonzalez.
The winner of the Ibero-American competition was the Argentinean feature “Clandestine Childhood,” from Benjamin Avila, which was released stateside by Film Movement. The film, set in 1979, looks at the return of a family, including 12-year-old Juan alias Ernesto (Teo Gutiérrez Moreno), who return to Argentina under fake identities. Juan’s parents and uncle fight the military junta that has taken over in Argentina. The film also won the festival’s Best Actor trophy for Ernesto Alterio, who plays Juan’s uncle.
The Premio Maguey, an award for the best queer-themed film modeled on the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, went to the Mexican documentary “Disrupted,” from director Roberto Fiesco. The film follows Lilia Ortega, an actress, and Fernando Garcia, her son, who’s a drag performer. Expect plenty of queer film festival interest in this one.
Beyond these award winners, here are five more noteworthy titles that played at the Guadalajara International Film Festival: “Last Call”
The Audience Award went to Francisco Franco’s theater tale “Last Call,” a delirious group portrait of a chaotic theater troupe that prepares a staging of Albert Camus’ “Caligula” that’s initially rehearsed and designed as a 1930s Fascist-Italy update before being reinvented as a true Roman tragedy in which the role of the titular Roman Emperor is played by a young actress famous for a yoghurt commercial. The at turns melodramatic and slightly surreal film, which played in competition, also took home the Best Actress nod for the female ensemble. The play is directed by a distaff director who’s a neurotic depressive who only knows what she doesn’t want and is produced by a female alcoholic tyrant who can’t stand the constant changes the director makes. The director’s assistant, also a woman, is a failed actress who lives in hope (in vain) of her talents ever being noticed by the director, while an older actress, known to be a diva and hated by all, is trying to make a comeback in the play. The males are much better off in this strongly acted ensemble piece, as one of the technicians, who’s addicted to weed, is constantly hunted down on the street by a group of aggressive emo kids -- don’t you just hate it when that happens? -- while his colleague can barely keep his junk in his pants, until he beds the wrong actress who comes running after him at the most inappropriate times. One of the lead actors is a local telenovelas star who never has time for anything, while the eldest of the male actors is so old he keeps forgetting his lines. If this all sounds like the perfect recipe for a farce, that’s because that’s pretty much how it plays, even if there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to the proceedings that provides some necessary gravitas and succeeds in giving the impression the film wants to be about more than just a series of rehearsals gone out of whack. “Sadourni’s Butterflies”
There’s been a lot of press for the Spanish Foreign-Language Oscar submission, “Blancanieves,” an audacious update of the Snow White tale that relocates it to 1920s Spain, recasts the dwarfs as bullfighting little people and is essentially a silent black-and-white film. That title, directed by the talented Pablo Berger, also screened in Guadalajara and went home with the Best Cinematography Award. But at least as interesting is “Sadourni’s Butterflies,” which share many characteristics of “Blancanieves:” Its titular protagonist is a little person (Cristian Medrano), and the film is from a Spanish-speaking country (in this case Argentina) and also in sumptuous black-and-white, though it’s not a silent film. “Butterflies” won the Best Director gong at the festival and it’s easy to see why. The delirious mise-en-scene echoes the film’s Fellini-esque circus setting, where Sadourni used to work, and where putting on a show takes precedence over everything. The story’s twists and turns quickly veer into noir territory and jumps back and forth at breakneck speed. Former circus star Sadourni, it turns out, is a jailbird who’s allowed to leave prison during the day to try and reintegrate in society and find a job, which as a little person is a lot more complicated, so he finds a job at a fetish sex place which allows him to pay for a painfully torturous-looking procedure that will stretch his legs. Over-the-top and odd, whimsical and fantastical and arresting and head-scratching all at once, this is the kind of film that people will either love or hate, though there’s no denying it’s something one-of-a-kind. "The Tears" (Las Lagrimas)
Though it didn’t win any awards because it was tucked away in a Special Screenings sidebar, the best Mexican film in Guadalajara for this critic’s money was “The Tears” (Las Lagrimas), a volatile, almost evanescent look at the unspoken pain caused by the (unseen) departure of a father on two brothers and their mother, who’s so unhappy/depressed she rarely even bothers to come out of bed. Amazingly, this emotionally incredibly mature piece of filmmaking is only the first feature of director Pablo Delgado Sánchez, who made the film as a graduate project from the CCC (Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica), a Mexican film school that’s been making a name for itself lately with the young directors that study or have studied there. Deceptively simple in the way the camera modestly but precisely seems to capture the relaxed intimacy of kid brother Gabriel (Gabriel Santoyo) and his almost-adult sibling, Fernando (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), “Tears” sees the two escape the oppression and literal as well as psychological disorder of the house to go camping in the woods, where their small talk carries more significance than either of them are probably aware of. Restrained instead of melodramatic but no so starkly realistic as to become simply documentary-like, this carefully balanced, intimate portrait of two siblings and the way they deal with an offscreen blow of gigantic proportions is simply riveting. “The Boy Who Smells Like Fish”
Most festival films tend to be on the darker side, and when a comedic vein surfaces, such as in “Sadourni’s Butterflies” or “Blancanieves,” it is often tragicomic rather than bubbly, light-weight fun. So what a delicious surprise to find the Mexican-Canadian co-production “The Boy Who Smells Like Fish” programmed as part of the competition, a film that combines “Amelie”-like whimsy with an almost fairy-tale romance involving, well, a boy who suffers from a rare disease that causes him to smell like fish, except when he’s in the water. At the swimming pool, the youngster, called Mica (Douglas Smith, from HBO’s “Big Love”), runs into a mysterious beauty (Zoe Kravitz) that makes his heart beat faster, though initially he hasn’t got the courage to ask her out because of his odor problems outside the water (in a cute running gag, Mica wears a pine-air freshener, like the one used in cars, around his neck like a necklace). Together with his mother (Ariadna Gil), Mica runs and lives in the former house of a popular Mexican singer (played with evident glee by Spanish-Mexican thesp Gonzalo Vega), which has been converted into a museum. The story basically boils down to an oddball love story involving two beautiful youngsters who are insecure about themselves and Mexican director Analeine Cal y Mayor finds exactly the right tone for the material, keeping things light and slightly surreal while making sure the emotional core of the story is always believable. The show-stopping finale, which includes synchronized swimming, singing and dancing, sends audiences out on a high. “Five Dances”
The Maguey section (named after a type of Agave, just like the Mexican Mezcal award), now in its second year at Guadalajara, programs the queer features of the festival, including a number of U.S. productions, such as “Gun Hill Road,” “Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean,” “Any Day Now” and “Four,” though the most interesting (and perhaps also the smallest and most indie of all of them) is “Five Dances,” from filmmaker Alan Brown (“Superheroes,” “Private Romeos”). “Five” follows Chip (Broadway dancer Ryan Steele), an 18-year-old new arrival in New York City who’s been lucky enough to have been chosen to prepare and then perform with four other dancers, one of which, Antony (Luke Murphy), is also the choreographer. The film’s title is perhaps not entirely accurate in that the five dances are more like five segments of one dance, with the film’s five chapters all kicking off with an extended and handsomely choreographed (by international dance talent Jonah Bokaer) piece before concentrating on the narrative, which is minimal and rather straightforward but which, by virtue of being underplayed and being integrated into a between-rehearsals context, also feels extremely natural and believable. And by shooting the dance sequences in medium-length and wide shots, it’s amply made clear all of the actors do their own dancing (most actually come from a dancing background rather than the other way around). Only minor quibble is that the affable Steele, who’s supposedly all of 18 years young, looks like someone who’s been 18 for a long time. TLA Releasing has picked up U.S. rights for the film.