Currently, one of the best showcases for Latin American Cinema is the American Film Institute’s “Latin American Film Festival” which takes place with participation from Spain and Portugal in Silver Spring, Maryland.
This year’s gathering — its 26th edition — opens today with “Sand Dollars,” from the Dominican Republic. The film stars Geraldine Chaplin as an older lesbian in a love triangle with a local girl. The festival ends October 7 with “Trash,” a Brazilian film about trash pickers and local corruption, starring Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara, set in the favelas. In between, more than 40 films from 20 countries will screen.
While fine films represent Latin American cinema hotspots like Argentina — for example, “El Cinco,” about a retiring soccer player (Esteban Lamothe)— some of the best features hail from smaller countries, like Paz Fábrega’s enchanting romance “Viaje,” from Costa Rica. This year’s crop also features two strong Guatemalan films.
Here are six essential titles playing at the festival.
Writer/Director Jayro Bustamante’s astonishing first feature, set in the shadow of a volcano, slow burns to a powerful conclusion. The film concerns Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), a shy, teenage peasant girl whose virginal hand is promised to her parents’ boss and landlord, Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo). However, she loves Pepe, a worker on the coffee plantation, who shows more interest in moving to America than staying in Guatemala.
After Maria and Pepe have sex one night, there are tragic consequences — but not necessarily the ones viewers might expect. “Ixcanul” introduces themes of honor, ritual, lies and betrayal that unite and divide the characters, but it is Bustamante’s superb storytelling that makes this film so special. He includes sharp details — the stains on Pepe’s hand while harvesting coffee, the fabric woven into Maria’s hair — to transport viewers to the magnificent volcanic setting, where much of the action takes place.
The cast of mostly non-professional actors is framed so carefully that every vivid shot could be a photograph or painting. But it’s authenticity stands out: Bustamante artfully presents the lives of his indigenous characters so that viewers understand them in full. His film justly won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for its cinematic vision, and “Ixcanul” is Guatemala’s official Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
“The Greatest House in the World”
Another spare, elegant, and moving Guatemalan film, “The Greatest House in the World” makes its U.S. premiere at the festival. Set in the Sierra de los Cuchumantanes mountain region, the film has the young Rocío (Gloria López) living with her pregnant mother and grandmother. Rocío is burdened with responsibility in the household, collecting water and wood in scenes that are reminiscent of the “slow cinema” movement. When Rocío is told to care for the flock of sheep that the family depends on, she meets up with her friend Ixchumila (María Lopez) and plays the game that gives the film its title.
However, when Rocío loses a lamb that same day, she panics about disappointing her family by her carelessness. “The Greatest House in the World” conveys a remarkable environment with the craggy landscape, and rope bridges in the misty mountain range, providing a real sense of what life is like in this harsh region of the world. The film’s realism, along with Gloría Lopez’s heartfelt performance, ultimately makes this simple but poignant drama worthwhile.
Paraguayan cinema has been slowly making waves in the Latin American cinema world, particularly with minimalist films like “Paraguayan Hammock” and “7 Boxes.” The festival’s fantastic Paraguayan entry, “Cicada Moon,” is a stylish black comedy/thriller that also pays homage to westerns. The film highlights the immense talents of its director/co-screenwriter, Jorge Bedoya. When an American (co-writer Nathan Christopher Haase) arrives in Paraguay for business purposes, he becomes the target of a band of inept criminals. Bedoya, perhaps taking a cue from the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Guy Richie, keeps the action as funny as it is bloody, with comic violence, including a running gag about beheadings. He populates his film with a cast of lively, eccentric characters who double cross each other with reckless abandon as they all try to obtain a bag of money. “Cicada Moon” is not deep, but it is great fun, as there are clever deaths, a wild hallucination sequence, and a fabulous slow-motion shootout.
“The Vanished Elephant”
Javier Fuentes-León made an auspicious feature debut with the gay romantic drama “Undertow” back in 2009. His dazzling follow up effort, “The Vanished Elephant,” signals a new direction for the Peruvian filmmaker, not only because he has made a stylish, intriguing noir, but because Fuentes-León’s genre film is not an allegory for the country’s economic inequality, or its politics.
Here, Edo Celeste (Salvador del Solar), a crime novelist, gets caught up in a mystery involving his missing fiancé, a woman (Angie Cepeda) with a package of photographs, and a photographer (Andrés Parra), who is staging a show of images based on Edo’s novels. There is also a DA (Tatiana Astengo) who suspects Edo of a crime, and a man, Rafael Pineda (Lucho Cáceres), who is a dead ringer for the writer’s fictional sleuth — a character Edo wants to kill off.
“The truth hides right behind you” is a refrain used throughout “The Vanished Elephant,” and as the anagrams, puzzles, clues, and plot twists pile up like the corpses, Fuentes-León’s film ultimately folds in on itself in clever — possibly too clever — ways. The genre elements are all overt, from a femme fatale, to a black cat, and there are surreal touches, like a mirror that doesn’t reflect, but the appeal of following Edo down the rabbit hole is letting the familiar pieces all come together in unexpected ways.
“Four Cardinal Points”
Another U.S. premiere, “Four Cardinal Points” is director Javier Kafie’s loving tribute to the people of El Salvador, who live with pride and dignity in a country ravaged and haunted by war. This ethnographic documentary features mini-portraits of four individuals in various parts of the country. Sebastian, a farmer, plays cuatro music in a band, “Torgoces de Morazán,” which he began with his brother and friends, but now includes his son and other, younger players. He says that being part of the generation that lived through the war, Sebastian does not want to repeat it and has hope for the future.
The second vignette features Gloria, who was born into a coffee plantation family in Apaneca, runs the family’s operation and supplies one of El Salvador’s chief exports to international markets. A terrific wordless sequences show the process of making coffee from picking to pouring. Kafie next travels north to La Palma to meet Karla, a young mother who learned to paint and now creates handicrafts that are sold to locals and tourists.
And coming full circle, Alex, who lives in the south, in El Zonte, is a surfer who promotes a family-like community where everyone is made to feel at home. As Kafie showcases the beaches and beauty of his country in this last segment, “Four Cardinal Points” feels almost like an advertisement from the tourism board. But this engaging, hour-long documentary is really less about enticing guests to visit the central American country, and more about providing a sense of belonging for the people who live and work there.
Directed by Ben Chace, “Without Wings” is the first U.S. feature to be shot entirely in Cuba since 1959, which is reason alone to see it. A gritty romantic drama — made even grittier by Chace’s decision to shoot the film on 16mm — “Without Wings” has septuagenarian Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón) dreaming about Isabela (Yulisleivis Rodrigues), a singer he had an affair with 40 years ago. As Luis can’t get a song (and the woman) from the past out of his head, his thoughts are further triggered by the drama involving his neighbors, Yuni (Adael Rosales) and his wife Katrina (Camile Arteche).
All of the characters live with paradoxes, and “Without Wings” uses these plot strands to shine a light on the music, rituals, architecture, history, and economy of Cuba by showing how the characters eke out their daily lives. Dance, for Isabela — seen mostly in luminous black-and-white flashbacks — is practically a revolutionary act. However, “Without Wings” is more melodramatic than political, which is what makes Chace’s glimpse into Cuba then and now all the more fascinating.