Thursday, September 24, 2009


In its 2009 edition which concluded Thursday, Latinbeat (The Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual showcase of Latin American cinema) featured an impressive number of films directed by women. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) there's been quite a bit of Oscar talk in Hollywood lately regarding some non-Latino female directors, namely Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and Jane Campion ("Bright Star") whose films have received overwhelmingly good reviews. Back in 2004, Sofia Coppola was nominated in the Best Director category for "Lost in Translation" along with 10 other women in other categories - a great feat by an underrepresented sector of the industry. We might have another Year on the Woman on our hands, which is always a good thing. But rather than ruminate on whether Bigelow and Campion will be recognized by the Academy (honestly, do they really need more recognition?), instead I'd like to spend my time singing the praises of some unsung female directors working way, way outside Hollywood's radar - i.e. Mexico and South America.

The first film I saw at Latinbeat was the opening night selection "Cinco días sin Nora," a wonderfully dry comedy about a non-practicing Jewish man who believes that, even in death, his ex-wife is still intent on controlling him. This is not some kind of metaphysical comedy - Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost" suddenly came to mind - where the woman comes back from the afterlife and wreaks havoc on her poor ex-husband to humorous effect. There are indeed no special effects here. Instead, this is an acutely observed film about a man who lost his religion long ago and uses his ex-wife's suicide as an excuse to avoid real questions about faith, his uneasy relationship with his son, and the absence of community in his life. Writer/Director Mariana Chenillo employs a wonderful ensemble cast (especially veteran actor Enrique Arreola in the lead role) and lands some well-earned digs at a few nonsensical religious rituals. The film's visual style felt overly precise and controlled at times, but I'm sure that Chenillo will continue to build her confidence with future work. She's definitely a director to watch.

Next up is (Chenillo's compatriot) Eva López Sánchez's "La última y nos vamos" ("One For The Road") which is one of those visceral and astute films that keeps growing on you days after you watch it. The story concerns a trio of upper-middle class, twenty-something friends who go on a separate series of adventures over the course of an evening in Mexico City. The cleverness of the film comes from the fact that she subverts certain preconceived notions about Mexican society. In effect, the film forces us to think about danger and how much of it is a societal construct instead of actual threat. Even if the film's resolution is a bit too sunny (and perhaps unrealistic), it provides great fodder for thought.

I never heard of López Sánchez before but I got to meet her at the fest, where I found out she's been making films for 20 years. How's that for off the radar? In this film, she uses that tired structure of three interconnected stories and turns it completely on its head - and in so doing serves a playful critique of films like "Amorres Perros."

"La ronda" ("Love By Accident") and "Amorosa Soledad" ("Lovely Loniness") are minimalist efforts from Argentina, both offering tales about young men and women in Buenos Aires searching for love and grappling with their own neurosis and loneliness. The former was directed by first time director Inés Braun, who was inspired by the 1950 French film "La ronde." Just as in the Max Ophüls' classic, Braun's film presents a collage of stories linked together by a circular narrative. I'm sorry to say that Braun doesn't offer anything fresh or new here, and the great Mercedes Morán was wasted in an underwritten role. If you want to see a terrific film about the arbitrary nature of love and human relationships, check out Ophüls' original... or Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," which borrows Ophüls' structure to create a searing indictment of Iranian society's treatment of women. One positive thing about "La ronda," though, is that it has the most beautifully designed end credit roll I've ever seen.

"Amorosa Soledad" was directed by Victoria Galardi and Martín Carranza and it was a better effort than "La ronda," though I still felt it lacked originality and a strong core. It felt to me that they were trying to do an Argentinian version of mumblecore, albeit with better cinematography. As a result, the movie devotes too much time to the main character's quirky obsessions (she's a hypochondriac who is happiest inside hospitals or drug stores) at the expense of a strong narrative. It helps that Inés Efron plays the lead. She brings an effortless ease to her roles that's always a joy to watch but here she's unfortunately wrapped up inside a listless film.

There are other films directed by women I didn't get to see. Natalia Almada's "El general" ("The General"), Yulene Olaizola's "Intimidades de Shakespeare y Victor Hugo" ("Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies"), and Claudia Llosa's "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") were highly recommended. I'm eager to watch them and I'll be sure to report on them when I do. In the meantime, I must talk about the last film I saw at the festival (which was also the best - a true discovery!), Alicia Scherson’s "Turistas" ("Tourists") from Chile. I can't even begin to describe what a joy this film was. At first I was put off by the sharp image quality (the film was shot and projected on HD) and yes, the first 10 minutes were a bit slow and meandering (I just didn't know where the film was going and I felt impatient) but I stuck with it and was rewarded with a subtle, soulful look at a woman who has lost touch with her sense of self.

Aline Kuppenheim plays Carla, an unhappy woman who confesses to her husband that she had an abortion while both are driving to a cabin in the country for their vacation. Minutes later, while Carla is peeing under a bridge, her husband drives off and leaves her stranded. After wondering for hours, she meets a young, gay Norwegian "tourist" (an inside joke, you have to see the film) who invites her to camp out with him at a nearby National Park. She agrees and it is there, surrounded by imposing trees, birds, and insects of every kind that she is able to put her life back into focus.

Scherson, who was a scientist before becoming a filmmaker, gives the film texture by including incredibly tactile shots of the fauna and flora in the park (this is maybe why she opted to shoot in HD) and she succeeds at making the audience (well, at least me) feel like we are there, living under the stars in this place where only the most basic things matter. The theme of the film is that only by being in nature - away from the hustle and bustle that clouds our priorities and instincts - can we truly discover ourselves and have real interactions with people. In other words, nature, if we allow it, has the power to bring us to sanity.

During her stay in the park, Carla meets a host of interesting characters - a has-been pop musician who now works as a ranger, a pair of almost identical twins, a jolly trucker - some with sad stories to tell, but what jumps out is their humanity. And it's to Scherson's credit as a director that she can elicit such winning performances from her cast. Finally, the script calls for a transformation of sorts from Carla but this is not overwritten or overt. In fact, there's no clear resolution here. Just a sense that the people who populate the film have been profoundly touched by those they've come in contact with and by the setting. Kuppenheim is such a consummate actress that she is able to convey an internal transformation without ever declaring it with words.

Oh, and did I mention the movie is funny as hell? I nominate Aline Kuppenheim for an Academy Award for best actress. Actually, scratch that. I think she should get the award outright.

One last thing I want to touch on is the fact that, with a few exceptions, the festival was curiously devoid of films dealing with social issues. Blogger Christian Del Moral wrote recently on his blog that the common thread running through the selections was "escape." Escape from reality, escape from our shitty lives, etc. I agree with him and it was definitely a welcome change from the heavy themes that tend to characterize Latin American cinema.

"Un novio para mi mujer" ("A Boyfriend for my Wife") and "Música en Espera" ("Music on Hold") are the best romantic comedies (directed by men, how ironic!) I've seen in a very long time. They adhere to the conventions of the genre but they elevate it with humor that's real and relatable. I was also impressed by the meticulous construction of the scripts. "Musica en Espera," in particular, is intricately written - almost the same way a classical piece of music encompasses different movements and textures that fit precisely into a thematic whole. It's a joy to see Latin American filmmakers beating Hollywood at its own game. That's what happens when art, not money is the priority.

Special thanks to Marcela and Gemma at the Film Society for being so wonderful and accommodating. See you next year!