Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Cinema Tropical continues to bring quality Latin American cinema to the Big Apple. In addition to doing a bang-up job promoting "Crude" and "La nana" ("The Maid") - the latter opens, coincidentally, on October 16th at the Angelika - Carlos Gutierrez (co-founder of Cinema Tropical) has now put together a showcase of current Uruguayan films under the banner "Go Uruguay!" It unspools at BAM October 16-18 and it includes the NY premiere of Adrian Beniez's lauded "Gigante" ("Giant"), as well as many other titles worth checking out.

Uruguayan cinema seems to always be under the shadow cast by its more popular and prolific neighbor Argentina. Every time a Uruguayan film gets some attention it feels like a one-off, a curious novelty item from a country no one bothers to think about much. But the truth is that Uruguay has been steadily carving out a unique cinematic identity and making films that have become hugely influential.

What makes Go Uruguay! so interesting and timely is that is has been designed as both a showcase of new works and a retrospective of roughly the last ten years in Uruguayan cinema. So depending on your previous exposure to Uruguayan films, you can either experience these treasures for the first time or use the opportunity to watch them again with fresh eyes and evaluate their merit. Perhaps you will agree with me that Uruguayan cinema deserves more recognition than it usually gets.

Arguably the most important film of the showcase is also the oldest. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's "25 Watts" enjoyed international success when it was released in 2001, but over time it has become the Latin American equivalent of Richard Linklater's "Slacker." I'm no film historian but in my mind "25 Watts" is the precursor of films like "Temporada de Patos" ("Duck Season"), "Lake Tahoe," and "Gasolina." Since its release, Latin American directors have not only tried to emulate its minimalist style (made for pennies, BTW), they also became more experimental, defying the formality that characterized Latin American cinema at the time. Suddenly, new possibilities arose. You could now make an entire film about three guys sitting on a curb, shooting the shit on a Saturday. Or a meticulous character study about a quiet sock-factory owner who secretly pines for his sole employee. That's exactly what Rebella and Stoll did with their sophomore effort, "Whisky:"

"Whisky" is my favorite of the bunch. It's quiet and slow, but beautifully acted and directed with wonderful restraint and empathy for the main character (it's also in color, muted browns mostly). It inspired a slew of similar films like the recent "Parque Via" and "Gigante," which share the same dark humor. The directors built upon the promise of "25 Watts" and delivered a meditative gem that strikes a perfect balance between form and content. It's visually very controlled but also puts the main character front and center and makes you empathize with him in a deep way. Too bad that Juan Pablo Rebella passed away. I really believe these two would have had an amazing career together (Pablo Stoll is still making films - his latest "Hiroshima" was recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival).

A hit at Berlin and San Sebastian (where it received various awards), "Gigante," is a recent production that follows in the tradition of "Whisky's" minimalism. It tells the tale of a night-shift security guard at a large supermarket who falls for one of the female nighttime cleaners while watching her every move through his black and white surveillance monitor. He's a burly, "giant" of a man but the twist here is that he has the soul of a child. The movie ends at the moment where most romances begin and I have to say that I don't know if it's enough of a payoff. Still, there are wonderful moments throughout - especially a scene where the security guard ends up having a bite at a restaurant with a nerdy guy his love interest had a date with hours before. Another interesting characteristic is that the film is shot as though we're looking at this guy's life on a surveillance monitor - all long shots, from a distance, where behavior is the main focus and dialogue is almost unnecessary.

I've seen two more films on the list, "La perrera" ("The Dog Pound") and "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains." "La perrera" is another darkly comic film about a lazy college student who is forced by his father to build a small house in his property in an ettempt to teach him the value of hard work. In need of a bit of smart editing (I found it overlong), the film picks up in the second half when some of the odd residents of the coastal town begin to help him and turn the new house into a type of hang-out club. One even moves into the house with him.

I watched "Stranded" during a limited run at Film Forum exactly a year ago. I was already familiar with the story of the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to cannibalism to stay alive in the Andes after its plane crashed there, but this documentary is so packed with interesting details (told by the survivors themselves) that I was completely absorbed and many things came as a surprise to me. Director Gonzalo Arijón only had a few actual pictures of the survivors during their ordeal, so he relies mostly on reenactments, but they're tastefully done and is able to sustain suspense throughout (much like "Man on Wire").

Rounding up the list are "El baño del Papa" ("The Pope's Toilet") and "Matar a todos" ("Kill Them All"). The only thing I know about "El baño del Papa" is that it was the film Uruguay nominated for the 2007 Foreign Language Film Academy Award. I never heard of "Matar a todos" before but it features Roxanna Blanco, the lead actress in "Alma mater," which would have fit perfectly in this sampling of fine yet unassuming assortment of art films from that country down in God-knows-where.

Here's the complete list of films:

Gigante - dir. Adrián Beniez, Friday 7pm
25 Watts - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Saturday 4:30pm
La perrera - dir. Manuel Nieto Zas, Saturday 6:50pm
El baño del Papa - dir. César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, Saturday 9:15pm
Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains - dir. Gonzalo Arijón, Sunday 4pm
Whisky - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Sunday 6:15pm
Matar a todos - dir. Esteban Schroeder, Sunday 9:15pm

Uruguayan producer/editor Fernando Epstein (who worked with Rebella and Stoll, and is a prolific producer of films both in Uruguay and Argentina) will be in attendance at some of the screenings to answer questions from the audience.