Festival Review: Latin Wave 2012

Miss Bala

Breaking away from Latin Wave’s tradition of acting as the Houston premiere of the newest Latin American cinema, festival director Monika Wagenberg brought back Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, which already had a short run at Sundance Cinemas in January, to a full house at the MFAH. Studiously filmed and edited, the Mexican film about an aspiring beauty queen, who is inadvertently dragged into the violent world of Tijuana cartels, is an express train to hell for its protagonist Laura, played by the promising Stephanie Sigman. The film shows a glimpse of depth in its portrayal of Laura’s fight for survival in a ruthless world where she was used as nothing more than an instrument of the operation. It is a shame that Naranjo’s mise en scène leaves little room for the performance and the story to expand beyond its high-octane panic attack.

In comparison, Pablo Giorgelli’s Las acacias operates in a cinema language from the other extreme—minimal dialogue, very little action and lots of close-ups. As a favor to his employer, a middle-aged truck driver gives a woman a ride as he transports a load of lumber from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. What he did not know at the time of the agreement is that the woman, Jacinta, is bringing her five-month-old baby along. The reserved man begrudgingly honors the agreement as he slowly warms up to the mother and daughter. There are no surprises in the story and very little about the two characters is revealed in their sparse conversation, but Las acacias is the rare pleasure that nails down all these simple elements to make it a touching piece of cinema.

Speaking of masculinity, Colombian director Carlos Osuna builds his film Fat, Bald, Short Man around one man’s insecurities. The titular character, Antonio, is all of the above in addition to his reputation as a pushover among his co-workers and family. Resigned to his pitiful existence, Antonio begins to see a ray of hope when the office’s new boss happens to look just like him, yet the assertive executive is well-respected among his peers. Osuna’s rotoscope animation is lo-fi and barebone but its aesthetics suits well with the film’s offbeat humor.

In Santiage Mitre’s El estudiante, a handsome college student, Roque (Esteban Lamothe) gradually recognizes that his masculine charm is a formidable asset when it comes to maneuvering in the world of university politics. Like many films that hinge on fictional politics, the Argentine feature can be confusing to follow at times and its ability to engage hinges largely on the dynamics between the characters.

Bonsái

My pick for the surprise hit of this year’s Latin Wave is Bonsái, a quirky romance directed by Chilean filmmaker Cristián Jiménez, who adapted the story from his countryman Alejandro Zambra’s novella of the same name. Bookshop clerk Julio (Diego Noguera) attempts to impress his neighbor/causal lover Blanca (Trinidad González) with news that he has been hired to be the assistant of a famous writer named Gazmuri (Hugo Medina). But when the job offer does not come through, Julio is too embarrassed to confess and decides to write a novel, which he presents to Blanca as if it was Gazmuri’s work. Cornered to come up with a story, Julio begins to recount his relationship with his college girlfriend Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) from eight years ago.

At a time when “quirky” has become an insufferable cliché in cinema, Jiménez keeps quirkiness at a relatively harmless level while displaying a healthy sense of self-awareness. Bonsái makes no secret that the two young lovebirds are pretentious college kids from the start—Julio and Emilia lie to each other about reading Proust when they first meet and they read pages of acclaimed literature at their bedside every night even though they couldn’t care less about paying attention in class. Jiménez does not shy away from lampooning his characters’ antics while his willingness to let them stumble along the way in this awkward romance opens up the kind of emotional connection that has eluded many contemporary films.

¡Vivan las antipodas!, the intercontinental visual essay directed by Victor Kossakovsky, stands out as the only non-narrative feature in the lineup. Antipodes, by definition, are places located diametrically opposite to each other on the globe. The film captures the lives in four different pairs of antipodes. The initial pair—a barren Argentine village and the bustling city of Shanghai— offers a sharp contrast with some remarkable cinematography. As the film introduces the other antipodes, we are exposed to a variety of interesting landscapes but there is not much substantial to be made out of the images. Overall, it is a film that starts off with a fascinating concept but the resulting film is quite bland and disappointing.

The Bad Intentions, which is this year’s most polished commercial film, tells the story of eight-year-old Cayetana (Fatima Buntinx), who is gravely jealous of her mother’s unborn baby. With Peru’s 1980s political turmoil as the backdrop, writer-director Rosario Garcia-Montero’s debut feature is darkly humorous and Buntinx impresses in her performance as a bewildered child who has worries beyond her years. Another debut feature—Julia Murat’s Found Memories— finds the elderly inhabitants of a desolated village reluctantly open up to a young photographer who is fascinated by the quiet lives they lead. The poetic and serene Brazilian film was a befitting windup for the four-day long festival.

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