Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Most of us go to the movies to escape the stress, anxiety, sadness or just plain boredom of our everyday lives. And what better escapism is there? Roger Ebert once said, “Movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else's shoes. They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us.” Movies are that perfect vessel into a new reality—and the best part is they only ask for a couple hours of our precious time. But what happens when the movies aren’t enough? How far can we go to create a new reality that can exist in our already real world? Those are themes explored by some of the new films programmed at this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival, which runs from April 8th through April 21st.
The opening night selection of the festival hails from Mexico; “Illusions S.A.” (“Ilusiones S.A.”), directed by Roberto Girault, has all the fixings that a film fest programmer would want to kick things off. It’s a period piece set in the 1950s, featuring a likable ensemble, led by a very good-looking hero and heroine and heightened by a rousing musical score. In other words, it’s a low-risk crowdpleaser that gets the job done. But it’s the concept of the film that makes it interesting: an agency offers its clients the service of making their fantasy into a reality. From that logline, it sounds like an enticing Michel Gondry film, but “Illusions S.A.” is more tonally a relative to something like Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” because of its message of the bonds of a family, and how we must sometimes deceive each other in the stories we tell in order to keep the family unit together.
In “Illusions S.A.” an upper class grandfather (Robert D’Amico) is afraid that his wife (Silvia Mariscal) will fall ill due to the devastation of learning that their estranged grandson (who ran away twenty years ago) died in a ship sinking accident. So the grandfather hires this agency out of Campeche, Mexico to send in its Director (Jamie Camil) and new player recruit Isabel (Adriana Louvier) to pretend to be his long lost grandson and his grandson’s lovely new wife—all in anticipation of their much-delayed homecoming. The film teeters between a playful “when will these players get caught?” tease and then threatens to veer into total sappy, love story-territory (roll your eyes at yourself if you can’t see Camil falling in real life love with Louvier eventually). But the implications of fear of facing mortality and, even worse, turning your back on one’s own blood for the sake of artificial happiness, are provocative; ultimately this is a story of a grandmother being lied to and her husband knowingly creating a false world around her simply to shield her from pain. And because of this ruse, the agency players will always have one foot outside the alternate reality bubble; so the question is, why suffer through all the trouble? An early exchange of dialogue between two agency players cynically comments on that notion: “It doesn’t matter if YOUR smile is not real. What matters is that HIS smile is real.” In other words: Don’t kill my new reality, man.
Costa Rica’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned”), directed by Esteban Ramírez, takes a subtler, more everyday approach to this idea of creating a new reality. In “Presos” Victoria (Natalia Arias) is dragging her feet through the domestic trials towards adulthood. A high school dropout who’s living with her parents, the film opens with Victoria leaving night class and staying up late at a nightclub for her friend’s birthday—all while accompanied by her doting boyfriend Emanuel (Daniel Marin). After landing a steady office assistant job under the management of her appealing boss (Alejandro Aguilar), Victoria eventually finds herself in a phone-pal prison romance with her boss’ close family friend Jason (Leynar Gomez). Jason is in jail for manslaughter and it isn’t long before Victoria is sneaking around her boyfriend and her parents to secretly visit Jason in prison.
This notion of secret infidelity and under-the-radar interactions isn’t anything new; lots of people carry this narrative out everyday without blinking. Nine times out of ten, when a person is caught cheating, they’ll admit that they had hoped to keep both worlds existing as long possible. In “Presos” we begin to peel back the layers into why an individual might need deception and isolation as part of their daily routine: Victoria drops hints of her father being a deadbeat dad when she was young, the predictability of her boyfriend’s courtship becomes cringe-inducing, the stress of never making enough money is suffocating and there's the inescapable feeling that this is all one’s life has summed up to. So why not have a little fun and take some risks to see what might be out there? You only live once, so why not try to live as many different lives in that one lifetime?
Finally, there’s the Uruguayan documentary “Preso” (“Prisoner”), directed by Ana Tipa. This extremely watchable and fascinating piece of work follows Miguel, a tired but hard working father and husband. During the week, Miguel is breaking his back working manual labor on Uruguay’s largest prison construction site. With whatever free time he has at home, he’s using his hands and the help of friends to build extra rooms and extensions for his home, where his mother, wife and two children live. It’s a rudimentary life, to be sure. But Miguel comes across as loving and responsible. Then we see him leave on a weekend … to visit the home of his lover, where it’s revealed he has a small child with her (there are children in her home, whom I’m assuming are from previous relationships). As the edges of the narrative frame widen, we see that Miguel’s life perhaps wasn’t so rudimentary to begin with: He decided long ago to have this girlfriend on the side and even co-parent a child with her on the weekends. In fact, Miguel’s alternate “real life” has become so commonplace and domestic to even his primary family, his wife is numb to his cell phone constantly ringing with calls from the other woman.
There’s an especially powerful scene where Miguel visits his daughter in the hospital after her surgery and he’s nonchalantly texting his girlfriend while his wife stands on the opposite side of their daughter’s bed. But this isn’t a finger-pointing type of film. It simply observes, as the best documentaries do, with a real warmth and lovingness to the people; there’s the pulse of documentarian Albert Maysles in a lot of the scenes. A potently ironic scene shows Miguel’s children in the backyard listening to a song that sings, “You hide yourself, you cheat, you conceal the truth; the lies keep you trapped and don’t let you breathe,” all while he continues to lay brick for their new bedroom. But Miguel isn’t a bad person. We see him internally struggling with how he can make both of his realities co-exist. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but each world has grown so big, that they’re now inexorably going to collide at some point.
A striking scene at Christmas shows an emotional Miguel cry into shoulders of his brother-in-law and he tells him, “Thank you for accepting me despite my actions.” Tipa’s film also is strengthened by her appreciation and documenting of Uruguay itself. There are some ripe passages here, from something as simple as Miguel’s lover explaining the outdated wiring rigging she had to learn for her wooden home to Miguel’s countryside visit for a dinner that includes the killing and skinning of a lamb. These episodes are at once piercing and poignant. They help lend the quiet urgency towards Miguel’s yearning for a new reality—or at least his attempt to maintain the two very serious worlds he’s already manifested. What Miguel, and in many cases us, must soon learn is that our own personal reality is never really little or boring or sad. As a matter of fact, if we’re lucky, our reality affects lots of people, as family or friendship connects them to it. So when we strive to create our alternate reality, or double life, we must bear that responsibility and take those individuals into consideration.
Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
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