When Alfonso Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar for his groundbreaking work in "Gravity" earlier this year, he not only made history by becoming the first Hispanic filmmaker to win an Academy Award for directing—he also cemented himself as a gateway artist for American mainstream English-speaking audiences to discover lesser known avenues of Latin American cinema; a whole new wave of moviegoers are now going to back into his filmography, and will discover titles and themes from a different cultural context (namely a vision that isn’t the direct by-product of Hollywood). Cuarón’s roots are in the fiercely independent Mexican cinema movement, especially highlighted by his earlier films "Sólo Con Tu Pareja" and "Y Tu Mamá También", and the Latin American cinematic discourse as a whole has been flourishing at a rapid pace in the years since his 1991 feature film debut. Which is why the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival takes on even more precedence this year. Spanning from April 3rd through April 17th in downtown Chicago, the CLFF continues its march forward with curating a truly diverse program that ranges from semi-mainstream commercial films to more humble, micro-budget independent films from all of the Latin Americas and Spain. Here’s a preview of some of the films at the year’s fest:
Mexico’s "Levantamuertos (Death of the Ordinary)" describes itself as a dark comedy but it plays more like a morose and cynical short film that was thinned out to a sleepy 82-minutes. It’s not necessarily a terrible film—it just doesn’t know how to drive home its themes of social anxiety, relationship struggles and the quest for self-fulfillment. The story follows Ivan, a quiet bachelor who works in a coroner’s office and splits his time between (subtly) hitting on the cashier at his local liquor store and hanging out alone in his apartment, sometimes doing things that are best left to be seen on screen. During a night of drinking at a local watering hole, Ivan meets the voluptuous Rosa and after an unsuccessful try at having sex in Ivan’s car, the pair agrees to get a motel downtown. That’s when director Miguel Nunez stages an exceptionally uncomforting scene, as Rosa insists that Ivan continually hit her in the face during intercourse. What should’ve followed as a twisted tale of guilt ends up being a meandering, marginal character study: Ivan gives blank looks to the people around him and occasionally questions the merits of himself and his career. However, there is a running gag in the second half of the film that involves a pig, which Ivan cares for in his apartment. There are some interesting moments there, between Ivan and the pig, as we get a sneak peek into the seriousness of his self-inflected isolation from the world. But the pig needs its own movie.
The Argentinean documentary "El Árbol De La Muralla (The Tree That Grows On The Wall)" tells the interesting story of Jack Fuchs, a Polish survivor from the Holocaust who uprooted to Argentina and continues to live there nearly 40 years later. Speaking fluent Spanish, Jack engages with filmmaker Tomás Lipgot in a series of talking head interviews (mostly in his living room) that reveal an unusual level of comfort between interviewee and interviewer. In fact, Lipgot implies that each interview segment could’ve possibly been lost had he not already been engaged in a philosophical discussion or a related topical question with Jack; there are a couple of moments when the camera is hastily readjusted for framing and there is also a scene where the boom operator is revealed during a resetting of a shot. Visually though, that’s all there is: a talking head. There are some animation sequences depicting Jack’s horrific memories of the concentration camps but they aren’t played to a powerful effect; they are more distracting than anything. A more tactful conceit would’ve been to go smaller in concept, like the still clay figures in the quietly moving Oscar nominee "The Missing Picture". The more striking moments come in archival footage of Jack, like a scene where he is standing on the streets of the ghetto, sadly admitting to the camera that to this day, he cannot remember his younger sister’s face. In the end, "El Árbol" is a satisfying film, a cathartic discussion on the merits of memory and the art of sustaining a positive spirit.
"Por Amor En El Caserío (For Love In The Caserio)" is a bright and cheery production, even though it falls into pits of afterschool special TV drama. Set on location in Puerto Rico’s largest public housing project, the Luis Llorens Torres, "Por Amor" is a contemporary, loose riff on “Romeo & Juliet” but its real draw is its non-professional cast of actors, many of whom actually live in the housing project. When Angelo moves back in with his family in the Caserio, he finds himself in the crosshairs of doom: he falls in love with Cristal, a pretty theatre student who happens to be connected to the rival gang that Angelo has already (if not enthusiastically) aligned himself with. Although the story is predictable (hello, Shakespeare) and the melodrama kicks into cheesy high gear near the end, the enthusiastic feelings and charisma from this cast is pretty infectious and they are fun to watch in their day to day banter amongst neighbors, friends and rivals. It’s a harmless piece of work and is a small win for low-budget, communal filmmaking.
Finally, there’s Costa Rica’s "Agua Bendita (Holy Water)", which looks at the displaced Nicaraguans who live in a small village within the Costa Rican border, after fleeing the Sandinista Revolution. Shot on what looks to be the Panasonic AG-HVX200 camera, "Agua Bendita" almost looks like a Dogme 95 (the avant-garde style created by Lars Von Trier) film, with its handheld camera movements, use of the location’s natural light and its genre-less tone. But this movie wasn’t shot on 35mm film. Still, it plays out like Von Trier’s "Dogville", in that it looks closely and purely at the inhabitants of a community and their struggle with a coming crisis. In "Dogville", Nicole Kidman’s character was on a run from the mob and therefore she introduced chaos into that town; in "Agua Bendita", a pending drought will put these villagers in serious depravity, with the possibility of fatal results, unless they can successfully bring an affordable aqueduct to the village. Jumping back and forth between the villagers’ own testimonial asides and the “story” playing out, "Agua Bendita" emerges as a message movie—but a potent one. Living in a great city like Chicago, with Lake Michigan as a massive water resource, it can be easy to dismiss or even be unaware of a larger portion of the world’s struggle to gain access to drinking and cleaning water. In "Agua Bendita", the vitality of water is re-contextualized for the eyes of American viewers. There is a key scene between two children that stresses this. As a little boy prepares to kill an insect, a young girl advises: “It’s better if you let it go.” The boy responds: “With so many [insects], I don’t think that for one the world will end.” The girl then says: “No. But if you get this you will always want to get more.” It’s that kind of moment that will have viewers studying the theater’s bathroom sinks closely while they wash their hands after the film’s festival screening.
It’s the kind of eye-opening worldly view that Chicago Latino Film Festival has consistently brought back to our attention, year after year.