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Bursting Through Border Walls: The 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival

At last week’s industry soirée in anticipation of the 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival, festival Founder Pepe Vargas reminded us all that his goal with the festival was to always help “elevate” the city’s Latino community by providing a vital platform to annually showcase voices in Latin American cinema. I have to admit that Vargas’ words struck a deeper chord with me for a number of reasons. First, I’ve been attending the Chicago Latino Film Festival for many years, long before covering the festival for this site. Secondly, I was bittersweet about this year’s fest, as I knew I’d be leaving Chicago—the city I was born and raised in—for an opportunity to pursue other career ventures in Los Angeles. So, Vargas’ words hit me especially hard because as a Chicago Latino in love with film, I felt I had a responsibility to dig a little deeper into the festival, to unearth films that weren’t marquee titles and to always remind the public that this isn’t just any old film festival. 

The Chicago Latino Film Festival is a serious and thoughtful festival, one that considers the cultural climate when it curates its film selections and overall voice. Consider: this year’s festival’s poster (created by Jorge Pomareda) depicts a strip of motion picture film stock bursting through what is obviously the Mexican border, hammering home the idea that no wall or obstruction (or Administration for that matter) can keep out the compelling voices and stories coming from Latin America. Running from April 5th through April 19th at the AMC River East 21 movie theatre in downtown Chicago, the 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival looks to once again be the beacon of light for the Latino artistic community. Here are some selections to look out for this year.

First up is Costa Rica’s “Violeta Al Fin (Violeta At Last),” the second feature length film from director Hilda Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s film follows seventy-something Violeta (Eugenia Chaverri) and her journey to start anew after getting recently divorced. When we meet Violeta it’s during a water aerobics class for senior citizens, a playful sequence that unexpectedly turns darkly humorous once Violeta challenges herself to hold her breath under water for a long time. The image will prove prophetic in that Violeta soon finds herself under the weight and suffocation of losing her house, which she inherited from her parents and grandparents, due to an ill-advised business venture that her ex-husband pursued behind her back. 

To help with the financial woes Violeta comes up with the idea of renting an empty room out of her house. Ironically enough, the new tenant ends up being her very own swimming instructor Francisco (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), though Hidalgo is wise not to turn this into a May-December romance. Rather, Hidalgo is more interested in the unnerving and all too common muting of older Latina matriarchs. You see, Violeta just wants to live her life, plant her garden and do recreational swimming but instead, her yearnings are silenced by societal setbacks: Her adult kids aren’t supportive of her keeping the house (they’d rather her sell it since most of them are in debt anyway), the church she attends won’t let her receive Communion because divorce is frowned upon there and the bank won’t lend her a loan because she’s already missed the window of opportunity, but that’s just code for them not wanting to entrust their money in the hands of a woman her age. 

Violeta’s quiet struggle in “Violeta Al Fin” is a common occurrence for many older women who are on their own in real life. The subtle power of Hidalgo’s film lies in its clever open-ended third act that will have you wanting to check in on your mother or grandmother to see how things are going and if she needs anything.

Next up is Mexico’s “Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid),” a real striking piece of genre work from director Issa López that’s already been lauded by Stephen King. Set in the Cartel-run streets of Mexico, “Vuelven” follows a group of recent young orphans (most of their parents or relatives were killed by Cartel members) as they try to stick together and survive the dangerous forces, some supernatural, out to find them. 

At first glance this might look like another gritty street movie of rough kids losing to the systemic drug and gang war but López soon turns up the visual pastiche into something really unexpected and special. How can I best describe the fantastic images this film conjures up? Imagine if the mystical creatures from a Guillermo del Toro film had suddenly possessed graffiti street artworks, making them come alive with wonder and terror. The masterstroke here is that while we’re worried for this band of young kids to survive the violence of the streets they sleep in, they entertain each other with fairy tales and bedtime stories of tigers and princes, blurring the line of what is real and what is not. Halfway through the film I didn’t care if the fantastical manifestations I was looking at were real or just in the kids’ heads—I was hooked and emotionally invested. Credit to López and her team of artists (especially the sound department) for making a film that defies genre categorization. This is the children’s version of “Annihilation,” a bold and visually inventive plunge into despair, depression and coping with guilt. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Issa López.

Finally, there’s Cuba’s “Últimos días en La Habana (Last Days in Havana),” a special work of art that sometimes times feels like non-fiction. Director Fernando Pérez paints a colorful and instantly inviting world in a lively neighborhood in Havana. Our protagonist is the quiet Miguel (Patricio Wood), a dishwasher who has eyes his fixed on U.S. news stations in the kitchen TV. Miguel is tall, handsome and has an imposing body frame; if it wasn’t for his glum attitude and slouching shoulders, he could pass for a Cuban Robert Mitchum. Miguel is spending his days doing thankless work at the restaurant that employs him, squirreling away money with the hopes of one day moving to the United States, because life always seems greener on the other side. The two most important daily events for Miguel are asking the neighbors if the mail came (since he’s waiting for his Visa) and checking in on his surrogate roommate and childhood friend Diego (Jorge Martínez) who is dying with AIDS. 

As Diego, Martinez steals the film with passion and fiery wit to spare. Everything Diego says has an urgency and phonetic poetry to it. He may be the one physically dying but his heart is alive. It’s an intended contrast to the almost non-speaking Miguel (Diego lovingly calls him “Migue”), who speaks volumes with the deep sadness in his eyes. How these two men have ended up with each other I’ll leave for you to discover but a wildcard is thrown into the mix when Diego’s young and rambunctious niece Yusi (Gabriela Ramos) ends up staying with the pair. In the end, “Últimos días” is about following through on change, no matter how scary that change may be. For Diego, it’s death. For Miguel, it’s going to America. For Yusi, it’s as simple as going back home, although she’s very aware of the melting pot that is the Cuba that bore her. Near the end of the film, in a very Demme-like gesture, Yusi looks directly at the camera and says, “I’m not afraid of the world going to end right now. What really scares me is that the world may go on as it is.” This is one of the year’s best films and is another reason why the Chicago Latino Film Festival should forever be one of the lead curators and cultivators of voices in Latin American cinema.

As a lifelong Chicagoan and Latino, the festival certainly means the world to me.

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