Bad Times Mean Good Films at Neighboring Scenes, a Showcase of New Latin American Cinema

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Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema
January 7-10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Amidst grim news trickling in from Latin America, from Brazil’s slumped economy, budget cuts and scandals to fears that other countries, from Argentina and Venezuela to Mexico, are unable to tackle their corrupt political systems, Latin American film nevertheless continues its steady rise against all odds, garnering prizes at major international festivals. This year, Neighboring Scenes, a new festival at The Film Society of Lincoln Center co-presented with Cinema Tropical, showcases some of the finest recent Latin American productions. And while most reflect the woes that plague the individual countries, their cumulative creative force is undeniable.

When it showed in New Directors/New Films in 2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s fiction feature Neighboring Sounds (2012), echoed in the new festival’s title, heralded a potential turning point for Brazil’s filmmaking. Since then, films such as David Preto’s Castanha (2014), which screened at The Film Society in the Art of the Real festival, and now Hopefuls (2015), directed by Ives Rosenfeld, have signaled the region’s filmmakers interest in more ample, aesthetically rigorous storytelling. In Hopefuls, two best friends, Junior and Bento (Ariclenes Barroso and Sergio Malheiros), prepare for try-outs for a professional soccer league. But Junior’s focus is diverted by his working nights and by the pressures of starting a family. Unprepared and envious of Bento, who has higher odds at success, Junior sabotages his best friend. Although the theme of a young soccer aspirant is all too common in Brazil, Rosenfeld sets his film apart through keen choreography and an ability to build psychological tension by showing the players’ physical efforts.

Close to Hopefuls in carefully modulated naturalism is Rodrigo Plá’s A Monster with a Thousand Heads, which highlights the disastrous state of healthcare in Mexico, but echoes similar concerns in countries across Latin America and in the United States. In the film, Sonia (Jana Raluy), a desperate wife to a terminally ill patient who has been denied a crucial drug to ease pain, starts out on a perilous journey. With her teenage son, Sonia threatens and then kidnaps the doctor and the insurance policy officials involved in her husband’s case. From one fatal mistake to another, Plá’s masterfully executed plot is alternatively a thriller and a grueling procedural, showing the pettiness and avarice of insurance companies, either oblivious or abusive of human suffering. Raluy’s stellar performance as Sonia, a woman whose desperation prepares her for anything, and whose missteps create an irreversible domino effect, drives this quietly nerve-wrecking drama.

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Illness and medical malfeasance also feature in Colombian César Acevedo’s Land and Shade (2015), winner of the Camera d’Or in Cannes, and in Guatemalan Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul (2015). When I first saw Acevedo’s fiction debut at the International Film Festival in São Paulo, the filmmaker mentioned that the key to his film was shooting on location with sugar cane workers in the Valle del Cauca, a region he knew from childhood. The challenge pays off handsomely: Land and Shade includes stunning photography of backbreaking labor, with portraits of laborers whose finely chiseled features and unadorned directness recall in their austerity Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, or Sebastião Salgado’s goldmine portfolio. Acevedo keeps his storytelling low-key, centering the story on Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), a young cane worker struck by lung illness, and on his old father, Alfonso (Haimer Leal), who comes to stay with the family and becomes a guiding figure to his grandson and his daughter-in-law, desperate to move away, in search of an easier life. When the women in the family, including Geraldo’s embittered, abandoned ex-wife, join the sugar cane workers in protesting delayed pay, they are ruthlessly eliminated as being the weakest amongst the lot. Amidst such reprisals, the faint touches of poetry, like the grimly blazing fields, or the appearance of a wild horse, infuse the picture with momentary magical realism.

A similar mythical infusion marks Ixcanul, another tale of a family torn apart, yet strong in the face of hardship. In the film, a daring peasant girl, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) picks a local boy, Pepe, to lose her virginity to, in spite of her family’s wooing an older suitor. Maria’s will to experience passion rather than to better her family’s standing appears unbent, until she realizes she is pregnant. Pressured by her father, and about to be cast out from the land, Maria nevertheless decides to keep the baby. The film’s most powerful scenes show the closeness of mother and daughter, building up to Maria’s desperate ploy to save her family’s home: assisted by a shaman, she gambles her and her baby’s life by walking the fields infested by snakes, in hope that her pregnancy will scare them off. Stunning cinematography, carefully honed scenes of Mayan customs and an occasional touch of fancy animate this drama that, similarly to Land and Shade, or to A Monster with a Thousand Heads, explores how the destitute are ruthlessly rid of their rights.

Perhaps the boldest film showing Latin America’s plights is Arturo Ripstein’s aptly titled Bleak Street (opening later this month at Film Forum), based on a true crime and scripted by Ripstein’s wife, Paz Alicia Garciadiego. In the film, twin Lilliputian wrestlers (Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo López), going by the names AK47 and Little Death, are killed in a shabby Mexican hotel. Their killers turn out to be two hard-on-their-luck middle-aged prostitutes, Adela (Nora Velazquez) and Dora (Patricia Reyes Spíndola), one stranded with an elderly mother too frail to beg in the streets, and the other burdened by a husband who sneaks off in her best dress to trysts with young boys. Miserable and betrayed, the two lifelong friends become murderers by accident, and then botch up their escape. Shot in fluid Steadicam, and in lush black-and-white, which at times perfectly captures the neorealist grit and, at other times, makes for highly theatrical, occasionally darkly comic, scenes—somewhere between Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies—this is the one masterpiece in the series that feels as humorous as it does deadly serious, not afraid to poke fun at its protagonists’ foolishness, while it also doles out a fare share of empathy for their misshapen lives.

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