Thanks to the rich Mexican and Spanish Colonial cultural roots of its home city, it’s only appropriate that the San Francisco International Film Festival highlight some of the best work coming out of Latin America. These six films represent the range and potential of contemporary Latina American cinema with a particular emphasis on chronicling and examining the processes of becoming that underlie identity. The films also represent a decent geographic spread (the unfortunate absence of films from Central America aside). Mostly gritty, sometimes lighthearted, these films are intimate portrayals of the struggles that make us human.
Set in Colombia, director William Vega’s story about a teen girl who finds a new life at her uncle’s remote guesthouse in the Andean highlands is a striking portrait of youth blossoming into adulthood under extraordinarily uncertain and absurd conditions. Though Alicia (Joghis Seudin Arias) is a tough young woman, her life at her Tio Oscar’s (Julio César Roble) guesthouse is punctuated by moments of surprising tenderness. La Sirga is a coming-of-age tale situated firmly in a very adult world. As the reality of the national situation closes in ever tighter on Alicia and those around her, we know that this story is the tragic Latin American sort, not the chipper fairytale sort. It’s precisely this unabashed examination of how stories really end that makes La Sirga such a striking and intimate film. The movie received honorable mention by the jury for the New Director’s Prize.
Habi, the Foreigner
This delightful coming-of-age tale set in Argentina combines serious themes of how identities are developed and how relationships are forged without losing the sense of wonder that Amalia (Martina Juncadella) feels when she stumbles into a new life in Buenos Aires. Written and directed by María Florencia Álvarez, Habi, the Foreigner offered an interesting exegesis on what it means to be our true, ‘authentic’ selves. After she wonders into a mosque, Amalia adopts the identity of a young Argentina-born Lebanese woman. While she finds freedom and the ability to truly be herself in her new role, she also learns that identities are fraught with complications, especially when she begins to form new relationships with a grocer’s son and a middle-aged tenant in her building. Enjoyable from beginning to end, Habi, the Foreigner was in contention for the New Director’s Prize.
This contemplation on the relationship between life and death is an admirable first effort from director Enrique Rivera. Margarita Saldaño is a joy to watch as she executes the role of Chavo in a stoic, sensitive fashion. Returning to her home in the southern Mexican village of Xochimilco isn’t easy for Chavo, who must witness her 99-year-old mother’s slide to death. Chavo also must navigate her relationship with her estranged husband and her two children, who she rarely sees. Away from the pressure of her city job, Chavo finally has the time to reflect on why she is who she is. Rivera executes his vision with dream-like tones and dashes of magical realism that come only in dreams.
To see After Lucia in the theatre was almost too much. The visceral imagery and emotional tension built by director Michel Franco were deeply affecting. After his wife dies, Roberto (Hernan Mendoza) and his daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ia) move from their home in Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. Father and daughter are close but struggle to communicate. The beginning is a bit slow, then the film suddenly shifts from being a regular story of how two people deal with grief to a haunting story about how grief affects relationships. Alejandra becomes the victim of vicious bullies at school, but she seems unable to tell her father. After Lucia was hard to watch, which is likely what makes it seem like such an important movie to see. We get the sense that the struggles of Alejandra are probably experienced by more young women than we would like to think.
This delightfully quirky film received an honorable mention from the jury for the New Director’s Prize; it was most certainly deserved. Set in Lima, The Cleaner is the story of forensic clean-up worker Eusebio (Victor Prada), who spends his days cleaning up after the victims of a mysterious pandemic. Director Adrián Saba shows us a fascinating vision of a metropolitan emptied by a mysterious, probably airborne disease. In the course of his duties, Eusebio finds young Joaquin (Adrian Du Bois) hiding in a closet after his mother’s death. The pair navigate the deserted streets, leading to a quiet closeness that only grief can bring. This is an apocalyptic story unlike others, focusing on deep, inner emotions instead of outer destruction.
Alicia Scherson’s Il Futuro is adapted from the novella by Robert Bolaño and is rife with the author’s sensibilities. A very different coming of age tale, Il Futuro is the story of two teens in Italy who are orphaned when their parents die in a car crash. With their only family in Chile, they must find a way to make a life for themselves. Bianca (Manuela Martini) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) live relatively dull lives until Tomas brings two bodybuilder friends home. The group hatches a plot to steal money from a former Mister Universe and movie star called Maciste (Rutger Hauer). As Bianca gain’s Maciste’s trust, she begins to realize that becoming an adult is much more complex than it seems. Ultimately, the film is touching and can speak to the experiences of a diverse group of viewers.