Monday 31 December 2018

Cine Latino Film Festival 2018 - Barrie Pattison contemplates what's on show from Colombia and Cuba

Editor's Note: This is the second instalment of a long report by Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison about what was on show at the recent Cine Latino Film Festival in Sydney. The first post on the films from Argentina can be found  if you click on this link 

Films from other sources were on view. How many Colombian movies have you seen - more particularly, ones that were not about shooting it out with drug cartels? That alone made Andrés Burgos’ slight, engaging Amalia la secretaria a curiosity.

Here things are not going well at the office where dumpy Marcela Benjumea is first to arrive as the shutter is rolled up in the morning. The staff excursion has been cancelled in favor of “reflective pauses” which turn out to be yoga work outs conducted by boss Diego León Hoyos’ flashy red head daughter. An aggressive staff member wants his urgent file
attended to in front of the others and she lets him take a candy that she has already licked from the glass bowl on her table.  Hoyos is going off early and Benjumea finds a revolver on his desk which she discreetly unloads. 

Things aren’t that much better at the suburban home Benjumea commutes to on the red bus. Her silent, aged mum is in the hands of a carer to whom she talks a blue streak when her daughter isn’t around and the high point of family social interaction is Benjumea digging out diseased plants in their walled in garden.

Things pick up with the appearance of hired-in maintenance man, bald and disorganised Enrique Carriazo, for whom she cuts office wiring. They get on a treat. 

He finally invites her out, with Benjumea scissoring out cardboard footprints and doing the recorded learn-to-dance routine to her mother’s scorn. That nosedives when her dance instructor takes the class to the Bohemia night club where she sees Carriazo dancing with a younger woman. She sends him on his way about the time Hoyos calls her into the office and says the company is going under. When she suggests a reorganisation selling assets to meet debts, he instead asks her to help fiddle the books. She won’t be in it and he pours her a whisky and fires her.

Her plan to visit her grown daughter in the US is scuppered because she now has no certificate of employment so she turns over the ticket to the carer, giving her the clothes she has made for the girl, and sets out for the club.

This one is predictable. We know mum is going to speak and it’s not hard to guess that perpetually scowling Benjumea is finally going to smile - rather winningly. The payoff is too slight. 

The windowless interiors and no sky exteriors do complete the gloom and the characters become endearing even if the piece goes on too long for a deliberately one note exercise. 

Interesting performers. It would be nice to see director Burgos’ Carmen Maura movie. 

A small Cuban retrospective revived that once familiar concept - Third World Cinema.  Jorge Luis Sánchez & Abrahán Rodríguez  El Benny was a patchy biography of mambo star musician Benny Moré sketchily covering his 'Banda Gigante', affairs, antagonisms, alcoholism and witch man religion. There’s been some money spent on it and the cast are
a striking looking set of people - one passably raunchy sex scene. 

Set in troubled times (“The Cubans could have cut you to pieces with their machetes”) and offering a mix to colour from B&W, it takes us into the tribulations of Moré with his wife on about “Your nights and your mistresses.” He gets off-loaded from Ulyk Anello’s Duany Radio Progresso broadcast (“They’ve just kicked me out of the best orchestra in in Cuba”) after having turned up in a rapidly assembled outfit including the shoes of the taxi driver who he then takes on as manager. 

Moré tries Mexico, earning gangster Carlos Massola’s enmity when he spends time with the heavy’s voluptuous Caracas mistress and Moré spots the cabbie’s attractive teenage niece while rehearsing in the out of doors back yard shed, causing more friction.

There’s a green looking flashback seven years to our penniless hero being taken up by the middle aged cafe woman with rolls of notes and reefer cigarettes changing hands but alienating her when he pairs with his wife to be.

A colleague wants him to play at election rallies in his rural cinema and post-coup Batista troops take out student rioters and activists throwing leaflets off roof tops. They are followed by Castro speeches on TV and guys in beards and fatigues. 

Our hero’s success and popularity is contrasted with conservatorium trained Mario Guerra’s decline after Moré fires him from the band and the two meet again when Guerra has become a bad smelling drunk to whom El Benny gives money to get himself in shape for the piano player vacancy at a cabaret. Guerra says he will use it to go to the States instead. 

The life of excess catches up with Moré and the witch man and voodoo nurse magic him. He’s told he can’t ever touch alcohol but this restraint founders and he succumbs at 43, vomiting blood. There’s a news reel obituary playing in his friend’s movie house.

The staging of the numbers ranges from a juke box accompaniment to the elaborate TV program with lines of dancing girls. Occasionally the cascading musical items build up impetus. 

Lots of wannabe-sounding dialogue “A genius does what he can. A talent does what he wants.” “Some people want to kill him with joy. Now you want to kill him with sadness.” Whatever the message may be it’s lost on an audience who don’t know the background. 

Fernando Pérez' 1990 Hello Hemingway comes from Castro’s Cuba, its content as predictable as the poverty stricken family running out of rice and beans while living near the Papa Hemingway hacienda in 1950s La Vigía district. 

Young Laura De la Uz  in the first film of a long career (later Irene inEl Benny) is the girl who wants to fulfill the dreams her literature teacher fires up in her, with a scholarship to the U.S. of the movie stars whose pictures line the green painted timber walls of her room. Reading a second hand copy of “The Old Man and the Sea”, another tale of frustration, underlines this. At one point the presence of glimpsed Hemingway looks like it will represent her salvation but he goes off to Africa, hunting lions like the ones in the old man’s visions.

Our heroine struggles to meet the qualifications for the scholarship (baptism, confirmation, reference from a teacher, new dress) because she comes from a poor public school while the other candidates are drawn from more prestigious institutions. The girl having been given up by her birth mother weighs in here. Meanwhile her putative boyfriend is on about her drawing posters for the militant student union. 

The support characters are indistinct though the three generation family is supposed to be warm hearted and nourishing. The production values are tele novella (particularly the monotonous small instrumentation score) but there is impact in the final scenes of the sympathetic teacher being thrown into the police van along with her students when she tries to protect them and  when our heroine is found when the smart dressed scholarship administrator stops on seeing her at Xmas serving behind the counter in the cheap coffee bar which has become the alternative to her dream. Their exchange is “Do you want a coffee?” 

The final image of De la Uz on the beach with the old fisherman is a try to bring the elements together.

El Traductor/ A Translator
The event also provided Rodrigo & Sebastián Barriuso’s new El Traductor/A Translator, an earnest account of 1989 Havana professor of Russian literature Rodrigo Santoro (Westworld) who finds his course cancelled and himself shuffled off to translate for Chernobyl victim children for which Cuba’s believed exemplary health system has been offered.

The predictable arc is his resentment at the disruption of his ordered academic life being replaced by sympathy for the pale, shaven headed kids.  The film does get the expected moments of pathos out of the situation and works up some suspense from the power failure where he and Argentinian nurse Maricel Álvarez (Biutiful) who has a clearer view of situation, have to break the quarantine seal to deal the power failure shutting off equipment sustaining young Nikita Semenov.

Surprisingly however the film’s emphasis is not on this but on the strain his new work patterns put on Santoro’s marriage to an art dealer who is appalled when their unattended child wanders off and leaves open her home full of valuable works. This gives the film a curious imbalance until the final title reveals that it is made by the now grown sons of the family -  which oddly make the point of view recognisable.

Cuban films made thirty years apart recognisably field the same vision of a world with screwed priorities which the Castro era tried to address and a film industry that was aware of the bad reputation of propaganda works. Not much Cuban product from any period is shown so I guess we should be grateful but I had the same reaction to both these movies - that the needs of the narrative and the message hadn’t been effectively merged, despite the attention both received.

And like the man on the TV says, there is more. 

(To be continued)

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