Before anyone got too settled in their anticipations, we were shown Javier Izquierdo’s Equadorian Un Secreto en la Caja an account of neglected Marcelo Chiriboga (1933-1990), the country’s member of the South American literary “boom” (Garcia Márquez, Vargas Lllosa, Carlos Fuentes etc.) and author of the controversial 1968 “The Imaginary Line” evoking the unresolved frontier between Ecuador and Peru after their war.
For someone like myself, who is bone ignorant of South American history, it took a while to figure that it was a mockumentary.
The film is playfully Brechtian (is this the first time these words were butted together?) describing boom writers concocting an imaginary author hoax or putting up a distorting black and white VHS of Chiriboga’s one surviving interview which they offer as contradiction to those who suggest he may never have existed. Purported former associates José Ignacio Donoso and Antonio Ordóñez conduct an earnest discussion in el Café Amazonas, taking about Marques and Fuentes getting into a drunken punch up at a wedding and the now dead subject’s purported daughter does an interview in English from her home in America. To round it out they show an awful clip from a Spaghetti western director’s adaptation of “The Imaginary Line.”
Some of the genuine Hispanics present were fooled, not unlike the way Peter Jackson’s 1995 Forgotten Silver had people calling me when it finished on air, to ask whether that was a fake. Actor credits on the end here were a really good clue.
Maybe it’s not as funny as it needs to be but Un Secreto en la Caja does have an intriguing value in making an outside spectator ponder its authenticity with no clues beyond film form. It confirms that this is actually an important and undervalued skill.
Of course we can’t win them all and the event put up a murky full screen version of Augusto Tamayo San Román’s Una sombra al frente/Crossing a Shadow/A Shadow to the Front from Peru.
A promising opening with Diego Bertie narrating “My father was an engineer, a builder of roads - like me” over Arturo Muñoz Prato as his character young, being handed a pistol by mother Milena Alvato to stop the native help deserting when his father dies on their expedition. “You are now the man of the family.” Her forbidding character runs through the story without actually doing anything.
Comes 1907 and Bertie grown is in the lush jungle. “We need to clear the same ten mile of road again and again.” Comfort comes in the form of Indian foreman’s daughter Nidia Bermejo, the first of a number of appealing young women who get naked in our hero’s bed. His river bridge fails in a flood and he’s ordered back to Lima by the new government.
Bertie encounters his family, mother (“Even if you are far away, you are the support of living siblings”), sisters and dissident brother Gonzalo Molina. His squeeze here is dignified Vanessa Saba, the only performer to suggest talent. However, Bertie sails off to Spain, with another tootsie comforting him on the ship.
On his return, he finds his radio masts project is under the control of Carlos Carlín the new Secretary of Communication, an old adversary become Saba’s husband. Official refusals cut to a couple of workmen carrying girders have to stand in for progress. Despite opposition our hero builds the two transmitters that he claims are all that are needed to provide Morse communication with vast Amazonia and its resources.
A personal production five years in preparation and dealing with director Tamayo San Román’s own grandfather, it offers South American Telenovella production values. They run to elaborate costumes, a thin supply of extras and dreadful effects work for the bridge collapse or the train in the jungle.
And to make things like a real film festival, we were shown José Miguel González Bolaños’ Costa Rican Espejismo/Mirage, a piece that needs the life support of that environment. The film offers the mix of pretension and gloom recognisable from Maya Deren, early Ingmar Bergman or Memento without suggesting any more substance than they did.
In another murky transfer, disturbed artist Abelardo Vladich is confronted by his childhood self, friend Luis Andrés Solano Rodriguez and his girlfriend Liz Rojas Rodríguez (good) trying to help, a mall carousel in a power failure and a white S Board with a bathtub which ends up on the beach with the rotted fish, where his parents drowned before they were interred at the white tiled cemetery. Deliberately confusing and never suggesting a substantial author’s vision, this one does have some interest as one of the few films from its country that have had a sub-titled screening here.
And keeping the best to last, we come to actor Fernán Mirás’ (notable in Marcelo Piñeyro’s Tango feroz: la leyenda de Tanguito 1993) first film as director, the 2017 Argentinian El peso de la ley/The Heavy Hand of the Law, a genuinely remarkable legal drama.
This one kicks off with Gloria Soriano as young real life law student Paola Barrientos, defending her bar accreditation (“Why do you want to be a lawyer?”) in front of imposing Professor María Onetto. The girl is so delighted being told she’s already passed that she misses the fact that the lift shaft is open and tumbles - lying helpless on her back at its bottom.
A caption tells us that it’s years later (actually the time of the Argentinian Junta) and a couple of scruffy rural bridge workers have to walk back because the police car with them has broken down. After drinking in a local bar we hear that one has been subject to male rape and his brother is taking him to the local cops for retribution, which the brother sees as ending with them owning the house belonging to “Gringo” the accused man.
The cops subject the victim to humiliating “doggy style” photos and a mental competence test rushed through in the school room, all using battered seventies technology.
The case catches up with Soriano now a public defender in the dim court house basement which other workers only visit because they think there’s a lavatory there. She is buried in her back load but this case catches the attention of her grubby clerk Dario Barassi because of the twelve year penalty demanded on flimsy evidence.
Informally she approaches the prosecutor, her former idol Onetto, outside a hearing and is made to stand despite her disability, by the official who is dismissive of a bottom feeder interfering in one of her cases. The disillusion here immediately clues us in that this movie is something out of the ordinary.
Challenged to get on with her job and stop worrying her betters, Soriano visits her client in the cells. He insults her infirmity and demands a man lawyer. The only reason she persists to the point where she realises his abysmal ignorance is that the turnkey called to let her out is too busy and leaves the pair together long enough for her to sustain questioning.
She sets out for the rural scene of the crime, being dumped by the red bus with the rusty roof in the trackless woods where she has no idea where to go and the only local about to guide her loses her in the trees. The difficulty of her moving about in the hostile environment is a key element - the two cars that pass her walking on the road, the victim with his red wheel barrow.
The bar there is not a place for women and they treat her gruffly. The woman administering the psychiatric tests is incompetent and disinterested and the arresting copper has designs on the prisoner’s wife. The police don’t want Soriano to speak to locals like the victim’s garage owner employer. Throw in a racket on cop car repairs recalling Tropa da elite.
The more she probes, the more Soriano senses the farcical injustice which will land her client in a jail where he has already been beaten - and the more the audience can see the outline ofAnatomy of a Murderprotruding through the heches real(a season like this lands you with some broken Spanish) story. The reason that this is not predictably clichéd is that the viewers, like Sorianio, can take the time to see through the confusion.
Back in Buenos Aires, Onetto is up for judge and she doesn’t want any low pay public defender smudging her record so she calls in a favor from her old friend Judge Dario Grandinetti, from Almodovar’s films, the only familiar name in the credits.
One of the nicest developments is that it’s not the lawyers who sort this out but the film’s nohopers. The shot of the victim and Soriano’s clerk sitting waiting on the bench outside Grandinetti’s chambers is one of the film’s rousing moments.
Grandinetti making the problems goes away is a nice pieces of writing - like the description of the prisoner’s marriage because his father had a pair of horses and his wife’s had a plough. Throw in comparisons between the gay couples at either end of the social spectrum or the two law clerks, Soriano’s a child minder and valet while Barassi is the one picking up on the legal points. He’s the one that comments that mounting this defence puts them even further behind on the backlog of case files piled on his desk.
As well as Anatomy of a Murder, viewers with a long memory may pick up on the community with John Badham’s imposing 1979 The Law with Judd Hirsch.
El peso de la ley with its superior script expertly handed is one of the best films of this year, a reminder of the excellence that Argentine film can offer.
If the Cine Latino Film Festival had only delivered this film it would have been noteworthy. But this was the pick of the year’s national events - and it drew mainly single figure attendances. However, there was more to it, not just a selection of interesting movies but, really more significant, a unique glimpse into the Latin American mindset, something hard to get as effectively any other way.
The films suggested a thorough selection process with a clear aim - no Santiago Segura here, as much as we love him. Sorting through Foreign Language Oscar contenders seems to have been productive. Also the digital copies got much better as they approached the present, suggesting a rapid advance in that technology. It would be interesting to know how widely information about this event was circulated and what feedback they got.
I hope they do it again.