April 1–16, 2006
Uruguay is a very small country. It is quiet and peaceful, and its capital city, Montevideo, is a large and beautiful city that was once considered very modern (at the beginning of the 20th century). I’ve been living here for a year, and I am still impressed by one of the most interesting qualities of this city. For Montevideo is a cinephilic city, and the Cinemateca Uruguaya one of its most important institutions. This explains what for me is the principal characteristic of the 24th International Film Festival of Uruguay: the people in the cinemas halls are the same people you see walking on the street everywhere the rest of the year.
Still, you don’t find any big names of the “industry” here; only a few students and critics are around. Very few major directors or producers come here to show their works. During the Festival, the cinemas were full of a different “community”, a diverse group composed of people of all ages and occupations. The festival is accessible to everybody: you just have to be a member of Cinemateca and pay two American dollars for the whole festival. And then you can enjoy more than 100 films all over the world, without rushing, at a relaxed pace. This is one of the great attributes of the event: to find pleasure in the films, to have time to understand all that you see. It is also true that the festival doesn’t generate the enthusiasm that others events do, but it is a nice and pleasant feeling to have this opportunity all the same. You know that you have the chance to see these pictures sooner or later; and in some way, the Cinemateca is a kind of “whole year festival”.
With an international competition, an informative section, one section dedicated to young “looks”, one for documentaries, and a few retrospectives and short film sections, this year’s festival featured several films all over the world. The most recent films from Jim Jarmusch, Jia Zhang-ke, Lars von Trier and Theo Angelopoulos were all in the program, as well as other recent productions from Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and Africa. Some of these films came to Uruguay a year later than to other festivals, but what is a year in this part of the world?
Among the most interesting works exhibited in the festival were the retrospectives of the television productions of Roberto Rossellini and of the films of Raúl Perrone. The first filmmaker is of course well-known around the world, but the latter is a very interesting and unusual Argentinean independent filmmaker and his pictures are significant to understand the recent history, and the “new cinema” of both sides of the River Plate. Raúl Perrone is an independent filmmaker, who films his pictures without any type of financial assistance, utilising only his video camera (and some other small equipment), some actors and some neighbours, a lot of rock and roll and a real desire to tell stories, quotidian stories, about “common people”. He films in Ituzaingó, his own town (a suburb in the Gran Buenos Aires), a landscape far away from picturesque scenes. In his films, sound and image may appear careless and sloppy, but they are also fresh and expressive. His work is a genuine alternative to the “old cinema” of Argentina, full of pretensions and “local colour” films. Some of his films are very genuine samples of the true independent cinema, others are too careless, but all cause desire to continue seeing his next work. This partial retrospective included some of Perrone’s more recent work: Graciadió (1997), La mecha (2003), Ocho años después (2005) and Pajaritos (2005).
The Uruguayan film La Perrera (The Dog Pound, 2005), one of the special presentations of the festival, is Manuel Nieto’s debut as a director. In the last few years, he has acted as assistant director on 25 Watts (2001) and Whisky (2004), both by Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella, and Los muertos (2005) by Lisandro Alonso, among other films. La perrera portrays, at a deceptively slow pace, a year in the life of a young person who, throughout the duration of the film, constructs a house and, at the same time, tries to find a world for himself. Some of the achievements of the film are the construction of the house and the unique glimpse of La Pedrera (a chic bathing resort on the Uruguayan coast) in low season. The care with which the film follows the development of such chaotic work is especially original and becomes the most solid quality of the film. Perhaps the portrayal of the main character, David (Pablo Alexandre), represents an important part of the Uruguayan youth, and for that reason it resonates deeply. One ends up struggling between the anger and the pity. In an interview, Nieto stated “There is romanticism around the dumbass that doesn’t do anything”. He must have been certain about it if one considers the number of films on the subject (which is almost becoming a subgenre).
Stoll and Rebella’s opera prima, 25 Watts, initiated a local tradition for this topic as it communicated an aesthetic full of ideas and personality. Filled with references but at the same time having a fresh and spontaneous style, it said a lot about the lives of modern society’s delayed adolescents. La Perrera does not have those merits. Nieto explores interesting ways to watch the protagonist youth’s universe but, except during some of David’s lysergic experiences, in which the filmmaker creates some very expressive images (the soccer match at the beach after his ingestion of fungi, for example), he seems satisfied with merely presenting a neat linear film that makes sense.
David’s main hurdle arises when he must interact with the world of adults or the world of the villagers. In such occasions, Nieto puts across a universe full of common occurrences (for instance, the dialogue between David and his father) and even cruel descriptions (the wild party and the rape of young transvestite). The other characters are never granted the capacity to generate empathy that Nieto concedes to David.
Orlando Vargas (2004), the other Uruguayan feature screened, is actually a half-foreign film with Uruguayan locations. In this opera prima, Uruguayan director Juan Pittaluga, tries to deal with his origins but the film fails amidst good intentions. This co-production between France and Uruguay, with its European protagonists, emphasises the suggested rather than the actual. It doesn’t provide much information on the history, only describing a journey to a nowhere land. Thus, the itinerary of a character we estimate to be a diplomat persecuted by an authoritarian regime (this part of the story shares elements with Pittaluga’s own biography) concludes in a confused and uncertain way. Some situations are introduced in an effective manner and the camera captures sensitive and warm moments. But at other times, the film only manages to show off beautiful images of another beautiful resort, complete with Latin music for export to an international audience.
This year’s representatives of the New Argentine Cinema left me a little dissatisfied. While in present-day Argentina the existence of this movement is constantly being analysed, (1) the examples that arrived at these borders do not manage to arouse the enthusiasm of those of a few years ago, with the arrival of the first films of Lucrecia Martel Lisandro Alonso, Adrián Caetano, Ana Katz and others. El custodio (The Guardian, 2006), the first feature of Rodrigo Moreno, showcases the excellent work of Julio Chávez, one of the best Argentine actors around today. The story focuses on one of those characters that always goes unnoticed, in this case a grey bodyguard. The film succeeds in portraying the routine of the bodyguard’s daily work and his relations with an equally grey minister (Osmar Núñez), but in the end the story becomes a little lost. Well filmed and intelligent, with Chávez giving a remarkable performance and the story being wholly believable at first, El custodio only manages in the end to present itself as a professionally-made product, at the risk of losing interest and significance down the track.
Another film with similar problems is Como un avión estrellado (Like a Starred Airplane, 2005), Ezequiel Acuña’s second feature, and another film dealing with teenagers, their conflicts, their insecurities and several deficiencies. Nico (Ignacio Rogers) lives with his brother after the death of his parents in a plane crash in the city of Valdivia (Chile). He falls in love with a girl (played by Manuela Martelli) who is full of life and projects, and shares his days with his only friend, Santi (Santiago Predrero), who is even more lost and lonely than Nico is. The film constructs this information in a fragmented way, the narration flows slowly, seemingly more concerned with generating climates than advancing the story. Nico listens to music and imagines the girl and here the film manages to flee a little from its confinement (although almost throughout the whole film it passes only through exteriors). Como un avión estrellado is sincere and well-intentioned, but is rather forgettable upon leaving the cinema.
Other Latin-American fictions did not greatly excite me either. There was nothing remarkable to be found in the Brazilian offerings. The popular Neu tio matou um cara (My Uncle Killed a Guy, Jorge Furtado, 2004) is a commercial comedy that examines the lives of teenagers and sex, with some insolent touches and nice music but little else. From Chile, En la cama (In Bed, 2005), Matías Bize’s second film, generated some curiosity about this director. It tells the story of a young man and woman (Gonzalo Valenzuela and Blanca Lewin) who spend a whole night in a hotel. The camera follows them in a manner that hovers between drama and hilarity, though the tone is predominantly bitter, and speaks of the fragility of human relationships. The Mexican films Adán y Eva (Todavía) (Adam and Eve, Iván Avila Dueña, 2004) deals with a similar subject matter, but must be one of the worst films that I have seen lately. It tells the story of a contemporary Adam and Eve (Junior Paulino and Diana Lein) who display plenty of tedium and lack of affection. They also possess the desires of masochists as well as cool costumes. While the film tries hard to be modern, provocative and eloquent, it is merely and ultimately boring and ugly.
Fortunately, the non-fiction section screened much better and more attractive Latin Americans films. The veteran and always interesting Eduardo Coutinho presented O fim eo princípio (The End and the Beginning, 2005), the history of a town in the Brazilian Sertaon that is slowly becoming uninhabited little by little. The director arrives there with his equipment, hoping the film will concern a collective protagonist. A young girl inhabitant functions as a nexus. She draws on a piece of paper a diagram of the villa of Paraíba, in which the distribution of the houses mirrors a web of familial relations. Coutinho examines this topography of family relationships and affection, and allows these faces so full of wrinkles to surprise us with their unpredictable stories. The inhabitants talk about a remarkable diversity of experiences, and those entire histories together set out a study of the Brazilian rural life, dynamic and complex. The faces receive the same treatment as the barren landscape, the viewer approaches them but we never feel that we are invading them. O fim e o princípio is a very intelligent and sensible “filmic essay”.
The other Uruguayan special presentation was Cerca de las nubes (Close to the Clouds, Aldo Garay, 2005), which tells the story of Quebracho, a town lost in the Uruguayan hinterland with a population as small as it is aged. Garay arrived there with the intention to explore an electoral campaign in a little town. It happened that the elections were not present in the life of the town, but then the place suggested another story, the daily life of its residents. Garay constructs such a story, offering a film almost without words and with plenty of interesting sounds and images.
Toro negro (Black Bull, Carlos Armella and Pedro González, 2005) is in complete opposition to O fim eo princípio, though it also portrays a rural and barren landscape, this time in the Yucatan Gulfs, Mexico. There, the camera follows for a while the life of a drunk and not very bright young bullfighter, his beaten family and the squalid surroundings. The filmmakers did not seem to have the intention of making a “picturesque” story of the subject; the images are as crude as the subject they portray. The problem with Toro negro, however, is that it never offers to the spectator some distance or perspective. The spectator feels that she/he, feeling like she/he is in a place very close that of a voyeur, is seeing images that she must not see, images that violate some rights. Who is the one that “observes”? Which is her/his role in this story? Very close to a reality show, this impressive film leaves us with many open-ended questions and primarily many ethical doubts and dilemmas. Furthermore, the film offers a happy end, which helps the spectator to tranquilise her/his guilty consciousness.
In order to compensate, one could see Cándido López – Los campos de batalla (Cándido López – The Battlefields, José Luis García, 2005), a small and splendid film. Cándido López was a painter and soldier in the war of the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay) in the middle of the 19th century. His almost unknown paintings roused the attention of Garcia, who went in search of the landscapes that the paintings portray, with the help of diverse testimonies and a book of reproductions of Lopez’ works. Part of the film shows those landscapes to us literally from a heightened perspective; Garcia captured these images using a step-ladder (which his camera was affixed to) that allowed him to attempt to reproduce the same point of view of the paintings. His pan shots and extreme long shots seek to draw up lines between the present and the past, but they produce more emptiness than answers. Later, the film gives up the search and begins to explore the reasons for the war, the testimonies of its horrors (in the war almost all the male population older than 10 years died) and its consequences. Right before the end, García offers a close shot of a picture of López, and indicates that he did not paint the eyes of the soldiers who were alive, but those of the dead. Only the corpses have eyes, those who cannot see.
These are only some chosen examples of a rather ample program. And I am sorry to say that perhaps they have not been the best ones. The prizes of the Festival went to Jarmusch, Gianni Amelio, Yesim Ustaoglu and Zhang-ke. And a great part of the enthusiasm the festival generated was due to films that had come from the east, such as Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2005), Shara (Naomi Kawase, 2003) and Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003). I hope that the Latin American cinema continues with its previous searches and to propose new ones, continuing its desire to tell stories and histories. I hope to see more and better Latin-Americans films next time.