SDLFF 2012: Dispatch #1 – “El páramo” & “El dedo”
While the bulk of film bloggers are convening in Austin for South by Southwest, I remain here in San Diego covering the city’s 19th annual Latino Film Festival, which boasts its own fair share of promising features, documentaries, and shorts. This is my first time attending the event, but with fellow San Diego Film Critics Society member and SDLFF programmer Glenn Heath to steer me right, I anticipate I will discover quite a few good films throughout the fest’s duration. That’s certainly what happened on my first day of viewings, reviewed below.
One can’t help but react cynically to the opening scenes of Jamie Osorio Marquez’ El páramo (The Squad), which find a band of Colombian soldiers roaming at the foot of a mountain amidst debilitating fog, in what comes across as an especially ornate symbolic indication that the film will be about the so-called fog of war. Such cynicism proves unwarranted, however, when one realizes that this is the opposite of a preachy film about the toll of battle. It quickly becomes clear that Marquez intended the fog as more than simple foreshadowing – it’s the first of many atmospheric devices he employs as part of what turns out to be an unabashed horror film. El páramo skillfully utilizes the added supernatural elements and ambiguity allowed by its genre to put a fresh spin on the usual wartime themes of anxiety and paranoia. It is also, in the tradition of 1970s horror films, delicately laced with social commentary.
Things get weird not far into the film, when the soldiers reach an outpost thought to be overtaken by guerillas. In addition to the blood and dead bodies of their comrades, they discover a charm hanging from the ceiling and disconcerting writing on a wall – behind which turns out to be a shackled and incoherent woman, who may be a witch. As the movie progresses, the guerillas are nowhere to be found, but the men become increasingly paranoid and begin to turn on one another.
Having never been in combat—much less combat gone awry—I obviously can’t attest to whether El páramo accurately reflects the abstract emotions of the experience, but I can say that it left me more anxious and tense than most straightforward war pictures. The growing emotional instability of the men makes for a rattling experience, both because director Marquez’ embrace of horror stylings (the claustrophobic camerawork and sound design, coupled with a sense of impending doom) heightens the tension and because the performances are strong across the board. Much of the film is told from the emotional POV of Pvt. Ponce (a sympathetic Juan Pablo Barragan), but it is truly an ensemble effort – we get to know all of the soldiers and their human traits.
Speaking of the ensemble, their interaction is part of the aforementioned social commentary. Race relations are a prime issue in the film, with the black and Indian soldiers constantly reminded of their marginalized status in the group – an issue that is clearly pertinent in today’s Colombia. Furthermore, the film addresses the socio-politically complex tensions between the Colombian government and the guerillas, as the men’s paranoia concerning the guerillas persists despite the guerilla’s facelessness. Those more familiar with the country will undoubtedly pick up even more subtext. George A. Romero has long been lauded for his ability to tackle dense, topical themes within the horror genre, but he has never situated zombies within a scenario that felt as realistic as the one in which Marquez situates his possible witch. Simultaneously shrouded in disquieting uncertainty and firmly grounded in the issues of the day, El páramo is the work of a young filmmaker to watch. 3 ½ Buckets out of 4. Screens again Wednsday, March 14 at 10:15 p.m. and Friday, March 16 at 7 p.m.
Similarly stuffed with social commentary but considerably less severe in tone is Sergio Teubal’s El dedo (The Finger), a lovably goofy period comedy set in small-town Argentina. The first scene finds the suave, but clearly devious Don Hidalgo (Gabriel Goity) announcing to the town that they will finally be allowed to vote for their own political representative—an office for which he intends to run—in the upcoming nationwide elections, for they have surpassed the minimum population requirement of 500 by one person. But Don Hidalgo’s aspirations are quickly threatened when his opponent, Baldomero (Martín Seefeld), is found murdered, pushing the population back under the threshold. Baldomero’s shopkeeper brother Florencio (Fabián Vena) agrees to hold off on signing the death certificate until after the election, but then something fantastical happens… Boldomero’s finger, which Florencio has preserved in a jar on the promise that he will stick it up the rear of the murderer, begins to move on its own – pointing to things in motions that the locals interpret as religious prophecies. Suddenly, Baldomero’s campaign is back on – his finger alone is smart enough to hold an office.
For as humorously ludicrous as the film is, it’s also a substantive, surprisingly universal look at the often quirky dynamics of democracy. Despite his drive to win, Don Hidalgo’s general sleaziness is clearly not desirable for most voters. (In fact, that desire to win is part of said sleaziness – he’s ready to commit fraud as necessary.) Thus, dismayed by the politician prototype, they respond in a reactionary manner and fall for complete hokum – a magical finger, laced with the power of religion. And yet, perhaps the finger is just as qualified for the job as any living individual with the level of narcissism required to pursue politics. El dedo is far from a message movie, but implicit in it are these keen social observations. I also read that there are plenty of region-specific references that should amuse Argentinian audiences.
Writer Carina Catelli’s clever script is well supported by the other elements of the film. Chewing the scenery, but keeping mostly straight faces to preserve the integrity of the satire and dark comedy, the key performances by Fabián Vena and Gabriel Goity have the charisma needed to anchor the picture. Supporting them, the cast of townsfolk carry homely charm. And the 1.85:1 cinematography is surprisingly sophisticated for what was presumably a low-budget project, enhancing the film’s Old West atmosphere. El dedo is too minor to attain any level of transcendence, but it’s a funny little movie with some food for thought – the ideal crowd-pleaser. 3 Buckets out of 4. Screens again Tuesday, March 13 (today) at 5 p.m.
That’s all I have on the festival for now, but stay tuned throughout the week for more reviews, plus additional thoughts and observations. If you’re feeling adventurous and care to head down to the UltraStar Mission Valley to take in a few shows, the complete SDLFF schedule is here.