Sunday, September 07, 2008

Spotlight on South America

Machuca: Chile, 1973

Early on in the film, two friends, one rich (Gonzalo) and the other poor (Pedro Machuca), cross a soccer field packed with local kids playing the beautiful game.

Near the film's end, Gonzalo is seen cycling through the same soccer field but it is empty. We know from the political events outlined earlier in the film that there is a reason there are no kids playing in the field.

In the scene immediately after Gonzalo hurriedly cycles past the empty soccer field, we see poor people rounded up at gunpoint and taken away. A solider mistakenly tries to take away Gonzalo but he shouts that he is not one of ‘them’ and points towards his imported German sneakers. The solider looks at Gonzalo’s white shoes and backs off. Meanwhile, the two friends eyes meet. Machuca knows the fate that awaits him and so does Gonzalo.

Final Scene: Gonzalo is standing in front of an empty soccer field, looking at the sun setting over the mountains in the background. We know that this soccer field will never have kids or even adults play on it. Not for a while at least.

In a way the four scenes highlight how people disappeared in Chile. Did the rest of the world know? Even if they did, would they have cared?

1973. A dictator comes into power. Who helped him? Look closely. You will see men lurking in the shadows. And among these men are some economists who offered advice in 'helping' the Chilean economy.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation: Brazil, 1970

A boy standing with a soccer ball in his hands. The image is taken from the backseat of a car driving away. The car contains his parents who are apparently going on "vacation". But his parents are not going on "vacation". Unfortunately, 1970’s in South America saw a different form of vacation. People normally plan their vacations, inform their loved ones where they are going and when they will come back. But in 1970's South America, certain people believed that they were privileged enough to offer free vacations to their nation’s citizens. The citizens went on vacation, never to return back.

The world did not know of this vacation policy until much later. In the meantime, Brazil danced to the 1970 World Cup victory in some style, playing possibly the best football the world has seen. In 1978, Argentina won their first ever World Cup title, although the rumours about their 6-0 victory over Peru will never go away. Were the Peruvians bribed? Or did the Peruvian players have one look at the government in charge of Argentina and decide that losing 6-0 was better than getting a free unlimited vacation?

Men sitting in offices. Talking with dictators, discussing economic reforms. Privatize everything, open the country up. All will be well. Oh and while you are at it, hand out some free vacations. Things will eventually work out.

Have things worked out yet? The playgrounds are not empty anymore. But if one stands on those grounds, one can hear voices in the distance. Voices that cry out, wanting the world to listen. But the world cannot listen. It has moved on. Yet those voices continue to haunt soccer fields, not only across South America, but Asia and Africa as well.

Bolivia: Argentina, present day

At the start of the film Bolivia, we see a televised match between Argentina and Bolivia. After Argentina jump to an early lead, the Argentinean commentator remarks that Argentina were more alert. After the third goal goes in, he mentions that the Bolivian defense is terrible, just terrible. A few harmless words mask the hidden superiority of Argentine football.

If one had any doubts to the intention of those words, then the rest of the film just confirms the idea of a supposed superior Argentinean identity, an identity that exists even when the soccer game is over. An illegal Bolivian works in a local cafe/pub. Some of the local patrons include taxi drivers, including one who dislikes the Bolivian. Everything the Bolivian does is wrong. For example, when he brings a bottle of beer from the freezer, he is scolded for not bringing a cold bottle, even though he returns and brings a second bottle from the exact same freezer. When someone dislikes another person, no matter what the other person does is wrong. Simple fact of life. It is equally true in any part of the world.

It appears to be only a matter of time when emotions will boil over and they eventually do. Beautifully shot in black and white, Bolivia gives a glimpse of the frictions that exist in daily life. While the Clashes are started by government decisions regarding employment and immigration, the prices are always paid by ordinary citizens. If a poor nation shares a border with a richer nation, then illegal border crossing will occur. But if the apparently rich nation does not have enough jobs for its own citizens, then anger is directed at the newly arrived persons. The newcomer is always blamed for the misfortunes of a nation. Amazingly, one can walk the streets of Canada or USA and hear similar sentiments.

Bolivia is shot in Argentina but it may take place in any part of the world.

Adios Momo: Uruguay, 40 day Carnival

Obdulio just wants to play soccer but he does not have time as he has a daytime job delivering papers. One night he encounters a man who promises to educate him. Inspired by the man’s writing, Obdulio spends his nights witnessing the magic of a carnival where artists entertain the audience. As a result, he is often tired in his daytime job.

The charm of the carnival is flushed out in detail but the story also maintains a dream like nature of the events shown. And near the film’s end, clues are provided which indicate that the carnival is a happier mask over the sinister events of disappearance of children from the city, a la Pied Piper.

A Titan in the Ring: Ecuador, 2001

The film takes place in a small town where religion and wrestling are the equal source of people's interests. Both events are not compatible and some locals are caught between both. A local priest comes up with an interesting solution in the hopes of reaching out to the people. But his choice is at odds with what he preaches.

A man quietly sits listening to his radio on a bench while around him the complicated lives of the characters revolves. As it turns out, the man is mostly listening to soccer games. And just before the screen fades to black, the radio commentator is busy celebrating Ecuador’s first ever qualification to the Soccer World Cup (2002). The joyous message is meant to soothe over the not so happy events that the town has had to face depicted in the film.

Making ends meet

In A Titan in the Ring, we are given a glimpse into how unemployment can lead to certain youth heading down the criminal path.

In Pizza, Beer and Smokes, a few young kids go from one criminal activity to another just to gather some cash. The problem with such activities is that a person can be roped into believing that all they need is just one big job to ensure financial freedom. After that one big job, people believe they can easily walk away from crime. But as one knows, it is never that easy. So the tragedy that eventually takes place in Pizza, Beer and Smokes can be seen from the first few frames.

A few friends enjoy hanging out and pulling off pranks on their neighbours in Montevideo in 25 Watts. Shot in Black and white, the film evokes shades of Clerks in certain segments but unfortunately lacks the energy that made Clerks such a joy to watch.

The favelas of Rio once again form the background in the well shot City of Men which explores the tale of two friends who dodge bullets as the gang turf war wages on around them. Juggling between their jobs and women, the two find their friendships stretched as they unravel past events which pits them on opposite sides of the warring gangs.

Sao Paulo is the venue for the Brazilian pic Antonia which features four women hoping to make it big with their hip-hop routines in order to etch out a better life.

A job interview

Even when one has a job, the need arises to find a better job. But switching jobs is not often an easy task. An interview is a key part of the job hunting process and sometimes when people spend a long time working in one company, they may be out of touch with the challenges required out in the industry.

The Method shows a cut-throat interview process designed to weed out any unwanted candidates. After a series of 2-3 interviews, the short listed candidates are all put together in one room. They are all surprized to learn that their final interview will require them to face off against each other in the board-room while the hiring manager is hidden among one of the candidates. Each person has to guess who the hiring manager is and one by one, a candidate will be eliminated based on a series of ethical and technical exercises. As the interview progresses, the real personality traits of the candidates are exposed. Based on a play, the film is a fascinating watch.

Colombia -- A myth retold in a modern setting

Oedipus Mayor cleverly resets the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus Rex into a modern day Colombian town setting. Not having read the short story (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that the film is adapted from, I cannot comment on how faithful the adaptation is but overall the film does a very good job at unfolding the mythical tale of murder and incest one layer at a time.

Passing the time away by watching tv or just staring at the clock

The hilarious Peruvian film El destino no tiene favoritos shows the obsession that day time tv commands while poking fun at the cliched story-lines of most soaps.

El Nomindo takes the concept of reality tv shows such as Survivor and Big Brother to extremes. Contests are locked up in a bunker underneath the snow-capped Andes mountains, completely cut-off from civilization. Cameras record all their movements with the contestants voted out by viewers. But things go horribly wrong when a contestant is murdered. Instead of stopping the show, the cameras continues rolling as the game is tailored to guess who will be killed next. A decent idea is wasted as the film ends up being yet another slasher film.

In La Espera, Sonja looks after her elder bed-ridden mother. But she is frustrated by her mother’s constants demands which eliminates any chance of a social life that Sonja may have. So all she can do is wait, patiently wait for her mother to pass away.

The River as a means to escape and explore

Los Muertos

Forests, empty landscape, rivers. Observing nature up close, far from the chaotic Buenos Aries city life. This is not the Argentina often seen in films.

I thought about Carlos Reygadas while watching Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos. A beautiful film which features haunting shots of the surroundings. A man on a boat, drifting effortlessly through the backwaters. The man has just been released from prison after serving his murder conviction. He heads to the river to track his past and even to escape.

1888 el extraordinario viaje de Jules Verne

A journey to track down a hidden treasure with a fictional Jules Verne. Along the way, a love triangle is explored while an adventure unfolds by the banks of the Amazon.

Ratings out of 10

  • Bolivia (2001, Argentina, Adrián Caetano): 9

  • The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006, Brazil, Cao Hamburger): 9

  • Machuca (2004, Chile, Andrés Wood): 9

  • The Method (2005, Argentina co-production, Marcelo Piñeyro): 8.5

  • Los Muertos (2004, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso): 8.5

  • City of Men (2007, Brazil, Paulo Morelli): 8

  • Oedipus Mayor (1996, Colombia, Jorge Alí Triana): 8

  • El destino no tiene favoritos (2003, Peru, Alvaro Velarde): 8

  • Antonia (2006, Brazil, Tata Amaral): 7

  • Don't Tell Anyone (1998, Peru, Francisco J. Lombardi): 7

  • La Espera (2002, Uruguay, Aldo Garay): 7

  • Pizza, birra, faso (1998, Argentina, Adrián Caetano/Bruno Stagnaro): 6.5

  • Adios Momo (2006, Uruguay, Leonardo Ricagni): 6

  • Un titán en el rincón (2002, Ecuador, Viviana Cordero): 5

  • 25 Watts (2001, Uruguay, Juan Pablo Rebella/Pablo Stoll): 5

  • 1888 el extraordinario viaje de Jules Verne (2005, Venezuela, Alfredo Anzola): 3

  • El Nominado (2003, Peru, Nacho Argiro/Gabriel Lopez): 3
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