I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of fellow film bloggers who are reporting from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas this week—I haven’t been back there since I first attended in 2009—but plenty of cinematic discoveries await me at the local San Diego Latino Film Festival. Now in its twentieth year, the festival, founded by Ethan van Thillo, has become an institution in America’s Finest City, supported not just by the large Latino population but cinephiles of all stripes. There’s something for everyone; I usually pass over the conventional crowd-pleasers in favor of more cerebral fare that has been vetted at prior festivals around the world. That’s the strategy that led me to my superb first two selections—“De jueves a domingo,” from Chile, and “La sirga,” from Colombia—both of which use images, rather than plot, to tell stories.
Dominga Sotomayor Catillo’s “De jueves a domingo” is one of the best films told from a child’s point-of-view that I’ve ever seen. Over a cross-country road-trip, young Lucía (Santi Ahumada) witnesses the final days of her parents’ marriage from the backseat of the car. Despite the adults’ best efforts to hold it together in front of their children, Lucía, unlike her younger brother (Emiliano Freifeld), is old enough to pick up on the signs of interpersonal tumult, and first-time child actress Ahumada’s performance authentically captures the flood of internalized emotions that confront her character as a result. Supplemented by cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez’s precise compositions which make the viewer further identify with Lucía’s perspective—as in a reoccurring, static wide-angle shot from the car dashboard that focuses on the kids in the back, with the adults in front hovering in and out of the frame, less in focus—Lucía’s arc is a deeply human portrait of the simultaneous awareness and powerlessness that youths of her age (around 10) feel when faced with domestic problems. Because it rings so true to life, “De jueves a domingo” never feels like an exercise, despite the clearly deliberate nature of every facet of filmmaker Sotomayor Catillo’s execution. Average Joe viewers will be put off by the lack of plot—one could easily liken this to “Gerry” or “The Loneliest Planet,” with driving instead of walking—but anyone possessing adequate patience for and openness to what Sotomayor Catillo has to say about the way we interact with the world at Lucía’s age will find the film an immensely rewarding experience. A-. Screens again Thurs., March 14 at 8 p.m. and Sun., March 17 at 10 p.m.
A similarly visual approach to storytelling is employed in William Vega’s “La sirga,” but in this case, the images service political allegory as much as character development. The film is set in Colombia’s guerrilla warfare-ridden Andes region at an unspecified point in time and observes the daily life of 19-year-old Alicia (Joghis Seudin Arias), who has come to live with her uncle Oscar (Julio César Roble) after her parents were killed in a massacre of her village. Oscar is the proprietor of a ramshackle guesthouse, which Alicia fixes up even though we get the sense that it won’t be taking new visitors anytime soon, given the region’s violence and geopolitical turmoil. Perhaps the inherent metaphors in Alicia’s frequent sleepwalking and renovation of a structure that will inevitably crumble again—long, uninterrupted takes (often involving tracking) show her replacing rotted floorboards and covering the roof in preparation for rain—are ornate and on-the-nose, but they’re so poetically, rustically shot by cinematographer Sofia Oggioni that it’s hard to complain. Also compelling is the way that filmmaker Vega portrays the underlying tension of life in such a volatile community, using Alicia’s clearly shady cousin Freddy (Heraldo Romero) to represent the constantly lurking danger. A shocking ending that leaves the violent details to the viewer’s imagination, much like that of Michael Haneke’s recent “Amour,” is sure to render audiences speechless. But it’s important to discuss “La sirga” upon stabilizing, because through its microcosmic symbolism, the film has much to say about the corruption and social inequity that still plague several South American nations. A-. Screens again Sun., March 10 at 8 p.m.
That’s all from me for now, as I must head back to the festival for another two or three films tonight. For tickets and more information, hop on over to http://www.sdlatinofilm.com.