SDLFF 2013: Dispatch #2 — “The Body” and “Nostalgia for the Light”

2013 San Diego Latino Film FestivalThree days into this year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival, I’m still very much enjoying myself. Festival fatigue—that inevitable wave of exhaustion one gets from watching several movies in a row, then returning home to write about them—has not yet set in, though I’m sure it will in a few days. So I’m committed to churning out as many reviews as possible before then; here are two for films worth seeing when they replay in the coming week.

Belén Rueda and Hugo Silva star in Oriol Paulo's "The Body"From two of the producers of “The Orphanage” comes “The Body,” another atmospheric genre exercise from Spain (the festival occasionally allows selections produced outside Latin America and the U.S.). This time, however, the intent is less to frighten the audience than to thrill them in the vein of Hitchcock, as the characters’ questionable motivations keep the truth in doubt until the final reveal. “The Body” may be unapologetically silly in its twists and turns, but if you enjoy an old-fashioned, paperback-style mystery, this one will play you like a fiddle with its impeccable craftsmanship and scenery-chewing performances.

Makya Villaverde’s (Belén Rueda) body has disappeared from the morgue, which would ordinarily be an unnerving thing for the deceased’s family to learn, but it is downright nerve-wracking for Makya’s husband Álex (Hugo Silva), as the search threatens to uncover the fact that he murdered her. Desperate to leave Makya for his mistress (Aura Garrido), but unwilling to part with the luxurious lifestyle afforded him by Makya’s prenup-protected personal fortune, Álex poisoned his wife’s wine with a heart attack-inducing chemical. Various possible explanations for the body’s disappearance, from someone trying to expose the murder to Makya surviving the ordeal, emerge throughout, all while the police become progressively suspicious of Álex.

After the plotless (but superb) first two films of my festival experience, “The Body” was a nice change of pace, especially because director Oriol Paulo orchestrates the machinations so expertly. In retrospect, the final twist of “The Body” seems easy to predict, as the early scenes foreshadowing it are glaringly dissimilar from the rest of the film, but I was so caught up in the blow-by-blow that I never thought far enough ahead to see it coming. That’s really the best compliment one can pay a thriller, as truly unpredictable revelations are usually so far out-of-left-field that they’re just lazy storytelling (see: “Fight Club”). Director Paulo keeps the viewer in the moment by ratcheting up the tension with Sergio Moore’s temperamental score and briskly pacing the film, unveiling a new development in each scene; one never has a spare moment to mentally graph the dot-connection required to predict the ending.

The deal is sealed by the cast, particularly the leads, who know when to keep a straight face and when to give a sly wink. The most crucial performance is that of Belén Rueda, who in flashbacks and sequences which exist in Álex’s imagination develops a femme fatale with enough of a sinister edge that we’re convinced she could have foreseen the murder and outsmarted her disloyal husband. Hugo Silva, playing a classic noir-influenced archetype whose world begins to crumble alongside his supposedly airtight criminal plan, often functions as the film’s sympathetic figure, until we remember he is a murderer who could very well be deceiving the audience.

Certain cynics will dismiss “The Body” as nonsense, and if you take the film too seriously, it undoubtedly is. In addition to being devoid of social significance and original narrative technique, the ultimate villain jumps through more unnecessary hoops to achieve his/her desired outcome than Javier Bardem did in last year’s Bond flick “Skyfall” (and that’s saying something). But as far as popcorn entertainment goes, “The Body” is the best I’ve seen in awhile; those who go to the movies purely to have a good time will feel fully satisfied when the credits roll. B+. Screens again Mon., March 11 at 7:30 p.m.

A wonderful feature unique to this year’s festival is the 20th Anniversary Showcase, a program of 10 of the most groundbreaking Latino films of the past two decades, funded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Many are being screened from 35mm prints, an increasing rarity here in San Diego. Tonight, you can even see 1993’s “Fresca y Chocolate” with Cuban star Jorge Perugorria in person for a Q&A.

A scene from Patricio Guzmán's "Nostalgia for the Light"The least-known of the 20th Anniversary selections, the 2011 documentary / personal essay “Nostalgia for the Light,” from Chile, is also one of the best. I regrettably ignored the film when SDLFF programmer Glenn Heath Jr., who has contributed a few reviews to Critic Speak in the past, told me that it was a must-see when it was initially released. Still, while I wish I had experienced “Nostalgia for the Light” sooner, I’m glad that my first exposure was on the big-screen, where its majestic images of the cosmos belong; the film was never commercially released in San Diego.

It’s hard to put this one-of-a-kind experience into words, but I’ve been describing it as Werner Herzog crossed with the macrocosmic-microcosmic binary of “The Tree of Life,” which I think is pretty apt. Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán uses Chile’s Atacama Desert as a focal point to juxtapose the universe’s unknown past with his country’s too-often-forgotten past. The vast, barren Atacama is home to two notable things: 1) giant telescopes used for space research (the clear skies allow astronomers to see to the ends of the universe) and 2) the buried bodies of political prisoners executed under Pinochet, still routinely unearthed today. Like the bodies, the astronomers study relics of the past, in that the speed of light is such that they are viewing images that have already happened. This synopsis may sound loopy, even absurd on paper, but Guzmán frames the film in such an elegant way, through reflective personal narration and interviews with the people of the Atacama, that the fusion of these seemingly dissimilar elements is illuminative.

Some may feel that a few of Guzmán’s reflections are inappropriately polarizing on a political level—clearly a leftist, he paints a glamorized portrait of life under Allende to portray Pinochet’s tyrannical reign as grimly as possible—but “Nostalgia for the Light” is so impressionistic that viewing it as a primarily partisan text would be an overreaction. This is an ethereal, vaguely spiritual experience that is what the viewer makes of it; while told from a distinctly Chilean perspective, it houses a lot of ideas applicable to all, as the many (literally) universal images illustrate. A-. Screens again Fri., March 15 at 8:30 p.m. and, for those not in San Diego, currently streams on Netflix.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I should be headed back to the festival tonight for Carlos Reygadas’ much discussed “Post Tenebras Lux,” which premiered last year at Cannes, if I can manage to stay awake and alert for the 10 p.m. showtime.