SDLFF 2013: Dispatch #3 — “¡Atraco!” and “Post Tenebras Lux”

2013 San Diego Latino Film FestivalAs the San Diego Latino Film Festival enters its final weekend, there’s still plenty of good stuff left to see (I have five selections slated for today and tomorrow). It’s been tough to find time to write about the festival films I’ve already seen—in addition to my usual load of regular screenings and reviews, I’ve caught nine SDLFF entries over the past week—but I thought I’d chime in now with reviews of two films that show again this weekend. I should also remind the 35mm lovers out there that the festival’s final 20th Anniversary presentation, Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” shows Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on the big, beautiful Screen 7.

Óscar Jaenada and Guillermo Francella star in "¡Atraco!"There’s a pretty good buddy caper movie housed within Eduard Cortés’ “¡Atraco!, from Argentina, but you’ve got to sit through a soapy romance and a half-baked history lesson about Franco’s Spain to enjoy it, which isn’t worth the trouble. Like last year’s “Argo,” the film takes the shell of true events and fills it with cinematic details. It’s 1955: In an effort to raise the cash to move exiled Argentinian President Juan Perón to Spain from Panama, Perón’s handler (Daniel Fenego) discreetly pawns first lady Evita’s expensive jewelry off to a Madrid jeweler. The only problem: When the jewelry is displayed, Spanish first lady Carmen Polo Franco wants to purchase it, and if Evita ever saw her wearing it, Evita would be furious. Thus, Perón loyalist Merello (Guillermo Francella) and amateur actor Ramos (Óscar Jaenada) must pose as robbers and, with the assistance of the jeweler (who’s in on the plan to collect insurance money), steal the jewels back before Mrs. Franco comes to pick them up. It’s all a bit like a reverse-The Earrings of Madame de…

The lead-up to the phony heist and the phony heist itself are both entertaining, mostly because actors Francella (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) and Jaenada (“The Losers”) portray their characters’ clash of personalities so endearingly. Francella’s Merello is an expert at this sort of operation, as he’s worked in security for decades, carrying himself with reserved dignity. Jaenada’s Ramos is the complete opposite: a nervous buffoon who can’t act for beans and possesses terrible street-smarts. Merello only tolerates Ramos because his boss has chosen the young man for the operation (there’s an ulterior motive at play), and he doesn’t go against his boss. We’ve seen the dynamic in countless prior buddy films—the old pro and the naive rookie—but it never gets old when the actors have sufficient chemistry, as Francella and Jaenada do. They’re easy to watch together, especially in the context of David Omedes’ nicely framed ‘Scope cinematography and the film’s impeccable period production design.

But unlike “Argo,” “¡Atraco!” isn’t just a meat-and-potatoes account of a heist, peppered with comic relief. This film’s near two-hour runtime is padded with extraneous material, often making it a chore to endure. There’s a love story between Ramos and Teresa (Amaia Salamanca), a young nurse who works at a hospital near the jewelry store. Actress Salamanca is a real stunner, but nothing about the thread enhances the film; the romance is a superficial appeal to female viewers, and the way Teresa is incorporated into the police investigation of the heist strings things out for too long. Even more detrimental to the film’s overall success are the stone-cold serious final scenes, which attempt to capture the horrors of Franco’s dictatorship, but instead come across as an out-of-place attempt to make the film capital-I Important.

It’s too bad that “¡Atraco!” is too foreign to ever air on HBO, because it’d be the ideal movie to watch from the couch on a lazy weekend. In that context, you could play with your smartphone when the film runs off on its pointless dramatic tangents. But even then, when you could instead watch “Argo”—or better yet, the similar South American historical-fiction comedy “No”—why bother with the overall mediocrity of “¡Atraco!”? C. Screens again this afternoon at 4:30 p.m.

A scene from Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux"Before I get into Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux,” I must provide a disclaimer: the showing of the film that I attended was presented in the standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio rather than the now-rare 1.37:1 Academy ratio in which the film was shot. This resulted in about a quarter of the frame getting cropped off the top. (I reported the issue to the festival higher-ups and they have assured me that tomorrow’s encore will be presented correctly.) This was an unfortunate way to experience such a highly visual film, but given that my general feeling of disdain for “Post Tenebras Lux” has nothing to do with aesthetics, I believe I can write about the film in an informal capacity without compromising my critical integrity. If you believe my opinion on the film is invalid because I did not see the whole image, I understand if you stop reading here.

I despise “Post Tenebras Lux” itself less than I despise its potential implications for the whole of experimental, avant-garde cinema. The film embodies every pedestrian, “general audience” stereotype of what an abstract, non-narrative work is: not comprehensibly about anything, full of seemingly empty symbols, a vanity piece for an auteur director, et cetera. “Post Tenebras Lux” ostensibly focuses on the daily life of an urban-rooted family now living in the Mexican countryside, but even so, that would essentially be an inaccurate description of the experience. The film is more about all the head-scratching elements Reygadas introduces: a CG devil carrying a toolbox, dog abuse, porn addiction, a visit to a group-sex-filled Turkish bath in France, harakiri, random cutaways of British schoolboys playing rugby. The exteriors are shot using a lens that blurs/doubles the edges of the frame. The title comes from a Latin phrase in Job 17:12. We never receive any instruction as to why these disparate elements are together in one movie, nor why they’re worth watching beyond base “WTF!?” pleasure.

Thus, what I most object to about “Post Tenebras Lux” is that Reygadas has given the anti-art film movement ammunition. He has affirmed every crude generalization about the style. I shudder to think that a casual viewer might take a chance on this movie, dismiss it as pretentious bullshit, and then, as a result, not take a chance on a superior experimental film like Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” which is equally surrealist and episodic but has discernible, substantive things to say.

Some may find nuggets that they respond to in “Post Tenebras Lux,” and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them for it, but in my opinion, a film must have something reasonably specific to say in order to be effective. I’m all for filmmakers playing with the cinematic form itself in order to achieve this—“Holy Motors” was high on my top 10 list last year—but Reygadas kneads the form to such an extent that it becomes a shapeless mass. Certainly, many of he and cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s compositions are accomplished (even cropped to 1.85:1, I was awed by the poetic beauty of the opening sequence, featuring a young girl chasing cows in a field, lightning in the background). But what are the pretty pictures servicing? Several critics, tipped off by the rugby cutaways (Reygadas played the sport as a youth in England), have suggested that the filmmaker is working through personal issues with the picture. That’s great—using art as catharsis can yield powerful works—but the problem is that Reygadas doesn’t appear to be working toward anything. No official grade due to the projection snafu, but I’m strongly negative. Screens again tomorrow, Sun., March 17 at 7:30 p.m.

That’s all I’ve got for the rest of the festival, but I’ll likely report back with more reviews of the films I see this weekend if/when they receive theatrical releases. Again, for tickets and more information, check out