FROM BERLIN TO GUADALAJARA
By Robert Koehler
The Guadalajara festival’s position on the calendar–besides being at a blissfully moderate time of year for the weather–allows it to pluck Latin American films from the various sections of Berlin. Last year, that meant for instance that Chico Teixera’s brilliant feature debut, Alice’s House (which recently played at the Nuart and with the most exquisite lead female performance, by Carla Ribas, in any film I’ve seen in the past two years at least) could go straight from Berlin’s Panorama to Guadalajara’s Iberoamerican feature competition. Lucia Murat’s newest, Mare, Our Love Story (or curiously titled in some quarters as Another Love Story), has taken an identical route this year. Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe, which I commented on in my previous post, hit Guadalajara immediately from Berlin’s main competition, as did Jose Padilha’s deeply flawed The Elite Squad, which my Variety colleague Jay Weissberg termed in his review as “a recruitment film for fascist thugs,” with Albertina Carri’s sinewy and brave La rabia, coming from Panorama and Ishtar Yasin’s amazing post-neo-realist debut out of Costa Rica direct from the Forum. The effect of this Berliner wave washing up in Guadalajara is to underscore how effectively Latin America has been able to declare itself in major festivals–even ones, like this Berlin edition, which was by consensus a bust–and how Latin American filmmakers can be viewed as either keeping a healthy distance from Hollywood (Carri, Eimbcke, Yasin, even Murat, though her film contains some sweet nods to West Side Story) or not (Padilha).
This is why the churning, steaming sturm und drang generated by The Elite Squad in Berlin is much ado about very little. The film is minor through and through, but its Golden Bear win makes it a topic of conversation and essential viewing of a sort. Padilha’s work here was little more than pulling and patching together remembered and revised scraps and bits from an endless list of American cop dramas and T.V. shows, from Dirty Harry to The Shield to S.W.A.T., with all of the standard tropes of the genre. A burnt-out case (Wagner Moura) is, as usual for this type of character, on the edge of sanity as he leads his unit of elite cops into Rio’s drug-infested favela slums. The guy talks up a storm, at least on the soundtrack: In a nearly two-hour film, Moura must have at least 45 minutes’ worth of cynical, irony-drenched voice-over narration (I estimate, though it seemed like five hours’ worth to my ears), reportedly attached by Padilha to the soundtrack during the editing—a sure sign of creative panic. As usual, there are the younger pups of the squad, one trigger-happy (Caio Junqueira) and one studious and civilized (Andre Ramiro), including the de rigeur PC reversal of buried racial expectations–another standard T.V. cop touch. And like a paltry HBO show–no, The Elite Squad isn’t really good enough for HBO, and will never remind anyone of The Wire, so think the Starz Network–there’s the attempt at bringing in a social view through a group of liberal students who work in the favela. Matters hinge on how Ramiro’s smart cop is a fellow student of the group by day, and a budding Elite Squad member by night, while Moura’s commanding officer is barely keeping it together as his wife is pregnant at home.
And so on. And so what? Well, yes, the Elite Squad busts into corners of the favela to shoot first and ask questions later, and this is startling enough for a few minutes. And if there’s a hell for cops who murder, then these guys are going there. But what Padilha, who’s much better at this point at making docs (Bus 167) than dramas, never decides is where sympathies lie, and what point of view his film finally should have. He shows all the signs of liberal concern (the racial flip among the cops, the well-intentioned students), and he also shows all the signs of rooting on the Elite-ists when they charge down alleys offing bad dudes. The central problem with The Elite Squad isn’t that it’s fascist; it’s that it hasn’t decided what it is, torn between interests and characters, and grossly unable (unlike, say Fincher’s Zodiac) of capturing a social panorama inside a genre structure, and allowing the wider world to inform the film. It’s too confused to be a training manual for anything.
Albertina Carri isn’t confused at all. Although her last feature pretty much stunk up the room–the let’s-just-forget-about-it Geminis–she has a lasting place in young Argentine cinema with her landmark autobiographical document, Los rubios. With La rabia–which translates as “The Anger,” though it should really retain it’s Spanish title since it identifies the name of a cafe-bar in the small farming town where the film’s set–she has raised her game to a new level. Everything in La rabia is pickled in emotional tension, impending violence, psychic dread and a poisonous stream of vengeance that’s in the class of the best of Peckinpah. A long-running feud between ranchers reaches a tipping point when a weasel from one ranch gets away and attacks cattle in another. When farmer Poldo (Victor Hugo Carrizo) later discovers what his young mute daughter Nati (Nazarena Duarte) has known all along–that her mother Alejandra (Analia Couceyro) is having ultra-kinky sex with rival farmer Pichon (Javier Lorenzo)–it’s enough for murder to happen. But La rabia is most inside Nati’s head, who acts out by stripping off her clothes, releasing screams at a piercing high pitch and pencilling stark and even obscene pictures, which Carri lets flight in animation sequences that appear done by Ralph Steadman at full rage. Nati, in reality, is cinema: She observes life around her and makes images out of it with accompanying sounds, and like many tough, uncompromising films (like this one), they all combine to send her parents into a tizzy. Carri’s is a horror film down on the farm, and it comes close to sui generis, capped by a recurring motif of the weasel, kept secure in a cage, but seen in close-up opening its toothy mouth, with jaw wide open, and emitting a hissing sound that can haunt nightmares. It’s already done it for me, and I’m afraid it’ll continue to do so for weeks to come.