Days in Guadalajara: Day 1

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By ROBERT KOEHLER

Being told that you’re the first member of the press to check in at a film festival and get a badge produces strange feelings. Beyond the automatic response—“Where is everyone else?”—is the lurking sense that you’re the only one of your kind within earshot or cell phone signal. And in a city the size of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest, that sense is stranger, though only really an illusion. I merely showed up early to the party. Most arrive Wednesday (when I’m writing this, in the lobby of the Cine Foro, the University of Guadalajara’s downtown cinematheque, whose walls are festooned with original film one-sheets produced by ICAIC, Cuba’s national film institute receiving a retrospective tribute during the festival) and Thursday, opening night of the Guadalajara’s 24th edition.

Which raises a question: Why open with Otro pelicula de huevos y un pollo, a broad, basic animated feature (and sequel) geared mainly to kids? As I’m writing, the movie’s soundtrack of loud sound effects, audible-through-concrete voiceovers and Disneyesque music bleeding into the lobby is more than enough to suggest that this is fine for a Saturday morning screening during the festival, but not for opening night at the massive Telmex Auditorium. (Seating: 10,000.) Last year’s pick, the lovely and classical documentary on Argentine tango composers and musicians, Casa de los maestros, was pitch-perfect. Festival director Jorge Sanchez’ reported defense during the opening press conference (relayed to me by a few journalists who attended) was direct though curious: Cannes has opened with Shrek, so why can’t we open with an animated movie about a bunch of talking eggs and a chicken? (And as we get ready to post this, news arrives that Cannes is opening with Disney/Pixar’s Up, so Sanchez has some kind of point. Still, Otro pelicula con huevos will never be confused with John Lasseter’s brand of animation.)

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Our Beloved Month of August

On paper, things do look better than this once the competition begins in earnest. It’s especially gratifying to see that a radical film of the nature of Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August slotted in the Ibero-American contest. Gomes’ on-the-spot experiment in allowing fiction to bleed into non-fiction and back again would typically have had no place in Guadalajara editions of yore, and in recent years would have ended up in Mexico (if it came to Mexico at all…..suddenly the chicken and eggs movie is getting extremely loud, with a horrific rip-off of metal rock on the soundtrack…) at FICCO, the beloved cinephilic event in Mexico City. But FICCO’s owner, theatrical distributor Cinemex, forcing the exit of director Paola Estorga, soon followed by program directors Michel Lipkes and Maximiliano Cruz, has led to a somewhat different kind of FICCO this year that few I know attended, and most reported as fairly disappointing. A FICCO programmed by Lipkes and Cruz would have nabbed the Gomes in a heartbeat after its Quinzaine premiere last year. Now, a vacuum has been more or less created, and Guadalajara is trying to fill it. The Gomes in competition is one way; perhaps the inclusion in the Mexican documentary competition of Eugenio Polgovsky’s Los herederos (which I’ve reviewed for Variety) can be viewed as another. And certainly the creation of a new section, “Alternative Currents,” is another; it’s literally old FICCO in new Guadalajara, since who should be programming the section but Lipkes and Cruz. While interviewing Guadalajara’s programming director, Lucy Virgen, for a preview story for Variety, I told her that this move was smart. She rightly agreed.

As usual with Guadalajara, the tea leaves for the Ibero-American sections are a bit easier to read ahead of time than the Mexican sections, since the latter are dominated by world premieres and, in good measure, debuts. The one known Mexican quantity press screening today—Julian Hernandez’ characteristically sprawling, three-hours-plus Rabioso Sol, Rabioso Cielo (a lovely title in Spanish), while two from abroad and fresh off of prizes and festivals—Alicia Scherson’s Turistas, the second from this extremely promising young Chilean filmmaker, and Javier Fesser’s Goya-laden Camino.

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Turistas

The Scherson is a superb delight, equally light and heavy, a dryly witty odyssey of an emotionally akimbo biochemist from Santiago whose spat with her husband leads to a momentary separation….which leads her to a walk in the woods, and quite possibly a personal rediscovery. Scherson’s first film was a piquant and free n’easy jaunt through Santiago titled Play, and it proved to be a popular pick on the festival circuit. Turistas is several steps forward for Scherson, formally and thematically, and she can certainly now be claimed as one of the most interesting, thoughtful and funniest young South American filmmakers.

Hernandez, alas, is twiddling his thumbs with his latest, which is unconscionably long and bloated with post-Jodorowsky quasi-mythical pretension. Centered around two male lovers, with a third crowding in, his film continues Hernandez’ now-rote mise en scene of tracking and panning cameras around and between young, muscled male bodies, fucking when not kissing, gazing when not fucking, all leading to a final hour that easily ranks among the looniest sequences in recent cinema, which includes among other items one of the bodies emerging out of the caked desert sands dressed in only a loincloth that appears torn off the costume for the actor who plodded through The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and searching for his lost lover in underground caverns, prodded on by a goddess-like presence known as “The Heart of the Sky.” I could only feel one thing through all of this, and that was feeling sorry for the actors, enduring what looks like searing and impossible desert conditions while naked. Hernandez needs to check himself: He’s become an image fetishist, the most dangerous role for a director to adopt.

Fesser’s film, the Slumdog Millionaire of the Goyas (meaning it won too many), is just as bad as Slumdog, maybe worse, a ridiculous exercise in faint anti-clerical drama. Young Nerea Camacho, who plays Camino, an 11-year-old who comes down with a fatal spinal condition while falling in love with a lad named Jesus (and, yes, when she says that she loves Jesus, her priest and everyone else assumes she means the carpenter from Nazareth), is asked to play scene after scene with her eyes so wide open, I thought that they would pop out of her head. More evidence of why Spanish cinema is in so much trouble. (Which reminds me: How can Guadalajara have a section devoted to Catalan cinema, and not include Albert Serra’s El cant dels ocells, likely the only Catalan film worth talking about in the past year or two?)

To Guadalajara’s credit, the program is also full of relevance, stuffed with films straight from Berlin, Rotterdam and Sundance, including Claudio Llosa’s Berlin Golden Bear-winning Milk of Sorrows, the Hernandez (from Berlin Panorama), Jose (Elite Squad) Padilha’s Garapa (also from Panorama), Carlos Serrano’s debut, El arbol (Rotterdam), Sebastian Silva’s La nana (Sundance), Lucia (XXY) Puenzo’s Nino Pez (Berlin), the Scherson (Rotterdam), Gustave de Kervern’s and Benoit Delepine’s latest crazed work, Louise-Michel (Sundance, Rotterdam), and such Berlin Forum entries as Mercedes (El inmortal) Moncada’s La sirena y el buzo, another example of a film that would have been a FICCO natural, but now finds safe harbor in Guadalajara.

Next: Day 2, when the festival really starts going…..

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