By ROBERT KOEHLER
With the happy sights today of one of my favorite comrades in cinephilia, critic-programmer Roger Koza (see his Spanish-language site, ojosabiertos.wordpress.com); the always convivial Screen International critic from Tel Aviv (via Paris) Dan Fainaru; veteran Latin American cinema programmer Denis De La Roca; Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix critic (and maker of the new doc about American critics, For the Love of Movies, screening here fresh off its South by Southwest premiere); and Holland Film’s best ambassador, Claudia Landsberger, I knew Guadalajara had begun in earnest. After breakfast with the Hollywood Reporter’s man in Mexico City, John Hecht (with whom I had endured the first, brutal day of press screenings capped by the film-that-would-never-end, Hernandez’ Rabioso Sol, Rabioso Cielo), and taking in the latest wave of wrath directed at the inexcusable AIG money pit as related on CNN International in my hotel room, I walked a few blocks from my hotel through lovely residential streets to the Centro Magno shopping mall (dirty, open secret: all film festivals now play in malls) for the second day of press screenings.
The signs, to quote one of the annoying characters in Gerardo Tort’s beyond-annoying Viaje Redondo, weren’t good. That is, if any single day of viewing during a festival can be taken as a sign, then this year’s crop of Mexican narrative films looks like it may fall far from the mark. Tort, whose major credit is the okay De la calle, is just awful this time around, indifferently shooting his sloppy road movie with a matching-cut format during one talky scene after another in a way that might be fine for TV (well, TV during the daytime), but virtually unwatchable in a cinema. The things he and his screenwriters Marina Stavenhagen (who also co-wrote De la calle) and Beatriz Novaro have to do to make sure that their two characters, a middle-class college gal and a working-class beautician from the wrong side of the tracks in Acapulco, get stranded in the middle of nowhere are object lessons on how to make a bad film.
And we’ve seen films like Eva Lopez-Sanchez’ La ultima y nos vamos (which awkwardly translates into something like The End and Us) a thousand times before—the one where a group of rich Mexico City folks get lost in the big city at night and discover how the other half (or in Mexico, the other 95%) live. The story pattern is so basic and graphed that it hardly seems written at all, let alone lived, let alone filmed. Stupid rich white guys get drunk, get high, get robbed, get beaten up, almost get laid by a stripper, do get laid by a bus driver (on her bus, during her work shift), don’t get home on time, lose their wallet, their cell phone, almost lose their lives, and all manage to stay intact and return home to the safety of their rich white homes. And this is all to point to…what exactly? This kind of unexamined, robotic filmmaking isn’t what Mexican cinema needs, and it’s not needed in Mexico’s biggest annual showcase.
Nestor Sampieri’s Reforma 18: Trappings of Power might be a fairly good documentary on courageous journalists walking out of one paper—the big, gray Excelsior—and setting up the once-rebellious magazine, Proceso. I say “might” because his video was screened in the wrong format at today’s press screening, and ended up looking pixilated to a point where it was hard to watch. Still, there’s a heroic tale of journalism in action here, and a telling study in how politics in Mexico begins and ends with the office of the President, which has been filled for decades with hacks, cronies, thieves, crooks and worse.
Saving the day was Jose Padilha’s Garapa, which partly redeems his last, despicable Berlin-winning exploitation machine, Elite Squad. From celebrating secret fascist cops to casting an unflinching eye on some of Brazil’s most desperately poor in the northeast state of Ceara—hard to get a handle on this Padilha fellow, whose worldview seems to gaze in all directions, and through the prisms of all ideologies. Whatever Padilha’s politics, this is one uncompromising filmmaker, co-existing and absorbing the everyday harshness of unrelieved poverty, without even the soothing effect of color. (Padilha shoots in a grainy black-and-white that looks deliberately like a tribute to Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ early Cinema Novo masterpiece, Vidas secas.) Will anyone stay through to the closing credits, as my Variety colleague Leslie Felperin doubted in Berlin, after having watched many scenes of fly-infested hovels with unclothed babies and overwhelmed, unemployed parents struggling just to get basic foodstuffs? Africa is the land of ultimate poverty: That’s the received media image and popular assumption, but Garapa (titled after the sugar-water that these moms must feed their babies in lieu of milk) argues that, no, extreme poverty is worldwide, on all continents, and possibly worse at the lowest levels than it’s ever been. Criticism is nearly suspended in light of such an act of cinematic witness.
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• It looked like Theo Angelopoulos was coming to Guadalajara for the North American premiere of his latest, The Dust of Time. Angelopoulos, though, has had to cancel for undisclosed reasons.
• Don’t expect many Argentine films in Cannes, one year after Argentina dominated the festival in almost every section, particularly the Quinzaine with Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool.
• The market at Guadalajara has expanded this year, with several more and larger booths, including a major presence from national film promotions in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, receiving the festival’s traditional national survey. But where are Chile and Peru, two countries starting to make a major impact at world-class festivals?
• Gerald Peary reports that For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism went over “great” in South by Southwest, and is set to go from here to San Francisco, Nashville and beyond.
• If you think the recent musical chairs at festivals—Geoff Gilmore out of Sundance and in at Tribeca with John (Cooper) Cooper replacing him in Park City, Peter Scarlet out at Tribeca, Kent Jones out of Film Society at Lincoln Center, Rebecca Yeldham in as director of LAFF—is strictly an American phenomenon, think again. Fernando Pena, once artistic head of BAFICI after the Quintin era, has left the Mar del Plata festival after one year. Though it was set as a temporary gig, Pena was open to the idea that it might go on a bit longer. But now, he has what sounds like his dream job: Hosting a Monday-Friday program (airing, in pure Argentine fashion, at midnight) featuring works of classic cinema. Pena, a major archivist and private collector, and the man who discovered the complete version of Lang’s Metropolis in Buenos Aires, is now in his element, albeit not in a cinema. I didn’t get the channel, but I will once I get to BsAs, and pass it along. It all recalls KCET’s great cinema series, Film Odyssey, which aired in the early to mid-‘70s and was one of my earliest cinema schools. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin hosted the weekly show, which generously dipped into the Janus Films catalogue, long before it became the Criterion Collection. Speaking of which, it’s time to pull Film Odyssey out of the video vaults—if the videotapes still exist.
Next: Day 3, in which I hope to discover Philippe Grandrieux…..