(2019) Drama (Artsploitation) Juan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Lucas Balmaceda, Sebastián Ayala, Cesare Serra, Catalina Martin, José Antonio Raffo, Paola Volpato, Nicolás Zárate, Paula Zuñiga. Directed by Sebastián Muñoz
The thing about prison movies is that they lend themselves to exploitation. Very rarely do we get anything set in a prison that is thought-provoking without it sinking into a morass of sexuality and violence.
In this Chilean film, there is certainly a lot of sex. Jaime (Maldonado), described in the press materials as a “hot-tempered narcissist,” impulsively stabs someone to death and ends up imprisoned. This is during the Pinochet regime in Chile, one of the most brutal and repressive governments ever, so don’t expect a whole lot of rehabilitation going on here. In fact, once he’s thrown into the hellhole, the key is neatly disposed of and he’s expected to rot, or end up dead.
But the thing about Jaime is that he’s a resilient sort and the thing he has going for him most is that he’s a really good-looking guy. That’s why the BMIP (Big Man in Prison), Potro (Castro), latches on to Jaime and makes him his boy toy. This doesn’t sit well with his previous plaything, who snidely dubs Jaime as “The Prince” and the nickname sticks.
The relationship between Jaime and Potro is bittersweet; Potro may have swagger out in the yard but deep down inside he yearns for prison and is this close to breaking. The brutal, sadistic guards don’t make life any easier for the men in the cell block, which actually ends up suiting Jaime just fine. The trajectories of the two men are aimed in the same direction for a time, but it becomes clear that they are headed in different directions, which isn’t going to be good news for one of them.
Muñoz interweaves what’s going on in the prison with flashbacks to Jaime’s life before he murdered someone. We see his previous relationship with Ricardo (Zárate) and see in it a parallel. This isn’t about freedom; it’s about how we tend to follow the same paths over and over again.
There is a good deal of gay sex, but don’t expect flowers and rainbows. It’s brutal and joyless, all about release and power. Even when we see Jaime having sex with a woman earlier in the film, the sex is still the same – absolutely no desire to satisfy his partner so long as he himself gets off. When he gets what he wants, he’s gone. That element is also present in the sexual encounters in prison. There’s nothing sexy about it, although I’m sure there are a lot of straight women who will nod knowingly at the site – and more than a few gay men as well. The sex begins to become a numbing agent, but then again, what are you going to do with your time in prison.
Maldonado is certainly a handsome man, but his portrayal of Jaime is extremely low-key. There isn’t a lot of depth to the character; we know he’s self-involved, we know he is all about the booty call, we know he’s not terribly bright. Beyond that, it feels like he’s just treading water as an actor, which isn’t what you want from a lead performance. In a lot of ways Castro, who starred in one of Chile’s most honored films (Tony Manero), gives Potro the depth that Jaime lacks. I think Jaime is supposed to be the protagonist, but he ends up being almost secondary in his own story. That’s kind of an odd feeling, and I’m not sure if the decision to make it so was a conscious one by Muñoz or if Castro is just that good an actor. A little bit of both, I suspect.
Prudes and those made uncomfortable by gay sex will not like this much. There is a lot to unpack here and that’s okay, but still I ended up wishing that Maldonado had given us more to hang our hats on with Jaime. A little bit more depth here and this would have been an extraordinary film, instead of just an ordinary one.
REASONS TO SEE: Castro is an incendiary presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jaime doesn’t have enough depth as a character to carry the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of male on male sex, graphic nudity, rape, profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film as a director for Muñoz; his background is as in art direction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Prophet
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Medicine