Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

#Female Pleasure


Getting down about FGM in Africa.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Vithika Yadav, Mike Scott. Directed by Barbara Miller

 

There are those who think “feminist” is a dirty word, that they are strident man-haters out to castrate the opposite sex and turn the world into a matriarchy. That the feminist movement might have legitimate and pressing concerns doesn’t necessarily occur to those sorts.

Swiss documentarian Barbara Miller looks at five women who are fighting different aspects of oppression that women face on a global scale. Closest to home is Deborah Feldman, an author and former member of New York’s Hassidic denomination of the Jewish faith. She found herself married to a man she barely knew and with absolutely no control over the direction she wanted her life to go. She decided to leave the faith and to take her son with her; she remains one of the few Hassidic women to win custody of her son when leaving the faith. She is reviled by those she formerly was part of the community with.

Former nun Doris Wagner, who while serving in a convent in the Vatican was raped by a priest there. When she confessed what happened to her to the Mother Superior, she found herself treated like a criminal, that it was her fault what happened to her. Essentially without recourse and feeling alone, she took the drastic step of renouncing her vows and attempting to communicate her story directly to Pope Francis, who she felt (as many Catholics do) might be ready to do something about the dangerous and brutal situation in the convent. To date, however, there have been no changes although Wagner is much happier these days as a wife and mother.

Japanese manga artist Rokudenashiko got into trouble when she made a model on a 3D printer of her vagina in order to make art out of them (including a fiberglass kayak). In a culture that is replete with porn, it was amazing to her that the depiction of a part of her body would elicit such a negative response but she was in fact arrested and charged with obscenity. She was eventually convicted of publishing the schematics so that others could use 3D printers to replicate her vagina, which falls under the corruption of minors. She continues to appeal the conviction, although she is now dating Mike Scott, formerly of the Welsh band The Alarm, who was drawn to her plot by a news story about her.

Indian activist Vithika Yadav is a founder of the Love Matters website. If rape is a problem here in the United States, it’s an absolute epidemic in India where women are regularly groped and assaulted. Most women in India do not feel safe going out after dark without a trusted escort. Yadav is trying to create an atmosphere where men learn to respect women and see them as partners rather than as chattel.

Somali refugee Leyla Hussein lives in London now, but in the country of her birth was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation, a barbaric practice in which the clitoris is cut off as well as in some cases other parts of the vagina so that women can no longer experience sexual pleasure. One of the most compelling scenes in the film has her showing on an oversize clay model to a group of Somali young men exactly what is done in the procedure. The horror on their faces speaks volumes.

While at times the tone gets a little shrill, this definitely isn’t an anti-man film; rather, it is anti-abuse of women. All five of these women just want women to retain control over their bodies and their lives. As has been said elsewhere, if the Somalis practiced the hacking off of male penises, a stop would have been put to it forthwith but the practice is spreading as refugees from countries that practice it are moving into Europe and North America.

The women are passionate and personable and tell their stories eloquently. If Hussein breaks down in frustration as she does at one point, it’s understandable. When you think about it, there has been a cultural fear of the vagina on a global scale for millennia. Women have been forced into arranged marriages (as have men, to be fair) but more to the point, into arranged roles in which they are subservient.

Even in Japan, women are encouraged to look and act more child-like with big bows in their hair and cutesy schoolgirl clothes, something Rokudenashiko buys into which I found a bit ironic. This is certainly a film for the #MeToo era although this isn’t just about rape – it’s about the oppression of half the worlds population by the other half. This is certainly an eye-opening movie and if you have an uncle who thinks feminists are lesbians who want to see men mowed down by machine gun fire, you might want to plunk them down and show them this film. Not that it would make much of an impression of the Rush Limbaugh-lovers, but you never know.

REASONS TO SEE: Looks at the issues of feminism with a global perspective. The storytelling is compact but often harrowing nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get strident at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, artistic depiction of female genitals and discussions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over the course of five years with locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mountaintop

Nona


See no evil.

(2017) Drama (Rock Salt) Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Diana Cabuto, Jasper Polish, Giancarlo Ruiz, Brittney Bell, Mildraide Lazarre, Lily Melgar, Chris Arellano, Ramsay Phelps, Jonathan Contreras, Billy Helmers, Mariana Cabrera Orozco. Directed by Michael Polish

 

Illegal immigration is a hot button topic these days and while some may chafe at the label “human rights crisis” that is in fact a more-than-adequate description of what’s going on at our southern border. Poverty and violence in Central and South American nations has led to a wave of refugees trying to make it to the United States and what has to be a better life than the one they are faced with.

Nona (Calderon) works in a small Honduran city “painting the dead”; that is, putting make-up on corpses at a local funeral home to make them funeral-ready. She is essentially alone; her father was gunned down on the way home from the local grocery to purchase a bag of chips, her brother knifed by a criminal gang, and her mother fled to America. Nona wants to join her but neither Nona nor her mother can afford the cost of getting her there.

Enter Hecho (McKinney), a bowler-wearing hipster with a free spirit and breezy attitude that belies his broken heart. He’s headed for Mexico – specifically Tijuana – and is willing to take Nona along for the company. She can pay him back for the expenses later. Although Nona is a smart and worldly sort, she finds the charm that Hecho exudes irresistible and agrees to go with him.

At first it seems like a great idea. Hecho seems to be in no particular hurry as they take various buses through the Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico, sometimes taking boats and on one occasion, a yacht. Sometimes they just hoof it but Hecho seems to have plenty of money to buy food, and occasionally party in bars and discos. The difficult and dangerous journey to the border is portrayed essentially as a stroll in the park. But when Nona reaches the border and Hecho turns her over to a coyote who will get her into the country, the parting of ways hides a dark truth that will shatter Nona’s life.

The movie makes a very jarring turn about two thirds of the way in and it is completely unexpected. I toyed with the idea of revealing what that turn is but decided not to reveal it to give that turn greater impact. Suffice to say it reflects a problem that is all too prevalent in the immigration equation.

The first two thirds of the movie could well be a travelogue with the attractive couple of Nona and Hecho sampling the culture along the way. The cinematography is idyllic and the pace somewhat languid. There is no romantic relationship between Hecho and Nona and little sexual tension so any thoughts of romance through the first part of the movie is best left put on the back-burner.

I don’t have a problem with tonal shifts in films, even ones as completely opposite as the tone of the last half hour is to the first hour. The problem is that the first hour of the movie doesn’t really set up the last 30 minutes adequately; it feels like the filmmakers wanted to give the audience a sense of how Nona must have felt when confronted by her situation which changed radically in a matter of moments. It almost feels like two different films and maybe it is. I think Polish would have benefited by spending more time on the second half of the film and less on the first.

Polish is a veteran director who has an impressively diverse filmography, although none of his films to date have really blown me away. I think this one was meant to but at the end of the day, while it is timely and even borderline essential, it is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between the leads is strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The abrupt shift in narrative is jarring and not adequately set up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual situations, rape, profanity, violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trafficked
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Echo in the Canyon

Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil)


Girls on patrol.

(2018) War Drama (Cohen Media Group) Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zübeyde Bulut, Sinama Allevi, Mari Semidovi, Roza Mirzolani, Zinaida Gasolani, Maia Shamoevi, Nia Mirianashvili, Evin Ahmad, Ahmet Zirek, Erol Afsin, Nuka Asatiani, Behi Djanati Atal, Adik Bakoni, Tornike Alievi, Hamid Mirzolin, Farook Fadhil Hussein, Massoud Seydo, Kakha Kupatadze, Nino Osmanovi. Directed by Eva Husson

 

The Middle East has been ripped by conflict for decades now; the incursions of ISIS into Iraq and Syria only the recent chapter in a blood-soaked narrative. In 2015, news stories related the plight of women in Kurdistan who had been captured by ISIS, raped and sold into slavery; some of these escaped their captors and enlisted in the armed forces to fight back against their oppressors.

French journalist Mathilde (Bercot) is grieving for her husband who died in Libya months previously. She is not satisfied with her assignments, feeling they are not really telling the story of the atrocities going on. She hooks up with a platoon of women who have all survived capture by ISIS. They are led by the driven Bahar (Farahani), a former lawyer whose home town of Corduene is about to be the focus of an offensive by Kurdish forces.

Bahar and Mathilde bond as the French woman grows to admire the sisters of the battalion. Bahar is aware that her son (Alievi) remains in captivity in Corduene and looks to liberate him but is frustrated by an overly cautious commander (Zirek) who prefers to wait for the right time, unconcerned that time may be ticking away on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Husson clearly is passionate about the plight of these women and at times that works against her; the dialogue (which she co-wrote) is often bombastic and ponderous, sounding like a Hemingway account of war if it had been ghost-written by Sidney Sheldon. The film could have used a lighter touch but rather hits the audience like a bludgeon, from the overwrought score to the flashbacks which are often confusing.

That aside, there’s plenty to like here. The cinematography is superb and the action sequences are satisfying. More importantly, Farahani proves herself to be an actress with serious potential. Her expressive face often communicates much more than the clunky dialogue does and Farahani displays an excess of screen presence. This might be looked back upon as the film in which Farahani shows star potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see her in more.

The story the film is trying to tell is an important one and a tragic one. It’s really hard to understand how any religion can justify the treatment of other human beings this way. I guess I’m just an ignorant infidel but certainly there are moments that will get any reasonably feeling audience member’s blood boiling. I wish that the story had been handled with a lot more finesse, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Farahani delivers a triumphant performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker comes on too strong with the portents of doom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some disturbing images, a bit of profanity and off-screen rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Husson became interested in the film after reading accounts of captive women escaping and taking up arms against ISIS. Because she had forged some strong relationships with Kurdish actors she’d toured with previously, the story resonated with her particularly.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Biggest Little Farm

Roll Red Roll


We revere our sons but marginalize our daughters.

(2018) Documentary (Sunset ParkAlexandria Goddard, Detective J.P. Rigaud, Ma’lik Richmond, Shawn McGee, Michael Nodramus, Jeremy Jones, Rachel Dissell, Michelle Nelson, Mark Nelson, Gretchen Nelson, Madeleine Nelson, Mario Cuomo, Jeno Atkins, Vinnie Fristick, Reno Saccoccia, Walter Madison, Mike DeWine, Mike McVey, Marianne Hemmeter, Michele Robinson. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman

Rape culture has become an aspect of the news cycle in recent years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement in which women on social media who have experienced some sort of sexual crime from harassment to rape identified themselves as survivors. We have seen it in the light, inconsequential sentences given to those convicted of rape. We have seen it in the way those who report it are traumatized not only by the crime but by how they are treated afterwards. Boys will be boys, and boys rape or at least so the line of thinking goes.

Steubenville is a small town in the Rust Belt, a largely working-class town. There are not a lot of opportunities in Steubenville; most people have dead end jobs in the service industry as the manufacturing jobs that were once the town’s lifeblood are mainly gone. It’s most famous resident was the legendary Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin; after that, the town’s pride and joy is its high school football team which has won ten Ohio State championships since 1925 and as recently as 2017. The town supports its football team with a fervor verging on the religious.

In August 2012, a preseason party in Steubenville ended up with a student from another school (identified in the film only as Jane Doe, although the girl involved was identified by name on Fox News and other outlets) was raped by several members of the Steubenville football team. The girl had been drinking a lot to the point where she was passed out or nearly so. Two of the members of that team – Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays – transported her to another party and then to a third. Photos were taken. Video was taken. Tweets were made.

The girl was humiliated by the social media attention, amounting to a second rape. She decided to press charges even though her memory of the evening was very fuzzy. Detective J.P. Rigaud was assigned the case and he began the process of interviewing people at the party that she last remembered being at – the first one.

In the meantime, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard – who grew up in Steubenville although she was then based in Columbus – saw an item about two football players being charged in the rape of a teenage girl and thought that there had to be more to it than that. She began digging, looking up tweets and Facebook posts, even managing to search the archives of Twitter to see deleted tweets.

What she found was shocking – the utter lack of empathy, the objectification, the misogyny displayed by the boys (and even to a certain extent the girls of Steubenville High who shrugged and said “She should never have gone with those boys”) who joked about the event “Song of the night: Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.” “Holy shit! Something crazy’s going down, bro” and “She got raped harder than that black cop raped Marcellus Wallace.”

The town reacted with a mixture of shock – some shocked that the boys would behave as they did, others shocked that the blogger would treat their football stars as guilty before they’d even gone on trial.” Goddard was reviled and even feared for her safety as supporters of the football team called her all sorts of vile names and wished all sorts of disgusting things to be done to her. Eventually the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up the story, then the New York Times. Finally, the hacktivist group Anonymous picked up on Jane Doe’s story and organized protests in Steubenville, targeting (somewhat unfairly) the police response, the town’s reaction, the lack of internal punishment for the players (neither Mays nor Richmond were kicked off the team despite the hard line taken by Coach Reno Saccoccia on underage drinking on his team.

Schwartzman presents the details dispassionately and chronologically. She is obviously outraged by what happened and she uses the film as a means of illustrating what rape culture means in a small American Midwestern town, supposedly the bastion of American values. One reporter mused “In protecting our sons are we putting our daughters at risk?” The short answer: yes.

The issue I have is that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Boys aren’t born rapists; we see only a little bit of the atmosphere that produced Mays and Richmond as well as the rest of the football team who thought this girl’s suffering was a big joke. While Richmond breaks down when apologizing to Jane Doe and her family in court, we never get a sense if Mays ever felt remorse or if the rest of the team felt any. Did anybody actually learn anything?

Also, these kids are all working class kids. I wonder if this case would have been treated the same way if the defendants came from a more privileged background. We’ve seen high profile cases in which wealthy white young men got off virtually consequence free for their actions. Some would say that relatively speaking, Mays and Richmond did the same.

Maybe that wasn’t Schwartzman’s function as a documentarian to find all the answers. The question is certainly raised in my mind at least so in that sense the documentary is a success, but it is a very hard film to watch emotionally and especially for those affected directly or (in my case) indirectly by rape, misogyny and sexual objectification. Goddard – the heroine of this story and a true inspiration – wrestles with the thought that she may be causing Jane Doe harm by forcing her to endlessly relive the events of that evening. Goddard comes off as a tough cookie but she dissolves into tears thinking about it.

Rape culture is a fact and we are living in it. Attitudes have to change, that much is certain. Women don’t deserve to be raped, no matter how much they drink, what they might choose to wear or where they choose to be. Men are not entitled to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t give consent. Maybe in some way this movie – which will be playing the Florida Film Festival in a few weeks – will help move that change along.

REASONS TO SEE: The facts are well-presented. This may be the most in-your-face depiction of rape culture ever captured.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is a very hard movie to watch even if you haven’t directly been a survivor of sexual violence but particularly if you have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and frank discussions about rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was selected to kick off the 2019 season of the acclaimed PBS documentary film series POV in June.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Blue

Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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