ARTS

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April 12, 2005

Festival showcases diverse world of Latino film

The Chicago Latino Film Festival is older than half of the University's undergraduate population, myself included. Its 21-year history is testament to "the dreams, visions, and goals of the Latino community," remarked International Latino Cultural Center founder and president Pepe Vargas, and if the 900-plus films screened since its inception are any indication, the commitment and passion of all who have been involved- is to be commended. The 21st Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off on Friday night with the Opening Gala, which included consulates from all around the world, elite sponsors, and even a magician, gathered in celebration of this rich cultural legacy.

The opening night film was Cachimba (Chile, 2004), a story about one man's obsession with art, adapted from José Donoso's short story, "Still Life with Pipe." Marcos (Pablo Schwarz) is a bank clerk preoccupied with seducing his chubby girlfriend Hilda (Mariana Loyola, who is 10 times cuter than Bridget Jones). To speed things up, Marcos invites Hilda to take a seaside vacation with him, but instead of romance, the pair stumble upon a treasure trove: El Museo de Larco, housed in a dump and maintained by a loud, coarse drunk named Felipe (Julio Jung, almost brilliantly offensive).

It is obvious that Marcos starts to fancy himself an everyday Larco, struggling to make life into a masterpiece and experiencing little failures along the way. However, his quest to rescue Larco's works from obscurity is blocked by, well, everybody. First, his oration to the Chilean equivalent of a national art preservation society, worthy of any hopeful revolutionary, is met with snores. They are connoisseurs, not lovers of art, so Marcos turns to a banker friend, who conjures up a rhapsodic press release about Marcos's discovery. Suddenly, Larco is hot news, and Marcos must struggle to save him not from neglect but from the greedy paws of everybody around him.

Director Silvio Caiozzi raises some interesting questions, most importantly, who owns art -- society at large or the individual? Unfortunately, the answer is buried beneath the lengthy plot and menagerie of side characters. We lose sight of Hilda for a good chunk of the film, only to have her re-emerge for the requisite reconciliation with Marcos. Caiozzi's attention to aesthetics makes the film messy in parts, careless splashes where there should be smooth brushstrokes, but this tendency lends itself well to the moments when reeling emotions need to be displayed -- the dizzying sensation of discovery, for example, or the frightening realization that Larco's work (and Marcos's passion) will never be understood. Fortunately for Cachimba, the characters are endearing enough to be memorable, even though its hefty running time (127 minutes) may feel as long as a drowsy museum tour.

If Cachimba is an imaginative black comedy, then Cautiva (Argentina, 2003) is the polar opposite, doused with the cold realism of Argentina's brutal dictatorship during the 1970s. In 1994, Cristina Quadri (the luminous Bárbara Lombardo) celebrates her cumpleaños, surrounded by family and friends. In class the next day, a classmate questions the political structure in Argentina, where the present government has pardoned military officers guilty of human rights abuses during the dictatorship; she is ejected from school for her outburst. A few days later, Cristina herself is pulled out of class and sent to a federal courthouse, where a judge tells her that she is not biologically related to her parents, that she is really the daughter of two of the estimated 30,000 desaparecidos, or "disappeared persons" -- victims of the "dirty war" propagated by the dictatorship to silence activists.

Confused and understandably indignant, Cristina runs from the courthouse, only to have the truth affirmed by her surrogate parents. She meets her biological grandmother, Elisa Dominich (Susana Campos), who tells Cristina her real name was intended to be Sofía Lombardi. Now she has two names, two identities, two pasts, and two versions of the truth. As the photographs surface, artifacts are discovered, and the history of her biological parents are fleshed out, their existence becomes undeniable; what's left is for Cristina to fill in the blank circumstances of her birth.

Cautiva, directed by Gastón Biraben, handles the moral issues delicately, faulting neither the Quadris, who were unable to produce a child of their own, for their past actions, nor the Argentinean judiciary for conducting the underhanded blood tests that led to this result. The real crux of the film, then, lies in Cristina's emotional response and growth. Lombardi has articulate, beautiful eyes that lend her believability as a girl caught in between the comfortable routine of her old life and the displaced sadness of this new, uncertain life.

Biraben's direction is sensible and straightforward; only once does he falter, by including one of those terribly symbolic dream sequences involving a hooded figure whose identity we never find out. The final revelation, in which Cristina is told the truth about her birth, is shot entirely in flashback, its green tones evocative of grimy, harsh prison environment. It is the starkness of such moments and Lombardi's expressive range that make Cautiva an aching, lovely film to watch.

Frío Sol de Invierno (Spain, 2003) is supposed to be uncomfortable for the viewer, but descends into lukewarm comfortableness. Pablo Malo's first feature film is ostensibly about a disturbed man whose path crosses with that of a meek young pushover and his prostitute mother. The main character, Adrián (Unax Ugalde, or, as he is called at one point in the film, el guapo), is released from a mental hospital after finding out that his father left town while he was institutionalized, bequeathing a house and monetary compensation. The house is stately and seemingly abandoned, which attracts the doleful Gonzalo (Javier Pereira, here as harmless as a placebo), who breaks in only to find that the house is occupied after all.

Adrián has money, and Gonzalo has access to a gun; since both have what the other needs, an agreement is met. We also meet a scrapworker and his pretty daughter (the object of Gonzalo's clueless affections), Gonzalo's prostitute neighbor Carmen, who is completely useless to the film, except maybe to illustrate the bleakness of her occupation (although her story hardly matters when we meet Raquel, Gonzalo's mother, whose grisly life is enough of a cautionary tale), and other forgettable characters.

Somewhere along the way, Adrián's original motive -- to confront his father about abandoning him -- changes to something unidentifiable. This is the downfall of the film; Malo ascribes no motives, ulterior or otherwise, to his characters. As a result, there are no shocking twists, nothing to keep the audience on edge, none of the "cold winter sun" alluded to by its title. Frío Sol is a little like Adrián himself-possibly bipolar, unsure of its own identity. Is the film a thriller? Creepy, repetitive flashbacks seem to indicate so. On the other hand, the drama is repeatedly shoved in our faces, as Adrián, resentful enough to commit multiple acts of senseless violence, is reduced to tears every time he encounters a painful memory. Raquel explains to Adrián at one point, "I spend all my time waiting for everything to go away," and by the end of the film, when Adrián does something so inexplicable that we wonder whether the previous 99 minutes even mattered and find ourselves identifying with the old whore's words.