ARTS

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April 22, 2005

Latino film fest shows growing up is (still) hard to do

When the lights are dimmed, those few moments between the end of the sponsor segment and the beginning of the film are akin to time travel. Indeed, Buenos Aires 100 km (Argentina, 2000) and A Costa Dos Murmúrios (Portugal, 2004) both allow the audience to do a bit of time-traveling, whether back to the cusp of adolescence or back to Mozambique in the 1960s, when the natives were fighting for independence from Portugal.

Buenos Aires 100 km was preceded by a short called La Nao de China, about a man gradually going blind. He asks for a prostitute's services at a local whorehouse, but all he does is paint her body bright red, telling her he came to see a beautiful woman for the last time. Director Patricia Arriaga Jordan uses soft-focus liberally to achieve not only the physical sensation of blindness but also a faint nostalgia, accentuated by the little touches of red in the man's wardrobe. When he's leaving that night, she runs up to him, wearing a red dress strung through with bright lights. It's a beautiful ending for a touching 10-minute film.

Buenos Aires 100 km has a fairly incomplete feeling to it— -- a sense that, although there might have been a real storyline underneath all the exposition, it wasn't unearthed in time to be given its due; however, because it is Pablo José Meza's directorial debut, perfection cannot be expected. Esteban, Alejo, Guido, Matias, and Damian are five friends spending their 13th summer together in the small town where they've lived their entire lives. Fresh-faced but not so innocent, they've learned to keep secrets from each other. As an equipo de fútbol they're ineffectual even while showing admirable camaraderie, but as individual boys they're disastrous.

One afternoon, Lorena, a rich girl from Buenos Aires, arrives, and Esteban is immediately smitten. He attends a technical school at the behest of his strict parents, but his real passion is fiction. Over the course of the summer he completes a short story, not to entertain his friends but to impress the girl. His struggle to please his no-nonsense father while living out the waning days of his childhood seems to be the central conflict of the film, but Meza teases the audience by giving glimpses into the discord in the other four boys' lives.

It's not that Esteban himself (a promising Juan Ignacio Perez Roca) isn't interesting enough to fill the screen, but his personal battles lack the intensity to coax the audience into sympathy. Guido (curly-haired Alan Ardel), on the other hand, has a much more compelling story. His father is your typical abusive bastard, and because Guido is forced to work long hours helping his father's delivery business, he often misses out on the gossip that fills the other boys' heads. Still, when he is around his friends, he becomes a staunch defender of his father's behavior. Even Damian's story— -- he finds out he was adopted— -- has more coming-of-age appeal.

This not to say the film is disappointing. The boy actors are all incredibly talented, each bearing his cross with an appropriate mix of nostalgia for childhood and eagerness for adulthood. The last scene, where the five gather for the last pick-up game of the summer, leaves a deep impact on the boys as well as the audience. After the camera closes in on the empty spaces where their last, greatest victory took place, even the barber (who usually has to shoo them away from his front step) looks around his empty porch almost fondly.

A Costa Dos Murmúrios centers around Evita, a young bride freshly arrived in Mozambique during the restless last days of the Portuguese occupation. Soon after the wedding, Evita realizes that the Luís whom she used to love is gone, replaced by a man who seems constantly on-edge, largely due to the influence of his crude and ruthless commanding officer. She wants him to remember the way they were; he wants her to stay locked up in her bedroom while he is gone.

The commanding officer's wife, Helena (symbolically nicknamed "Helen of Troy"), is glamorous but desperate to escape Mozambique. When the men are sent on a military mission, the two women bond over the jagged reality of their identities and roles, in both a feminist and a colonialist context. In this world, where lovers' quarrels are sorted out by Russian roulette and where the natives are poisoned in droves by methyl alcohol, the women are married only to death, and their idealism sticks out like a missing pistol.

The art direction in A Costa Dos Murmúrios tends toward a dusty, dry starkness, achieving a questionable sepia effect. With all the secrets and plot developments of the original story, there should be no need for a side serving of love interests or extraneous characters. Director Margarida Cardoso takes things slowly, maybe too slowly, establishing an insufferably sleepy pace along with the dark, colorless lighting and eerie piano music. The film unravels when it should, although both of the female leads (Beatriz Batarda -- elegant but not quite striking -- as Evita and Monica Calle as Helena, who retains a Titian pulcherity even while playing a paranoid colonialist) turn impressive performances as women fed up with violence but too afraid to do anything but pass judgment.

It's Cardoso's mastery of the details -- —a fuzzy newsreel opening sequence, a portentous rain of locusts— -- that save the film from being a sleeper. She is an old hand at symbolism; a random officer tells Evita during the wedding, "Africa is yellow," and for the rest of the film we are drawn to splashes of yellow, in the women's clothing, in the teeth of the smiling natives. In an early scene, the men take their wives to shoot at flamingos, and although they mock the passivity of the birds at first, the pink creatures eventually fly away, proving that even stupid birds will leave after being shot at too many times.

The bildungsroman has remained a popular genre in film through the years, proving that maturing has remained a very painful process. Buenos Aires 100 km and A Costa Dos Murmúrios both offer the directors' own take on adolescence and adulthood, with children learning how to grow up and adults learning how to grow wiser, and what it means to progress along life's linear timeline.