ARTS

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April 28, 2006

Chicago Latino Film Festival paints striking portraits of friends and lovers

My first experience with Spanish language film was when I was the only non-Latin American person in the audience at a limited showing of El Crimen del Padre Amaro. Since then, I’ve discovered Almodovar and Cuáron and a few others; although my Spanish comprehension hasn’t improved since then, I’d like to think that my appreciation of Spanish language film has, which is why events like the Latino Film Festival are so valuable. Showcasing over 100 films from more than 20 Iberoamerican nations in the space of two weeks, the film festival is a celebration not only of Latino culture as a whole, but also of the political and cultural idiosyncrasies within each individual country.

The opening night film, Elsa y Fred, was preceded by the presentation of the Gloria Lifetime Achievement Award to Uruguayan actress China Zorilla. The 84-year-old dame spoke in her gently accented English: “Getting old in this world is not fashionable; in some careers, it’s terrible.” Her cinematic career didn’t begin until she was 50, so playing the heroine of a love story was “more and more out of the question every day”—until Elsa y Fred, that is.

Director Marcos Carnevale’s film might focus on two people who are reaching the end of their lives, but it will appeal to everyone. Fred, a recent widower (a quietly charming Manuel Alexandre), moves in across the hall from Elsa (Zorilla, complex and sensational); he is a visibly lonely man who still only sleeps on his half of the bed. Elsa has troubles of her own, although she manages to hide them behind a frivolous exterior. He takes pills that he doesn’t need, while she forgets to take the ones she does need. Elsa sees Fred as a project; her first objective is to make him laugh again, and she achieves this in no time. They progress into the “hand holding stage,” and eventually fall in love like every other young couple does. What makes their relationship credible— -- believable -- —is that they prove vulnerable and even shy in the face of romance.

There are few real obstacles to overcome, although the ones Carnevale throws in their path offer us interesting glimpses into their lives apart from each other. There’'s the matter of money— -- both Elsa and Fred’'s offspring depend on them despite their age. Late in the film, Fred decides not to invest in his son-in-law’'s new business in favor of taking Elsa on the trip of her dreams.

Indeed, such moments occur often and lend a continuous warmth to the film. But it’s the humor -- —the scene where Elsa and Fred flee a fancy restaurant without paying, for example -- —that captivates us, and the grim reality of death that grounds us. Elsa and Fred won’'t have forever, but then again, the film leaves us with a certain impression that perhaps they weren'’t meant for forever. Carnevale makes clever use of his grand finale, in which Elsa and Fred try to recreate the iconic Fontana scene from La Dolce Vita, treating us to both sweeping romance and happenstance. His love story, in the end, is a jigsaw of human emotion, predictable but hugely satisfying.

In contrast to the spectacle of opening night, the screening of La Sombra del Caminante on Saturday evening was a decidedly low-key affair, featuring a breakout film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra. If Elsa y Fred was sweetly reliable, then La Sombra del Caminante operates under a heavy canopy of mystery, from its title (which translates into English as The Wandering Shadows) to its black and white cinematography to its hard-hitting narration.

Mañe, who only has one leg, is out of work and down on his luck. Every day, he gets bullied by the neighborhood thugs on his way down the street, but neither the beatings nor the condescension of potential employers manage to break down his stubborn dignity. One day, Mañe meets a man who carries people around Bogotá on his back for a cheap price. He wears heavy goggles and requires the shade of an umbrella when the sun is high in the sky. He is listed in the film credits only as el hombre de la silla -- —the man with the chair. He, too, puts up with abuse from lousy customers and law enforcement, but he remains silent throughout his ordeals, prompting Mañe to strike up an unlikely friendship with the man.

The physical limitations of both men are metaphors for the spiritual losses both men have faced. Indeed, the cruel details of each man'’s life are gradually revealed, and each revelation is framed by scenes of simple companionship— -- Mañe teaching his new friend how to read and write is one scene that stands out. The ultimate test to their tentative friendship is also a test to the power of forgiveness. To reveal any more plot details is to deprive potential filmgoers of Guerra'’s delicate suspense, so I shall say no more.

The film is also laced with social commentary in the form of black humor, which is never quite absent from the dialogue. As Mañe remarks, “"All you need to become rich in this country is a cemetery."” An astute observation about a society that seems to place more value on bodies, rather than lives. Guerra exposes both the vicious and the tender sides of this friendship, and in doing so, weaves a remarkable tale of trust and redemption.