ARTS

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May 5, 2006

Social tangles are unraveled at the Latino Film Festival

The best part about having a press pass for a film festival is— -- well, duh, it’s having all those movies at my disposal, free of charge. The worst part about having a press pass for a film festival is the fact that I don’t have all the time in the world to attend every single screening that I would like to. And unless you research every single film extensively before choosing which ones to see, it’s pretty much a tossup if the ones you do see turn out brilliant or disappointing. This year, I consider myself lucky to have seen the last two films on my shoddily assembled agenda, Las Mantenidas Sin Sueños and Vida y Color.

Las Mantenidas is an Argentinian film, co-directed by Martín De Salvo and actress Vera Fogwill, who also plays one of the protagonists. Her portrayal of the jaded yet childlike Florencia is one of the most intriguing performances on the big screen I’ve seen this year. The only other character in the film that can touch it, in fact, is that of Eugenia, Florencia’s nine-year-old daughter, played by newcomer Lucia Snieg, who is genuinely precocious and candid. The mother and daughter pair seem to have switched roles. The film’s title translates into “kept and dreamless,” which describes Florencia perfectly. She uses drugs regularly and doesn’t have a job, or aspirations for that matter. She is, however, pregnant, and not for the first time, either (this is just the first time she’s decided to keep the baby). Eugenia is left to take care of the both of them and wants to grow up quicker. In order to speed up the process, she reads grown-up books— -- Nietzsche in particular -- —and regurgitates the quotes and ideas she reads to anybody and everybody.

The film follows their day-to-day life over the span of Florencia’s pregnancy, a seemingly aimless jumble of days from which the characters reemerge, renewed and more compassionate toward each other. The film is a very, very dark comedy, but it could have just as easily been a tragedy. What is it, then, that saves Florencia and Eugenia from a black hole fate?

Half of it boils down to the supporting cast’s stubborn refusal to let them alone. Sara, Florencia’s mother, gives her money to get an abortion at the beginning of the film, but insists that it’s the last time she’ll help her. But even she reappears at the end of the film to tie up loose ends. Two of the more persistent presences are Olga, an aging pill popper who fakes her own death so she can collect both her own and her husband’s pensions, and Celina, Florencia’s old schoolmate whose own gold digger aspirations have gone awry at the hands of a gay husband. By the film’s climax, the two women have wormed their way into Florencia and Eugenia’s lives, if not quite their affections.

Las Mantenidas rightly focuses on the mother-daughter relationship. Florencia dumps her stash of cocaine into the toilet, and Eugenia matter-of-factly calls the act “highly symbolic and hardly believable.” This sends Florencia into a rage, and she yells at Eugenia to stop repeating words she hears but doesn’t understand before insisting in a slightly pitiful tone that she can improve, really she can. This scene is one of my favorites in the film, because while it so clearly illustrates the dynamic between mother and daughter, it also demonstrates that the line between girl and woman is incredibly blurred.

Let me end by saying that this is not a film for men. There are incredibly intimate scenes of womanhood, and the only male character of note is Eugenia’s father, who lives life as if on permanent vacation. The film’s femininity is startling, but not overwhelming, as De Salvo and Fogwill manage to weave together elements of comitragedy, family drama, and bildungsroman into an incredible cinematic experience.

Vida y Color is a coming-of-age tale set at the end of Franco-era Spain. Juan, a reviewer on www.imdb.com, informs us that the film is a poor imitation of the 2003 film Eres Mi Heroé, but because I have not seen that film, I can only judge this one on its individual merits. Vida y Color, directed by Santiago Tabernero, follows 14-year-old Fede (played by Junio Valverde) as his world is transformed by a series of internal and external events.

Fede doesn’t have many friends, and it’s easy to see why: He’s too nice compared to the other neighborhood boys. His mother sends him across town to attend a school run by Jesuit priests, and to get there he must cross a long tunnel— -- it is in the darkness that the other boys torment him. His only friends are Sara, a pretty teenaged girl who exudes moral purity, and Ramona, an enthusiastic retarded girl whose misfortunes provide most of the plot diversions in the film. This is perhaps another reason why Fede gets picked on; he is the protagonist only in name since he doesn’t really create his own story but is mostly along for the ride. Everyone in the town plays their part, from young to old, and eventually a mystery— -- a threat to the town’s provincial innocence -- —is introduced.

There are details of the film that must go unrevealed, but I suppose it would be safe to share a few impressions. It’s difficult to tell exactly where the town is located, but even if it were in the furthest corner of Galicia (which is possible, given the sunlight that washes through nearly every frame of the film), its residents are certainly not out of Franco’s reach. There is an abandoned construction project on the outskirts of the town. By day, it is a common play area, but at night, it turns into something terrifying -- —a ghost town, a dragon’s lair, a catacomb for little girls. The site is a metaphor for the incompetence and barely concealed malice of the Franco era.

There are several distinct parallels drawn between the various characters and interactions in the film and those of the Franco era (you will know them when you see them, if you know anything about the dictatorship), in fact, and when taken in context, it becomes evident that Tabernero has spun not only a tale of princesses and dragons, of heroes and villains and cripples and gypsies, but a larger parable about humankind’s ability to tolerate evil so long as it stays out of sight. With a protagonist as passive as Fede, it is a blessing that the threat follows Franco’s trajectory and implodes before we can find out whether Fede has the cojones to actually confront it himself.