(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Latin Love

Love was in the air and on the screen throughout the 2010 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF), held August 19-25. While only a couple movies of specifically GLBT-interest were shown, love — in a variety of forms and stages and with all its natural ups and downs — was the central theme of many festival selections.

I wasn't able to catch one of the GLBT features shown, Hermafrodita, but will try to track it down via its press rep and review it soon. However, the fest's screening of Contracorriente (Undertow, in English), a gay romance from Peru, sold out and enjoyed a reception that cements the acclaim the film has received since its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Audience Award.

Beautifully rendered by writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon and his excellent cast, Contracorriente is set in a small, predominantly Catholic fishing village. It is home to Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who are expecting their first child. A well-regarded fisherman whose devotion to his marriage is unquestioned, Miguel is described as being "on good terms with God." Mariela and their neighbors consider it a quirk that Miguel is more interested in watching the TV soap opera Right to Love than the national sport of soccer.

The conservative community is also the current home of Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an itinerant, openly gay painter. Unbeknownst to anyone as the film begins, Miguel and Santiago have been having an affair. Miguel doesn't consider himself homosexual and bristles when Santiago brings the term up but he also can't stand the thought of Santiago leaving, which the artist plans to do as the birth of Miguel's son grows near.

Before then, and in the wake of an argument between the two men, Santiago disappears. After missing for several days, Santiago reappears in Miguel's home, much to the latter's shock. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that this is Santiago's spirit and neither Miguel's wife nor anyone else in town can see him. Santiago recalls that his body was pulled to the ocean depths and drowned, and it must be found and laid to rest by Miguel before Santiago's spirit can rest. Until then, they take delight in walking around town and being more openly romantic since Santiago is invisible.

Contracorriente traffics in traditional conflicts between homosexuality and religious repression, but the film feels fresh thanks to its unique setting and occasional comedic elements. Fuentes-Leon makes a winking reference to the 1978 Brazilian movie Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, in which the ghost of a woman's former husband begins to haunt her once she becomes engaged to a new man.

Once a nude painting of Miguel done by Santiago is discovered as well as Santiago's body, Miguel is challenged to publicly admit his relationship with Santiago. The film's final 30 minutes perfectly encapsulate both the pain and liberation that come with coming out. Contracorriente (which is due out on DVD in December but may get a theatrical release before then) is not to be missed.

Two non-gay but noteworthy movies I saw during LALIFF are Viajo Porque Preciso, Volto Porque Te Amo (I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You), from Brazil, and Colombia's La Sangre y La Lluvia (Blood and Rain). The first, which is co-directed by Madame Sata's Karim Ainouz, is significant for being perhaps the first film ever where the protagonist is never seen. We hear Jose, a 35-year old geologist on a 30-day road trip to map a proposed canal, and see things from his perspective throughout, but the most viewers ever glimpse of him is a brief, blurry memory shot.

As he travels, Jose (voiced by Irandhir Santos) ruminates on his and his wife's marriage, and the trials and tribulations it has endured. In the process, he meets and occasionally has sex with other women he encounters during his journey. By the end, though, Jose regains his willingness to commit without being able to see what awaits him, exemplified by climactic shots of Speedo-clad men diving off the jagged cliffs of Acupulco, Mexico into the treacherous sea below.

La Sangre y La Lluvia marks the feature debut of promising Colombian director Jorge Navas. It is the often brutal but ultimately touching saga of a taxi driver, Jose (played by Quique Mendoza, who recalls a young Mickey Rourke), who is out to avenge his brother's recent murder. He crosses paths with Angela (the striking and very good Gloria Montoya), a party girl looking to get laid but discovers a deeper attraction toward Jose.

It is impossible not to be drawn into the sympathetic relationship that develops between these two disparate individuals in the span of one blood-soaked, rainy night. The film's climax is unnecessarily protracted and made a late screening even later, but La Sangre y La Lluvia, its director and stars are worth keeping an eye out for.

As LALIFF's omnipresent Co-Founder and Chairman, Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver, Battlestar Galactica), announced prior to one of the screenings I attended, "98% of these films won't be shown elsewhere in the US." While this is unfortunate, I am grateful to LALIFF for giving us Angelenos, at least, a chance to experience the best of what current Latin cinema has to offer.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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