SFIFF: Apolitical animal

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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SFIFF Do we have Francisco Vargas’s The Violin (2005) to blame for the omission of Lake Tahoe — the follow-up to Fernando Eimbcke and screenwriting partner Paula Markovitch’s imperfect and wonderful 2004 debut Duck Season — from this year’s selection of Mexican films at the San Francisco International Film Festival? Did the success of Vargas’s film, which won the New Directors Prize at last year’s fest, give the selection committee too much confidence in the rookies?

There are three Mexican films this year, all first features. Though one manages to be an infield home run, the overall representation of the country is underwhelming and, we hope, less than representative.

Let’s begin with Rodrigo Plá’s La Zona (2007), an alleged thriller that seeks to eviscerate Mexico’s cloistered middle class.

It does not. Nestled within the dirty vibrancy of Mexico City is "La Zona," a gated community of those same ornate houses with the Mediterranean-tile roofs that blight the American suburbs (I lived in one during high school). When a fallen billboard becomes a stairway over the wall, a violent scuffle with intruders puts the community’s zoning charter in peril. For the residents of the enclave, the possibility of losing their ability to live separately just won’t do. The movie’s message — that a tier of Mexican society is sacrificing its soul to divorce itself from its economically ravaged country — may as well have been plastered across that catalytic billboard.

La Zona is the type of idea Eimbcke and Markovitch might have considered and rejected in high school. The Nintendo light guns in Duck Season do a helluva better job evoking the spiritual violence that is so painfully literal in La Zona. It’s strange to me that Eimbcke and Markovitch haven’t made a bigger splash in the United States. Lord knows the majority of people inclined toward reading subtitles don’t like to work too hard, but the American influence on these filmmakers’ first film (it got a lot of Stranger Than Paradise comparisons) is apparent. It’s a wonder they aren’t already riding the same train, albeit in coach, as Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón. They’re minimalists, but the likeable kind.

But enough pining. Back to the reality.

One wants to muster the energy to hope that Alex Rivera’s sci-fi antiglobalization flick Sleep Dealer, which wasn’t available for screening, takes La Zona‘s same drive to filter Mexican political concerns through pop conventions and produces something substantial. The centerpiece concept — site-specific American labor outsourced to Mexico with the help of drones — is certainly intriguing. But judging from the easy political humor of Rivera’s short films (the proxy farm worker idea was already played for laughs in his 1998 short Why Cybraceros?), we should brace for another dour lecture hastily fitted with genre tropes and called subversive.

But even if Sleep Dealer turns out to be a powerhouse, its NAFTA-Tron 3000 robots have to be awfully cool to contend with the quiet power of Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Cochochi. The film, about two preteen brothers from the Raramuri tribe in northwest Mexico, is slightly shy of the visual achievement of The Violin‘s textured grayscale, but it’s also more sincere and less showy in its social awareness. The two boys (real-life brothers Antonio Lerma Batista and Evaristo Lerma Batista), while delivering medicine to family in a neighboring village, promptly lose the horse they "borrowed" from their grandfather. Then they lose one another. Like a bifurcated Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Cochochi is a pleasantly disorienting trek through unfamiliar territory, trailing overburdened children who register their mounting worries with the stony expressiveness kids are brilliant at.

It’s an unassuming naturalist document that, for all its hushed grace, crackles with anxiety and proudly maintains a layer of abrasiveness. In this respect, it reminds me of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ gorgeous nutso-realist films, minus the impish provocation. Like Reygadas, Cárdenas and Guzmán use local, untrained actors to languorously stilted effect. The filmmakers relied heavily on the brothers for the film’s story and dialogue, which is spoken in the Tarahumaran dialect of Raramuri.

Cochochi is no thriller and there aren’t any robots, but it is the rightful destination of your dollar. Besides, if the current Under the Same Moon is any indication of distribution trends, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for self-flagellation later.

COCHOCHI May 1, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 6:30 p.m., PFA

SLEEP DEALER Mon/28, 9 p.m., PFA; May 4, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki

LA ZONA May 3, 9:30 p.m., Clay; May 5, 2 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

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