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Tony Manero And Leonera

Cinema en tu Idioma Present a Pair of Acclaimed Latin Films

Above: Alfredo Castro as "Tony Manero"

San Diego Latino Film Festival continues its 10th annual Cinema en tu Idioma series with a pair of acclaimed Latin American films: Chile’s “Tony Manero” and Argentina’s “Leonera” (both opening October 9 exclusively at Ultrastar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center).

“Tony Manero” and “Leonera” were films that surprised me. Each took an unexpected turn tonally. “Leonera,” which I expected to be the darker more emotionally draining film turned out to be more hopeful that the truly dark and disturbed “Tony Manero.”

Promoted as “Scareface meets Saturday Night Fever,” “Tony Manero” looks to a fifty-two-year-old man obsessed with being the Latin Tony Manero, the John Travolta character from “Saturday Night Fever.” I’m not sure I want to say much more about the plot because one of the things I liked was how it surprised me. The surprises mostly stem from the character of Raul who takes on the name of Travolta’s character from the 1977 film. Raul is played by Alfredo Castro who also co-wrote the film. Raul’s character is fascinating – he dreams of being Tony Manero but he’s no idealistic dreamer that wins the audience over and makes us cheer for him. He’s a scary, violent, wholly self-absorbed character that’s chilling in the most casual and off-handed way.

Castro is absolutely amazing in the role. He dances to meticulously choreographed routines that his character insists not stray an iota from the film. And he also engages in wholly impromptu violence that follows its own perverse choreography and brutality. But Castro makes Raul riveting in his single-minded determination to achieve his dream.

Directed by Pablo Larrain, the film is a bleak gritty antidote to Hollywood images of celebrity. But the choice of Tony Manero and “Saturday Night Fever” are interesting because they are not the typical Hollywood character or film. Manero was ethnic and working class, and “Saturday Night Fever” was a rather crude and gritty little film that found popularity -- it was anything but slick. But the film and the character represent something distinctly American and popular that are being played off of in grim fashion. Larrain shows Raul in the movie theater where he sits like someone in church would. He watches intently, repeating each of Manero’s lines in English as if it were some liturgy in church. The film is set during the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship and Raul is a kind of petty little dictator who simply wants things his way no matter what.

“Tony Manero” (for mature audiences and in Spanish with English subtitles) is a grueling piece of work that’s difficult to watch at time, and that’s meant as a compliment because Larrain and Castro are so unflinching in their portrait of Raul and his perverted dream.

Companion viewing: “Saturday Night Fever,”"Machuca," "Scarface"

Martine Gusman as Julia in "Leonera"

Strand Releasing

Above: Martine Gusman as Julia in "Leonera"

“Leonera” (a.k.a. "Lion's Den") opens with animated titles that look drawn by children and the sound of kids singing. Since I knew going in this was a film about women in prison, I thought maybe I was watching the wrong film. But then the first shot comes up – it’s a bloodied woman lying on a bloody man. Okay maybe I am at the right film.

The woman is Julia Zárate (Martina Gusman who is married to director Pablo Trapero) and she has just been accused of killing her boyfriend’s male lover. She’s pregnant and lands in jail where she gives birth to Tomas. Apparently quite a few women find themselves in this situation and the jail has something of a daycare center for all the prison children. Julia’s mom doesn’t feel that prison is the right environment for Tomas to grow up in so she tries to take her grandchild away from Julia. So Julia finds herself fighting her mother, her former boyfriend and the legal system. The only thing that seems to give meaning to her life or to bring her joy is Tomas.

As I mentioned, the tone of Leonera was not as bleak as I had anticipated and that is because the children in the film give it a sense of hope and even brightness. No matter what’s going on in the prison – including at one point a riot – the children seem safe and protected as if they existed in a kind of bubble. For Julia, her child represents something that provides hope for a different future.Gusman does a marvelous job of conveying Julia transformation from nearly catatonic as she enters the prison to someone fiercely devoted to and protective of her child.

The film, directed by Pablo Trapero, delivers a fairly routine tale with Julia being victimized by the courts and her ex as well as by some of her own bad choices. She falls into a relationship with a fellow female inmate and ends up with a handicapped female attorney who makes a case for some kind of leniency based on the abuses she had suffered. The filmmaking is solid and Gusman’s performance grows in strength and maturity as her character does.

“Leonera” is for mature audiences and is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Companion viewing: “Carandiru,” "Pixote," "Caged Heat"

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