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Reflecting On This Year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival

Celebrating 20 Years Of Latino Film

Above: Penelope Cruz in "Open Your Eyes."

In anticipation of the grand gpening of the Digital Gym Cinema this Friday, March 29, guest-blogger Dillon Scalzo decided to celebrate 20 years of the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

The selection of films screening in the 20th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival were multifarious and expanded across genres. I began late in the second week, but this is exactly why the festival wisely screens the majority of the films twice—once each week, typically on different days. I’ve only seen a handful of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, but there hasn’t been one that wasn’t well crafted, and in my opinion, strikingly successful overall. His indulgence in Western world/society taboos, never fails to push hard against the limits of societal norms, including fearlessly engaging the subject of religion, typically Catholicism, and playing up its hypocrisy while still intellectually showing the complexity of spiritual and religious matters as they are related to real problems and tragedies of love, death, accidents, crime, drugs,, k and art.

Almodóvar does this on all kinds of sliding scales and proportions—“The Skin I Live In”(2011) will show you an extreme side of Almodóvar ’s blatant delving into sexuality and violence in a way that’s anything but predictable indulgence in taboo themes.

I rushed to see “Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) ," one of the canonical films that formed the referential backbone of the festival, as part of the 20th Anniversary Showcase. My excitement peaked when one of the festival directors mentioned that this was his favorite Almodóvar and that they were showing it on 35mm.

I’m not in film school or an expert on projected images, but it’s always exciting to try and see if one can detect any aesthetic differences in this detail or if we just prefer to believe we do. Placebo or not, this film looked gorgeous on the screen, and I believe it would on video or film due to Almodóvar ’s acute sensitivity and sensibility when it comes to making technical choices and coordinating color in every aspect of the film from background to foreground. Just look at this still image of these three women and the dialogues of color and pattern happening between their clothes and the wallpaper—color photography !

The juicy and indulgent feast of colors matches the openly celebrated, and for some, controversial intermingling of sexuality in the film’s content. In one sense Almodóvar stands bluntly for the sexual liberation of the individual in Spanish society post- Franco (roughly 1976 and after) and the transition from Dictatorship to Democracy.

There is certainly a wide range of characters in this film that complexly embody the conservative to the unconventional. The impetus for the story line of the entire film: A man named Esteban impregnates his girlfriend Manuela (Cecilia Roth), then turns transvestite by the name of Lola, never knowing he conceived a son years later in Barcelona (the main backdrop for the film) he impregnates Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun who may have also contracted AIDS from Lola in the process. Manuela’s son (also Esteban after his father) is killed by a car and she travels to Barcelona to find Lola and thus finds herself with Rosa and an old friend—the transvestite who usurps the spotlight from all others in the film—la Agrado (Antonia San Juan). Although most of her audience appeal is through humor, none of which is not spot-on excellent, her superbly well-written character embodies tenderness and compassion with an unfiltered audacity and confidence in her identity.

The film’s content, though seemingly laughable perhaps when told in summary, is extremely heavy and deals with the grit of relationships, sudden death, drug addiction, and the unpredictability of all individuals and their choices. Almodóvar does not mock and shock in a superficial way , he elevates his examination of the taboo with earnest consideration and emotional complexity.

The film is full of tears and full of hilarity. Actually, full of lots of tears by virtually every character, but they are convincing and genuine and prompted by situations where tears are inevitable. Life is fast, death comes fast, and there’s no time for close minded provinciality in this film.

Look for an upcoming blog post here discussing some of Almodóvar ’s other masterfully crafted movies in preparation for his new film “I’m So Excited” set to release around May 2013, starring Cecilia Roth yet again, and including cameos by Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. “All About My Mother” (1999) is available through NETFLIX, at Ken Video, and most Blockbuster stores, as well as available for purchase on DVD online.

Everything was tragic but still funny and I could leave the theater with an overall feeling of positivity and hope, optimistic about human kind overcoming struggle and baseness. Then I walked in to the second half of Luis Mandoki’s “La Vida Precoz y Breve de Sabina Rivas (The Precocious and Brief Life of Sabina Rivas, Mexico 2012)”.

Having read about this film briefly on the festival website I expected a “sobering” tone, but I was not prepared for the severity of the reality this film captures with respect to the two young teenage Honduran immigrants, Sabina and Jovany, trapped in Guatemala at Mexico’s southern-most border.

This film is based on a novel called “La Mara," named after the brutal gang La Mara Salvatrucha begot primarily by El Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles, which has spread primarily through deportation to parts of Central America and other parts of the world.

Sabina is deceived into working in a brothel/strip-club called La Tijuanita, run by an extorting, manipulating madam/matriarch who continuously promises Sabina a guaranteed border-crossing into Mexico with a job and a potential career in pop-music waiting. Jovany on the other hand is living within the jungle-traversing Mara Salvatrucha gang, in their exploits of crime and indulgence in supreme senseless violence, as he tries to gain any possible chance at admission into the gang.

Mandoki never refrains from exposing on screen the vicious truth of the widespread violence against women and specifically that wreaked upon undocumented migrant women such as barely pubescent Sabina in desperate situations of immigration and human trafficking. Sabina’s character and spirit somehow remain indestructible and she fights back in the face of the ultra-violence inflicted upon and around her without any fear.

In one scene she bites through the ear of a crooked Mexican police officer/human trafficker, escaping from his car after he has punched, kicked, handcuffed, and abducted her for a military general paying for her as a sex slave.

What ensues in the rest of the film is not only merciless, but despondently frustrating to watch as Sabina gets closer and closer to crossing the border marked by the river Suchiate in the most southwestern part of the Mexican-Guatemalan border. The aerial shots of the river are enthralling and visually imbue the tremendous weight of the inhumane reality of border-relations here in the Americas upon the viewer.

This is an extremely important film about the current abominations regarding immigrants’ human rights and human trafficking. It’s well-orchestrated, awakens consciousness, and yet is not indulgent in its portrayal of violence, but nonetheless refuses to dumb down the harrowing intensity of its subject matter. Mandoki has a real talent with strategically unfolding the narrative and intertwining the visual so that at no moment during the film will you be able to let go of your complete investment in the micro-stories of Sabina and Jovany, nor lose sight of the entirety of the panorama made visible by the film’s scope.

As I was leaving the theater various people were sighing “triste, triste (sad) ”and in general everyone looked drained and haggard. I think this is one of the things a great film has the capacity to do. I indeed felt incredibly sober, and overwhelmingly moved by the piece.

“La Vida Precoz y Breve de Sabina Rivas”(2012) is from Mexico, and appears, right now, to only be available by watching it in segments on YouTube. It’s absolutely worth tracking down any way you can but you may just want to enter full screen mode on YouTube and take deep relaxing breaths in-between clips.

Thursday night I again had the privilege of seeing a 20th Anniversary Showcase classic: Guillermo del Toro’s feature debut from 1993, “Cronos." The film is so peculiar with its over-dramatic opening narrative in English: it tells the story of an alchemist who invented a golden insect mechanism that holds the secret to eternal life, with the voice in a slight English accent saying words like “viceroy." It’s a stock intro and intentionally schlocky, and great. It’s even better when you realize that the majority of the film is going to be in Spanish, and that the narrator will never come back nor will the preliminary 16th Century historical backdrop ever really be important in the film.

Ron Perlman is over-the-top hilarious and hatable. He has well timed climatic lines that he delivers in Spanish with a perfectly hysterical gringo accent. It fits wonderfully and adds to the out of time, fictitious metropolis the movie is set in.

The make-up is intentionally bad, yet tastefully so and fitting for the fine line between humor and humor that’s the context of the film. However , you are never scoffing or laughing at any kind of production integrity within the film that detracts in any way, but rather you are laughing precisely when del Toro wants you to.

When Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) owner of an antique store comes into possession of the golden cronos mechanism and starts using it on himself—it unsheathes its metal insect legs and stabs them into wherever he places it on his body—he begins a journey towards immortality. However, Angel de la Guardia (Perlman), servile and infantile (& ultimately imbecile) henchman to his grandfather Dieter de la Guardia (rich owner of ominous and obscure La Guardia Corporation and on the desperate search for the mechanism) is sent after the cronos device and kills Jesús Gris.

Of course, this is ultimately a vampire movie and Gris has already started using the device and acquired a desire to taste human blood—so can he die?

The peak of the humor, and my favorite character in the film is the mortician and cremator who in a wife-beater, with large side-burns, chewing gum intently, listens to Mexican Banda music while doing the make-up for the dead—in this case it’s the dead Gris. He’s making puns and jokes, with witty macabre humor, while he staples Gris’ face in preparation for the funeral; the make-up on Gris looks horrendous, while the funeral curator stands watching, telling the mortician it’s his best work yet, but that he’s only going to be cremated.

The humor is extremely well written as it’s vulgar and yet playfully light at the same time.

The real star of the film might just be the little girl who plays Gris’ grand-daughter named Aurora. She’s adorable and ultra-perceptive of everything that occurs, yet only has one line in the film towards the end where she looks at her putrefying vampire grandfather and says, “abuelo”—in a scene that captured genuine sentiment, but still allowed perhaps for a hint of morbidly light humor so present in the piece as her one line comes at a moment of cinematic climax.

This film was truly a delectable throwback treat that the festival offered up for people who may have never seen anything other than “Pan’s Labyrinth” by del Toro. I was given an education here—thank you SDLFF!

“Cronos” is available through Netflix, Ken Video at 4067 Adams Avenue San Diego, CA 92116, as well as to buy on amazon.com

THE SPLENDID DIGITAL GYM CINEMA

Friday night of the closing weekend of the festival I finally made it to the new Digital Gym Cinema at the Media Arts center on El Cajon Blvd. & 30th in North Park. Once again I was going to see a canonical, landmark film that has both cult and mainstream credibility—the metaphysical horror film “Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)” from the Chilean-Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar made in 1997.

It was a full house at the not even a week old Digital Gym marking the theater’s first sell-out of what will surely be many more to come.

I was instantly comfortable: Plush seats with a tender recline; a cozy and intimate theater that’s not too big and vacuous nor too small and stuffy; the rows of seats ascend in their incline rather quickly so that each row is perfectly atop the other with no chance of a bad seat in the house; it feels familiar, casual, and unpretentious with the screen going down to the floor, yet professional, made with love and a brand new smell. With a bustling throng of animated movie-goers it was a lively and exciting place to be; there was a kind of buzz and magnetic attention span coming off everyone that truly makes the difference between watching a film with an actual exuberant audience versus alone or in a half empty theater.

And here was a full house, the first in that theater, at the culmination of the festival—but to see a 16-year old Spanish film? Why did everyone flock to see this film in a festival with such a rich and recent selection ? Maybe it was Friday night, maybe people liked “Vanilla Sky”, which Tom Cruise produced having bought the rights to this film, or maybe it’s because this film is down-right , and ever-so slyly, terrifying.

Aside from the very opeing scene that is haunting and ominous where César (Eduardo Noriega) wakes up, gets ready, and enters a Madrid completely empty of all people except himself, it begins with a strong potential for becoming a piece of juvenilia. César is a young Spanish trust-fund youth, a ladies’ man, who seems to have a ton of money and no family with a plush apartment in Madrid, and he woos Sofia (Penelope Cruz) instantly and effortlessly.

Amenábar strategically allows the film to be somewhat predictable initially, lulling viewers before slowly leaking out the storm in the making; then, the questions and inconsistencies regarding what seems to be happening in the narrative begin to overturn the film and you’re consumed by the intensifying confusion and suspense that ensues in this horrific hyper-reality, where you’re left guessing at separating César's possible dreams from what has really happened.

At this point the film tumbles forward into new planes of possibility at a pace that catapults viewers into a feeling immediacy – which is the strength of the suspense in full force. You’re rendered fully invested in the film’s unnerving predicaments. Cesar has killed someone, perhaps Sofia, perhaps someone else he believes is impersonating Sofia, but it is difficult to know whether you can trust him.

He survives an accident early on, which mangles his face, but may also now be affecting his memory and his ultimate grip on reality. The film makes for moments of absolute goose-bumps, and although there’s some room made for audience catharsis , the story leaps to new planes of possible outcomes and answers, complicating any clear access to relief.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a theater where the audience was literally exclaiming “what ?!” with excitedly perplexed sighs and sounds. At the end of the film the entire audience erupted in unison, and viscerally, with a diaphragmatic “huh/what !”— instinctually exclaiming their thrill and disbelief. But maybe that happens a lot in movie theaters and I really do just need to get out and see more movies like Beth Accomando suggested. Either way the movie left my senses awakened and unhinged—it was scintillating entertainment.

This is a film that forces “genre(s)” to split open, and admit exceptions, finding the pre-existing categories inadequate to encompass the piece in its totality. “Abre Los Ojos” is available for rent via Netflix or most rental stores including Ken Video; it’s also for sale on Amazon.com and other online stores on the cheap.

I was able to stay reclined in the plushness of the Digital Gym Cinema to see the Chilean documentary “Nostalgia De La Luz (Nostalgia For The Light, 2012)”, which was also sold out to a full house!

Morale was high, but about to be given an awakening call to consciousness with this exceptionally poetic film about the search for two kinds of bodies by two different parties in the Atacama desert of Chile: Astronomers looking for celestial bodies, and Chilean women survivors of the Pinochet dictatorship looking for bones of their disappeared and murdered family members.

Not only is the film visually stunning with its images of star clusters and the mystifying swirls of planetary systems, but it’s also incredibly evocative and deals just as much with humanity on this earth through these poignantly conducted interviews and testimonials given by a multitude of voices: Chilean women and men survivors, astronomers, archaeologists, and even a truly mind blowing account given by an architect and amateur astronomer who survived Pinochet’s Chacabuco concentration camp and re-drew the entire compound in exactitude from memory years after.

For those unfamiliar with Chile’s Atacama desert, it is truly a phenomenon of the natural world. It is a mecca for astronomers and various kinds of scientists from around the world, who come to study the 600 mile desert floor with its surface similar to that of Mars. It is literally a door to the past and an opportunity for telescopes and scientists to look into and gather and understanding of the origins of the planet, humanity, and ultimately the entire universe.

This desert has absolutely zero humidity and is the only immense brown spot visible on planet earth from space—these conditions and its quality of darkness make it an unfathomable treasure yet to be comprehended. Dead stars and other cosmic dust cover and preserve the desert and astronomers are able to confirm such amazing discoveries as verifying that the very calcium in our human bones is chemically identical to and originates from that in the celestial bodies.

However, aside from this priceless scientific opportunity, the Atacama desert’s recent history has been a horrific one, intentionally covered up by the Pinochet regime. It was home to the 19th Century labor-mining camps, primarily filled with indigenous peoples of South America who were forced into systems of slave labor. Pinochet then used the abandoned barracks of miners in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as his Chacabuco concentration camp.

Pinochet used the surrounding desert as mass grave sites for the executed, until later, in an attempt to remove the evidence, the military was ordered to dig up and remove these graves with heavy machinery and throw the bones of the dead into the sea.

Fragments of bodies, bones, and entire grave sites still remain and the women in the film walk out in the desert daily in tennis shoes relentlessly sifting through the desert for the remains of their loved ones, los desaparecidos (those who disappeared during the dictatorship and are still missing). The film creates a striking dialogue between the scientists and the women, overlapping their different, as well as surprisingly related, reasons for being drawn and utterly dedicated to this desert.

The film is visually and aurally superb. There is not only so much to learn and enjoy from the film in its expansive content, but there’s an incredible commentary on the importance and gravity of memory and the astounding capabilities of science to look into the light of the universe, into the past, to continue to inform us of the inconceivable nature of the universe and its relationship to the fragility of the present moment.

“Nostalgia De La Luz” by Patricio Guzmán is available on DVD/Blue Ray now!

Also, for another and quite different view into the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in the 1970’s &80’s the film “NO” is currently showing in San Diego’ Hillcrest Landmark Cinema starring Gael García Bernal and detailing the historic national vote by the public in 1988, who were asked to say yes or no to Pinochet staying in power and the chance at free democratic elections.

Check back for a review of “As Luck Would Have It” here on the Cinema Junkie blog as it begins running this weekend at the official Grand Opening of the exceptionally awesome Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, Friday March 29th , 2013. @ DIGITAL GYM c/o MEDIA ARTS CENTER SAN DIEGO 2921 El Cajon Blvd. San Diego, CA 92104

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