I’m going to kick off my (hopefully regular) Wednesday series on women filmmakers with the one to whom I’ve most recently been introduced, courtesy of the streaming platform Mubi, whose canny programming has brought my attention to a number of directors I’d never previously encountered. Latin American cinema, in particular right now, seems to be booming with talented women directors, and in that regard one may look to the career of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, who came to prominence at the turn of the millennium with La Ciénaga (2001), and about whom I shall undoubtedly write in coming months. She is hardly the first woman to direct films in the Latin American world, but she is among the most rigorous and visually precise of all active filmmakers in the region, and one of the foremost (and most championed) auteurs in the world, I would say. In her wake there has been no shortage of excellent films by women working in the cinemas of Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru, amongst others.
It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.
And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).
On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.
Director Patricia Riggen; Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar); Cinematographer Checco Varese; Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016.
Like the Venezuelan film Pelo malo released here earlier this year, the Colombian film Gente de bien (“decent people”) uses a child protagonist to focus on issues around class and upbringing. And while it is specifically set in Bogotá, with a great sense of place, it still tells a very identifiable story. Indeed, much of the way that young Eric (Brayan Santamariá) acts could have been taken from my own childhood — even if I didn’t have much of a father figure, or have to deal with the poverty that he does. At the film’s start Eric is passed from his mother into the care of his deadbeat dad (Carlos Fernando Perez), who is loving and does his best to provide a decent living environment, but struggles to make ends meet with his furniture repair job. Aside from the anxieties Eric feels about fitting in with the other (more spoiled) kids, most of the film’s emotional core is in fact focused on the dad and the way that he reacts to the world. He has to take jobs with richer people, and when one of them offers to look after his son for a while, you can sense the way his feelings develop. There’s no strained melodrama to it, and that’s a good thing, for it means that it rings true as a story. As the title suggests, it’s a film about people who are fundamentally decent, trying to do the best they can.
Director Franco Lolli; Writers Lolli, Catherine Paillé and Virginie Legeay; Cinematographer Óscar Durán; Starring Brayan Santamarià, Carlos Fernando Perez; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 23 April 2015.