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The Best (and Worst) of Cannes's Latin American Undercurrent

CANNES, FRANCE—If East Asian pop (and pop art) permeated every section of Cannes, the festival was also characterized by a strong sub-current of Latin American features. Unrecognized by the jury, Lucrecia Martel's La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl) was the best-directed feature in the competition and, along with Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's blatantly avant-garde Tropical Malady, the one most interested in developing a new film language.

Working against the grain of her potentially lurid story, Martel uses an accumulation of small scenes, moments, and interactions to map the religious obsession that a wonderfully sullen 14-year-old girl develops when a middle-aged doctor takes advantage of a street performance to rub himself against her. As with Martel's talented first feature, La Ciénaga, the narrative is deduced through a densely textured welter of details, complicated family relations, and convoluted connections only gradually resolved.

A second film by the team of Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, the deadpan Uruguayan comedy Whisky—a deftly orchestrated joke about two Jewish clothing manufacturers, set largely in an off-season resort—won second prize in Un Certain Regard. Duck Season, a first film by Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, is a broader but equally well-acted comedy of hanging out that treats two bored 14-year-old boys to a mota-fueled Cat in the Hatafternoon. A lot less fun, Los Muertos, by Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso, was nearly as uncompromising as Tropical Malady in using a crude documentary style as the vehicle for fantasy—in this case, projecting something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer into a primordial jungle.

The most elaborate Latin American movie was entered in competition as a U.S. entry—although played in Spanish and directed by a Brazilian. Walter Salles's adaptation of Ché Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries, with Gael García Bernal as the young Ché, might have been called El Niño Santo. In my naïveté, I imagined that this middlebrow crowd-pleaser would represent the third way for the Cannes jury between Michael Moore's agitprop and Park Chan-wook's gorefest. I was wrong—and I'm glad.

 
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