Memory, Identity, Politics, and Lady Parts at Latinbeat 2009

Arriving just in time to defy the recent assertion of the New York Press's head film critic that the land of tango, Jorge Luis Borges, Lucrecia Martel, and Julio Cortázar constitutes an underdeveloped culture, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Latinbeat festival is a modest but diverse exhibition from Latin America's ever-budding film circuit. Incidentally, the fest is celebrating the life and work of Argentine writer Cortázar with a sidebar that includes Antonioni's Blowup (inspired by a Cortázar short story) and illustrates the great author's obsession with identity and time, the prevailing themes of this year's Latinbeat.

The opening line of Tristán Bauer's 1994 Cortázar doc Celestial Clockwork—"One of us must write, if this is to be told"—sets the tone early, both for the film and the festival as a whole: art as an act of remembrance. A heady brew of archival interviews, cityscapes, and somewhat cheesy dramatic re-creations, Bauer's dreamy film mimics the author's stream-of-consciousness style, though Clockwork is most useful as a showcase of the man's extraordinary musings on Latin American cultural and political experience.

Mixing the frigid art-gallery aesthetic mode of Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread with the soulful humanist probing of Heddy Honigmann, the deeply personal, cine-literate essay film The General is director Natalia Almada's way of reconciling her thorny family history—and confirming the complexity of Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished documentary masterpiece ¡Que Viva Mexico! Almada's guiding voice is a recording of her deceased grandmother, daughter of the nefarious anticlerical Mexican president, Plutarco Elías Calles. As the Sundance-winning doc hopscotches between past and present, it elegiacally bemoans the ever-widening gap between politicians and Mexico's impoverished masses.

Another vibrantly constructed doc, Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies, has the curious pulse of a Hitchcock potboiler. Filmmaker Yulene Olaizola's grandmother, Rosa Elena Carbajal, holds fabulous court inside the home where she once lodged and befriended a closeted gay man and artist, Jose Riosse, who made her his muse. Surrounded by Riosse's art, Rosa attests to a friendship that fiercely defied social norms. Then she brings up the mysterious murders that haunted her neighborhood and coincided with Jose's stay. What begins as a rather cheery ode to female eccentricity becomes a haunting commentary on how art and memory can entomb the soul.

But the highlight of what I've seen of this year's Latinbeat lineup is Claudia Llosa's Golden Bear winner, The Milk of Sorrow, about a young woman who plants a potato inside her vagina to ward off the horrors that, for a lifetime, plagued her recently deceased mother. Though perched on the brink of allegorical overload, the film is less sensational than most descriptions of its subject matter imply. This is a tribute to Llosa's style, which illuminates the indignities of emotional inheritance and internalized racism through its artfully gritty fixation on the rituals and superstitions of village life. From self-imposed subjugation to liberation, the aptly named Fausta's trajectory throughout the film becomes an affront to the neocolonialist forces of imperialism that persist within—and are supported from outside of—Latin America.

 
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