Bestowed the widest Spanish-language opening since Like Water for Chocolate, Santitos concerns a grieving young Mexican woman who embarks on a bittersweet, therapeutic dream-voyage after Saint Jude appears to her in her grimy oven. Aspiring toward magic realism, Alejandro Springall’s first feature is in essence a formulaic heal-thyself inspirational, a feel-better fantasy that, for all its gaudy Catholic flourishes, seems touched mainly by the hand of Oprah. The screenplay was incubated at the Sundance writers’ lab—a not entirely dissimilar institution, one might argue—and writer María Amparo Escandón has already converted her script into a novel, Esperanza’s Box of Saints, in both English and Spanish.
Shortly after Esperanza’s daughter dies, supposedly from a mystery virus contracted during a routine tonsillectomy, the saintly apparition tells her that the girl is in fact still alive. Confiding in a half-exasperated, half-fascinated comic-relief priest (much of the movie takes the form of flashback confessions), the devout, headstrong heroine, charmingly played by Dolores Heredia, leaves her village, first for Tijuana, then Los Angeles, convinced that her child has been sold into prostitution. She soon falls into a spiral of dubious, God-motivated whorishness (à la Breaking the Waves), and—her path strewn with unidimensional, moderately malevolent kooks—suffers a crisis of faith, which is assuaged by the timely intervention of an angel. To be exact, by a masked wrestler who calls himself the Angel of Justice.
Lavishly mounted but directed with no particular flair (a fetish for mirror images notwithstanding; there’s even a kaleidoscopic peephole), Santitos has trouble getting past its pat ideas about grief and healing. The filmmakers’ solution is to crank up the whimsy, but the harder they try, the more obvious it is that there’s no gold dust to be found here, just an awful lot of stick-on glitter.
** Taking the opposite tack—minimal production values, messy and overwrought ideas—Catalan director Ventura Pons’s Beloved/Friend is an improbably absorbing study of intergenerational conflict. A gay, fiftyish medieval-lit professor (Josep Maria Pou) discovers he has a terminal illness and decides to tie up loose ends: This involves confessing to his colleague and best friend that he was in love with him for years and entrusting his mysterious final essay to the brilliant bad-boy student and part-time hustler whom he now adores. Through a web of unconvincingly rendered coincidences, psychosexual turmoil mounts: It turns out that the student has impregnated the best friend’s daughter.
There’s much hand-wringing over notions of testaments and legacies, a good deal of it pompous, but Pons (adapting a play by Josep M. Benet I Jornet, who also wrote the screenplay) digs into them with such fervor and his actors respond with such anguished intensity that the result is compelling, sometimes even electrifying. The recent recipient of a Walter Reade retro (whose previous film, Caresses—a smart, thorny La Ronde, also based on a play—is newly available on video), Pons is a provocateur who works without a net; the scenes that feel most unmoored are often the most revelatory. There’s a regrettable lack of surface attention here (conspicuously bad art direction, drab cinematography, and a sappy score), but when Beloved/Friend palpitates into life, it’s more exciting and truthful than most better-looking films dare to be.