City Sickness


Encapsulating the moviemaking energies of an entire continent in 30 films, the Walter Reade’s biennial Latin American series warrants the exclamation point in its title for sheer scope and ambition alone. The wildly diverse feature lineup alternates with a few documentaries: Puerto Rico-born baseball hall of famer Orlando Cepeda receives the up-close-and-personal treatment in Mario Díaz’s Viva Cepeda!, and the elderly musicians of renowned Cuban salsa group Vieja Trova Santiaguera get a Buena Vista salute in Sonia Herman Dolz’s Lágrimas Negras (Black Tears). Literally all over the map, a significant chunk of the fiction selections do share a theme: urban youth learning an artful dodge. Tinta Roja (Red Ink) charts the creeping moral deterioration—and then the speedy redemption—of a green, impressionable reporter at a daily Lima rag who comes under the festering wing of an ostentatiously hard-bitten vet. Francisco Lombardi’s movie reeks of cigarette smoke, sweat, unchecked testosterone, and other discharges—at one point, the boss shows up at the cramped newspaper office smelling of shit after a rendezvous with an incontinent prostitute.

Outside the Peruvian tabloid mill, corruptive job opportunities are strictly illicit. Flavio Frederico’s hodgepodge Urbania is a car ride through São Paulo peppered by elliptical flashbacks and documentary footage; the main thread, of a blind, elderly curmudgeon seeking closure with a long-lost love, begins to feel like an affront when juxtaposed with real scenes of homeless kids squeegeeing cars on a highway or foraging for dinner amid one of the massive trash heaps on the outskirts of town. The Mexico City families in Perfume de Violetas (Violet Perfume) also live hand-to-mouth. The parents of manic teenager Yessica keep threatening to put her to work, but she’d rather keep on making petty trouble at school and hang out with best friend Miriam. Marysa Sistach’s convulsive feature caricatures its adults far too broadly (especially the self-hating older women), but the affectionate bond between the girls is palpable, and so is the sense of impromptu calamity lurking around every corner.

Sistach’s film pauses for breath with happy time-wasting (makeup sessions, photo-booth high jinks), and so does Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rodents), in which two working-class cousins (one newly booted from school, the other mysteriously bereft of a finger) go on the lam in Ecuador. Sebastián Cordero’s gratifyingly offhand feature builds to a fever pitch, but its early, free-form scenes of blasé juvenile delinquency are the most engaging—viewers will receive a crash course in how to steal a motorist’s hubcap and then sell it back to him.

Road warriors abound in “Latin Beat!” In María Novaro’s Mexican border-crossing Sin Dejar Huella (Without a Trace), the class difference between the two protagonists—a smuggler and a single mother—is as much a source of friction as the inescapable presence of the mysterious person on their trail. Strawberry and Chocolate director Juan Carlos Tabío returns with the equally cutesy Lista de Espera (The Waiting List), a thwarted road movie: Passengers at a bus station in rural Cuba bicker and bond while they endlessly wait for their vehicle to be repaired.

Equally bored, the twentysomething Montevideo layabouts of 25 Watts divide their time between sitting around outside and sitting around in front of the TV. Prone to tangential, semiarticulate pop-culture riffing and shot in grimy black-and-white, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s slacker entry draws inevitable comparisons with Clerks, but its sense of entitled indolence is less aggressive, and surely more precise: When one couchsitter rudely steps over another to answer the door, the transgressor explains, “It’s four steps closer this way.”

Experimentation and eccentricity are somewhat scarce among the offerings (so are overt politics); the exceptions are uneven but certainly notable. André Klotzel’s Memórias Póstumas (Posthumous Memories), adapted from the novel by Machado de Assis, starts off in Sunset Boulevard mode as the narrator delivers an account of his own death (his delirium produces a charmingly cheesy vision of a hippopotamus ride through icy climes), then rears back to begin anew from his birth in 1805 and development into a recessive Proustian dilettante. Tolerance for this whimsical bildungsroman—essentially a tepid Brazilian remake of Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained—can probably be gauged by one’s immediate reaction to the silver-haired, heavy-lidded dandy who provides the reams of voice-over. Owing a heavy stylistic debt of its own, the efficiently claustrophobic Crónica de un Desayuno (A Breakfast Chronicle) ricochets off the walls of its industrial-lit Mexico City apartments like an Emir Kusturica barnburner. Though director Benjamín Cann gets mired in some arguably transgender-phobic (or is it transgender-pitying?) territory with the horrific violation of one grotesquely masochistic young woman, let it be said that the film crams more unprompted screaming, queasying eroticism, and general bodily harm into a few early-morning hours than was previously believed possible.