“Memory is not recorded like film,” reads a quote printed, agit-art style, over a montage of street scenes in Eryk Rocha’s Stones in the Sky (2002), a jittery, free-form, politically spiked documentary about the relationship between Cuban filmmaking and the life of Rocha’s father, Brazilian cinema novo godhead Glauber Rocha. This colorful experimental collage of photos, text, film clips, interviews, and music is almost giddily nostalgic in its retelling of a little-known period when the elder Rocha lived in Cuba and worked with the cine revolucionario movement. But the film goes beyond mere excavation. In celebrating a moment when filmmakers created art out of meager means and sought solidarity with not just fellow Latin Americans, but struggling peoples across the globe, Eryk Rocha attempts to give new life to both his father’s legacy and the ethos of a more heroic era.
Many of the selections at this year’s Latin-Beat series likewise revolve around the relationships between private memories and political histories, personal dreams and collective struggles. Set in the early ’70s, Eva López Sánchez’s romantic thriller Francisca ( . . . Which Side Are You On?) (2002) takes place in a circle of graffiti-scrawling student revolutionaries who travel undercover as a masked wrestling troupe. Paranoia and violence ensue once they discover that their radical professor is actually a government plant. Taut and intelligent, Francisca is all the more remarkable for its mainstream, poppy production values; one could barely imagine a sexy American narrative about the Weather Underground or SDS produced today in the same manner.
More powerful and unsettling is Luis Alberto Restrepo’s The First Night (2003), the series’ single Colombian film, set against a bloodstained backdrop of recent events. A peasant couple arrives in Bogotá, two infants in tow; the story leading up to their journey emerges gradually via flashbacks. In a deceptively idyllic forest village, two brothers, Toño (John Álex Toro) and Wilson (Julián Román), romance Paulina (Carolina Lizarazo). As their village becomes embroiled in factional violence, Toño enlists, while Wilson joins the guerrillas; both brothers’ paths lead to horrifying carnage. The love triangle erupts with sensuous forthrightness and eye-glance tension; the claustrophobic miasma of despair coalesces into all-too-real nightmares at the revelatory climax and sordid finale.
Alejandro Agresti’s heartstring-yanker Valentín is yet another look at history through the eyes of a child. In 1960s Buenos Aires, the eight-year-old bespectacled micro-hero (Rodrigo Noya), lives with his anti-Semitic grandmother (Carmen Maura), while his deadbeat dad (Agresti), in constant pursuit of younger blondes, visits sporadically. Valentín plays cupid (get it?) for his dad so he can regain a mother. Though Agresti claims autobiographical origins for this tender-moments tale, one suspects that Miramax—distributor of this film as well as Kolya—must maintain a secret island where ultracute international orphans are bred and raised to star in Oscar-baiting crowd-pleasers.
Similarly humanist, Carlos Sorín’s Minimal Stories (2002) follows three quirky characters—an old man in search of his lost dog, a fast-talking salesman, and a wide-eyed country girl chosen to appear on a tacky local game show—as their paths crisscross in peregrinations across Patagonian highways.
LatinBeat’s already substantial Argentine slate is bolstered by a seven-film tribute to Lita Stantic, who since producing Argentina’s first major female director, María Luisa Bemberg, in the 1980s, has now helped foster the country’s filmmaking boom in the midst of an economic bust. While some of Stantic’s titles are of only passing interest—such as Bemberg’s gauzy-lensed, music-cued 19th-century romance Camila (1984) or Israel Adrián Caetano’s odd family crime drama A Red Bear (2002)—those who missed the 2001 release of Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga now have another chance to see her sticky, humid, languid look at familial catastrophe on the big screen in full, fleshy detail.