Latinbeat, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s yearly survey of new and classic Latin-American films, is now twice as long and twice as Chilean. Due to popular demand, this year’s edition spans an extra nine days and, alongside a citywide centennial celebration of Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, it opens a window on a Chilean cinema that feels warmer and more expressive than the frosty sociocultural autopsies from Argentina that typically dominate the Latinbeat lineup.
Play and The Sky, the Earth and the Rain show Chilean filmmakers taking more risks than their Argentinean colleagues, but it’s the allegorical The Pope’s Toilet, an Uruguay-Brazil-French co-production, that towers supreme as a salient piece of termite art, getting to the roots of a people’s agonies with immense heart and a sublime lack of visual fuss.
Kidnapping is practically a way of life in Latin America, but the horror of this grand-scale epidemic is typically conveyed as visual diarrhea—whether it’s through dunderheaded B-movie guttersniping (Secuestro Express) or more pretentious strategies (Send a Bullet). Lamb of God and fest-opener Kill Them All employ different techniques, but both films are a bummer. In Lamb of God, director Lucía Cedrón draws all sorts of links between an old man’s kidnapping and Argentina’s economic malaise and dictatorial past, but with an emotional reticence that’s shocking for someone whose father mysteriously died in exile. Wielding a less high-minded but equally dull blade, Kill Them All begins promisingly as the nervy chronicle of a kidnapping, only to settle into a talky funk when the focus shifts from the death of one of Pinochet’s biochemical engineers to the strain the case places on an investigator’s home life.
Butter and bedtime dreams unite Alicia Scherson’s Play and José Luis Torres Leiva’s The Sky, the Earth and the Rain. Play is a Santiago-set doodle in which a woman casually remarks at one point that she had a dream about a piece of butter melting in the sun. The dialogue can be as precious and ambiguous as the connections between the lovelorn characters across time and space, but Scherson’s sense of rhythm, while thoroughly modern, brings to mind old-school Rivette. The Sky, the Earth and the Rain, in which a happy woman recalls a dream in which she invents butter, isn’t so easily redeemed: Because the subject is ennui, Torres Leiva opts for parking his camera at a distance to record his characters’ torpid gestures—the equivalent of a Sokurov-themed karaoke night.
Elsewhere, Wadley and The Other chase after the existential, but only one hits a nerve. Something of a Gerry pantomime, Wadley follows a backpacker through rural Mexico, ostensibly on his way to San Valentin, as he becomes increasingly distracted by the prickly sights and even pricklier sounds of the desert. Director Matias Meyer expertly conjures mood, but his film is neither existential nor spiritual, just soporifically hallucinogenic—a feeling confirmed when his lone warrior digs up and eats some peyote. Meanwhile, Ariel Rotter’s superior The Other follows a businessman to a backwater town where he repeatedly encounters death and is tempted to abandon his identity. Strikingly minimal, in both a narrative and visual sense, the film grapples sensitively with the oppression of being tied down by the demands of everyday life.
A throwback to the earthy and slyly allegorical works of political provocation from the ’60s (like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Twelve Chairs), and a rebuke to films that encourage a museum-like remove from subject and audience (like Paraguayan Hammock), César Charlone and Enrique Fernández’s The Pope’s Toilet peers intimately into the lives of impoverished Uruguayans who smuggle goods into neighboring Brazil for extra cash. This alternately heartbreaking and hilarious satire, built around Pope John Paul II’s 1988 visit to Melo, bawdily conveys the complex Latin-American relationship to God—and the means by which authoritarian institutions take a dump on the lives of the impoverished—through, yup, its main character’s misconceived desire to construct an outhouse in his backyard for the pope and his flock.