At the press conference a few weeks ago to announce the San Francisco International Film Festival lineup, programming jefe Rachel Rosen was typically droll and quasi-apologetic when she spoke about the spotlight on New Voices in Latin American Cinema. Nipping any idea that she and her staff fanned out to scout last fall's festivals (plus Sundance, of course) with a specific focus in mind, Rosen admitted that they didn't realize until some point this winter that the checklist of invited titles included a concentration of films by emerging talents in Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Mexico. Fortunately, the quality of the films justifies a sidebar, no apology (quasi- or otherwise) needed.
'Tis far better, of course, for a strand to emerge from the programming than to arbitrarily designate a geographical emphasis. At the same time, the Latin American films don't blast their import and impact in the opening reel. Like Neto Villalobos' touching and unforced All About the Feathers (Apr. 25 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Apr. 27 and 29 at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco), they start off innocuously and gradually creep confidently under the skin.
The titular inspiration of All About the Feathers is the rooster that Chalo, a low-rent security guard covets, and eventually acquires. He imagines he can turn Rocky into a fierce fighter that, in this unprepossessing area of Costa Rica, will be more than enough to provide a better standard of living. Fortunately, Chalo isn't as ambitious as all that, and the movie doesn't devolve into a predictable saga of cruelty among the underclass. To the contrary, All About the Feathers is a portrait of casual camaraderie evolving into caring friendships.
Villalobos employs a fixed camera that, in the hands of a filmmaker with neorealist impulses, would express the characters' stasis and inability to transcend their economic plight. The director allows his characters to freely enter and leave the frame -- they aren't trapped in the least, their subservient jobs notwithstanding -- and uses offscreen sound to convey the larger world. Ultimately, the most expansive thing about this seductive film is the generosity of spirit it embodies. (Incidentally, you needn't worry about feathers flying, for there is just one scene with the briefest glimpse of a cockfight.)
The blend of observational filmmaking with a low-key absurdity that gently propels
All About the Feathers gets ratcheted up several notches in the existential Argentinean mystery, History of Fear. Benjamin Naishtat begins his eerie, entrancing film with the sound of a helicopter, the first of many unseen yet wildly imagined threats that derange a loosely related circle of well-off friends and relatives. Following in the tradition of filmmakers like Luis Buñuel and Roy Andersson, who are forever fascinated by the alienation, bafflement and self-inflicted torment of their characters, Naishtat conjures a world in which security is everything and nothing.
Guns and uniforms have a particular connotation in Latin America; somehow I don't think "to serve and protect" is painted on the side of police cars. The security detail in History of Fear (Apr. 30 at the Kabuki, May 2 at New People Cinema and May 7 at the PFA) is leaderless and ineffectual rather than malevolent, but that's in keeping with the film's larger theme. The fragile bonds and unwritten code by which civilization is kept shakily upright are losing their hold, and when the entire grid goes down -- the movie is dotted with brief power outages that peak with an outdoor dinner plunged into total paranoia-inducing blackness -- humans will behave no better than a pack of dogs. And even if the phones do work, the cops won't be picking up.
A vibrant spirit drives Mariana Rondon's deeply involving and deeply perturbing Bad Hair, and it belongs to a 10-year-old Caracas boy named Junior. His widowed mother is preoccupied with Junior's infant brother and with regaining her job as a security guard (do you see a pattern here?), leaving him to make sense of the world with hardly any help. The one thing Junior is sure about is that his curly hair -- inherited from his black father -- should be straight, and his grandmother stands willing to help.
Bad Hair (May 1 at the Kabuki, May 4 at New People and May 7 at the PFA) comes down to a battle of wills between mother and son, with the former terrified that her boy will grow up to be a homosexual and the latter starved for any sign of mom's affection and approval. This wrenching struggle plays out in a society organized around power, crime and poverty, which Rondon conveys through subtle, fascinating glimpses and clues. A domestic saga with the consciousness but not the agenda of a social critique, Bad Hair has the most despairing ending imaginable short of physical death. Junior, his mother and the film will stick with you for days, if not longer.
New Voices in Latin American Cinema also includes The Amazing Catfish (May 3 and 6 at the Kabuki and May 8 at PFA) from Mexico and The Militant (Apr. 26 at New People, Apr. 27 at the Kabuki and May 1 at PFA) from Uruguay. For more information visit sffs.org.