Dispatches from the 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival

(Note: Most of these reviews originally appeared here.)

The 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival took place from April 5 to 19. Here’s a look at six films – some good, some bad – that screened there:

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa López; Mexico)

Image courtesy of Videocine.

When it comes to protagonists, you can’t get much worse than Estrella (Paola Lara), the 10-year old girl at the center of Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid. Aside from being homeless, she’s on the run from members of her local drug cartel – and all the while, she also has to contend with the ghost of her mom, who was killed by the very same men pursuing Estrella in the present. López gets a lot of mileage out of the not-so-original idea that kids cope with this world by escaping into their own. But her work still holds its own as both an inspiring feminist tale and a searing depiction of Mexico’s drug war. And the film’s child actors prove remarkable without exception.

Last Days in Havana (Fernando Pérez; Cuba)

Image courtesy of Besafilms.

Fernando Pérez’s Last Days in Havana tells the story of two men who live in the titular city: a somber, taciturn dishwasher (Patricio Wood) who desperately wants to immigrate to the US, and a flamboyant, bedridden gay man (Jorge Martínez) who’s dying of AIDS. Wood and Martinez both give exceptional performances, and the unlikely chemistry between their two characters makes for a compelling watch. Around them, meanwhile, Pérez constructs a quiet, poetic meditation on modern-day Cuba, a country caught between the empty legacy of a failed revolution and an embargo that ensures its continued isolation. The movie’s reliance on long takes, deep staging, and long shots only reinforces the feelings of aimlessness and futile longing that its narrative so movingly evokes.

Another Story of the World (Guillermo Casanova; Uruguay)

Image courtesy of Primer Plano.

At the start of Guillermo Casanova’s Another Story of the World, a man named Milo (Roberto Súarez) is imprisoned after he pulls a prank on his local military governor (Néstor Guzzini). In response, Milo’s friend (César Troncoso) gets the governor’s permission to teach a history class – only to then use said class as a cover for raising awareness of Milo’s plight. Casanova’s work is not without merit: its long takes ably evoke the feeling of helplessness that citizens of dictatorships can experience, and its plot aptly illustrates the way facts can be used as ideological weapons. Yet on the whole, the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama – and after it meanders through several undeveloped subplots, it eventually reaches an ending that feels implausible, trite, and distinctly unsatisfying.

El Inca (Ignacio Castillo Cottin; Venezuela)

Image courtesy of Outsider Pictures.

Ignacio Castillo Cottin’s El Inca is a biopic of Edwin Valero (Alexander Leterni), a world champion boxer who eventually got hooked on drugs, killed his wife (Scarlett Jaimes), and committed suicide in prison. Cottin’s depiction of Valero’s rise and fall skimps on character development – particularly when it comes to its female characters – and the film’s themes are derivative of genre classics like Raging Bull. But Cottin’s tendency to shoot his characters at a distance effectively conveys the emptiness of Valero’s life; the film’s ending, moreover, features a truly haunting depiction of the distortionary effects of drugs. And even if he’s no Robert de Niro, Leterni acquits himself admirably in the lead role.

I Will Wait for You (Alberto Lecchi; Argentina)

Image courtesy of INCAA.

Argentinian actor Darío Grandinetti first gained international recognition for his lead role in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. Now, in Alberto Lecchi’s I Will Wait for You, he plays a moody architect who has to grapple with the legacy of his father, a renowned left-wing activist. Lecchi’s work tries to offer a meditation on the scars left by Argentina’s dictatorial past. But ultimately, it’s undermined by just about every flaw imaginable, including implausible plot twists, distracting subplots, one-dimensional characters, and blatantly sexist portrayals of women. Against such problems, unfortunately, Grandinetti’s considerable talent can really only do so much.

The Desert Bride (Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato; Chile)

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

In Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s The Desert Bride, Paulina García (Gloría) plays Teresa, an elderly housemaid who befriends a traveling salesman (Claudio Rissi) while on a search for her missing luggage. That might sound like the premise for a soppy, Exotic Marigold-esque story about old people finding love. But under Atán and Pivato’s direction, Bride turns out to be a wonderfully nuanced depiction of companionship’s ephemeral, fragile beauty. The things worth appreciating here include the cinematography, which skillfully evokes the fits-and-starts nature of the protagonists’ nascent relationship; the intentional ambiguity of the ending; and above all, García herself, who imbues her every gesture and glance with layers of hidden meaning.