Chicago Festival Capsules (Spring 2019)

The following are four capsule reviews that I wrote for this year’s editions of the Chicago Latino Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival. The first of these capsules was originally published here.

Piranhas

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.

Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas tells the coming-of-age story of Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), a 15-year-old teenager who lives in Naples. Unemployed and completely uninterested in school, Nicola really doesn’t have much to do in life. So he and a bunch of his friends decide to get involved with the Mafia, all while clinging to the mistaken notion that doing so will allow them to get rich and be happy.

Given the film’s focus on the theme of “lost innocence,” Piranhas’ basic narrative will probably strike you as somewhat familiar, especially if you’ve seen American gangster movies like The Godfather. Yet to his immense credit, Giovannesi is far less enamored of illegality than most of his American peers, adopting a cinematographic approach that acknowledges the allure of crime without embracing it. And in what turns out to be a remarkable debut performance, Di Napoli effortlessly captures the tension between Nicola’s lust for power and his childlike, equally powerful longing for love, family, and peaceful living.

The Realm

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

In Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Realm, the prolific Spanish actor Antonio de la Torre plays Manuel López-Vidal, an ambitious Spanish politician who’s the vice president of one of Spain’s autonomous communities. After López-Vidal gets caught up in a corruption scandal, he decides to do everything he can – whether that entails manipulation, blackmail, or good old-fashioned yelling – to salvage his reputation and finances.

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it ought to be. Like House of Cards, The Realm is a work that makes corruption seem cool, even as it simultaneously dishes out pious platitudes about how corruption is actually evil and reprehensible. Still, if you happen to be interested in learning more about Spain, the film serves as a useful introduction to its current political climate, which has been marked by serious, government-toppling cases of corruption.

Rojo

Image courtesy of Distrib Films.

Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo follows Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), a lawyer who lives and works in a rural part of 1970s Argentina. At the start of the film, Claudio gets into a confrontation with a stranger at a restaurant; soon after, Claudio finds himself dumping the stranger’s dead body in the desert. Eventually, at the behest of said stranger’s parents, a hard-nosed detective from Chile (Alfredo Castro) arrives to interrogate Claudio and investigate everything that happened.

On one level, Rojo works as a noir-ish thriller, an atmospheric mystery film that features compelling turns from Grandinetti and Castro. More significantly, however, the film is also an elegant historical portrait, depicting an era in Argentine history when state-sponsored terrorism forced most people into an uneasy code of silence. Unpredictable and refreshingly bizarre, this is a work that suggests that Naishtat will be one to watch in the years to come.

The Snatch Thief

Image courtesy of Cannes Directors Fortnight.

The title of Agustín Toscano’s latest film refers to Miguel (Sergio Prina), a poor Uruguayan man who uses his motorcycle to do rob-and-run jobs. One day, he and a friend steal an old woman’s (Liliana Juárez) purse. In doing so, however, they injure the woman so badly that she lands in the hospital with a broken neck and a terrible case of amnesia. Out of guilt, Miguel becomes the woman’s provisional caretaker by passing himself off as her tenant – a lie that turns out to be quite fragile.

From its plot summary, it’s easy to see how The Snatch Thief could have been a cliché, sentimental film about “human connection.” Armed with a perceptive understanding of human fallibility, however, Toscano instead turns the film into a nuanced, discomfiting narrative about pride and the difficulty of truly understanding other people. While clearly a minor work, The Snatch Thief ultimately proves memorable, thanks in no small part to the careful cinematography and Prina’s remarkable performance.