Highlights of the Latin American Showcase, Women on the Verge


Three of the films that highlight the 2011 Latin American Showcase, “Women on the Verge”, study the oft painful responsibilities of familial love.

There must be something in the water- Argentina has exporting a crop of powerful, subjective film makers: Lucrecia Martel, who first grabbed international attention in 2001 with “La Cienega” (The Swamp (2001), followed by “The Holy Girl” and “The Headless Woman” emerged with a visual style  that peeped at her characters from atypical intimate vantage points. A trick she uses in common with Claire Denis that is developing into part of the lexicon of a generation of female filmmakers, Natalia Smirnoff’s Rompecabezas,” comes to mind as does Verónica Chen’s exquisite “Agua” and Celina Murga’s “A Week Alone.”   

Argentine director Anahí Berneri “It’s Your Fault” (“Por Tu Culpa, “spends one Aristotelean night in the life of a young stressed out divorced mother Julieta (Erica Rivas) as her attempts to work and put her rambunctious kids to bed leads to an accident. Her youngest Teo (Nicasio Galán) breaks his arm. A midnight drive to the hospital as she fields calls from her ex and tries to keep the possibly concussed Teo awake in the back seat (she tells Valentine (Zenón Galán) to watch his little brother but he’s glued to his Gameboy) will seem horribly famiiiar to most parents.

Her conscientious trip to the ER, and a peevish remark by her eldest son leads the pediatrician to suspect her of child abuse. Berneri is adept in mining the in between states of emotion, that meander from anger to doting to resignation to protectiveness. She trusts her audience to be alert, to catch the minimal remarks between doctor and child or  between colleagues that leads to Julieta’s semi-incarceration. Julieta, who’s been drowning in multi-tasking responsibilities is self protective enough to summon help from her apparently selfish mother and sullen protective ex-husband. The final scene, half off camera, when the husband brings the family home and share the old marriage bed is redolent with the dregs of old arguments, unstated and minimalist. The cast is uniformly good Rubén Viani as the reproachful yet loyal ex-husband,  Marta Bianchi as the narcissistic bourgeois mother,  Osmar Núñez as the overly conscientious politically correct ER pediatrician and Carlos Portaluppi as the specialist

Julieta, who’s reached out for support from both her mother and travelling ex-husband, is held to tax in a way that reminds us that the expectations of women’s roles haven’t changed fast enough to keep pace with society’s rapid economic and social transformation.

Argentine director Paula Siero’s “The Water at the End of the World” (“El Agua Del Fin Del Mundo”) is a prickly urban valentine that feels autobiographical. Twenty-something sisters Laura (Guadalupe Docampo) and Adriana (Diana Lamas) share a small dilapidated apartment in Buenos Aires. Laura works as a cook and waitress in Mario’s neighborhood pizzeria.

Adriana is terminally ill (probably lung cancer). The two scrap but are playfully close, although Adri’s active romantic life still pricks caring Laurita’s envy. Aunt Hilda (Graciela Stefani), while resisting advances from local suitor Don Armando (Antonio Ugo) helps hard working Laura care for her sister.

When hospital tests confirm that Adri’s time is limited, she makes Laura promise to take her to Ushuaia, a small town in Tierra Del Fuego at the “end of the world”, because she doesn’t want “it to happen here”. ADRI prefers to die where she isn’t herself, just waiting around for death. Laura must work overtime and borrow money from her boss Mauro (Mario Alarcon) to buy the airline tickets. Adri uses her time repainting the apartment ( choosing the more expensive, long lasting paint) as a farewell gift to her sister.

Homeless alcoholic Martin (Facundo Arana) who plays accordion on the subway and busks on the street sleeps at various places. One’s a gymnasium; the other is Mauro’s restaurant bar. Martin turns up in Laura’s life, first on the Metro, then at Hilda’s. Adri’s a tough, demanding character, which allows us to enjoy her story rather than pity her. Laurita, whose dedication is dogged, has a moment of jealousy when she catches Martin making a pass at worldly Adriana. It’s wonderful how Adri assures her without describing the one-way seduction or making excuses.

Adri fights her death sentence. After passing out at home, she finds a place to lie in the park and savor life. On her walkabout she borrow Laura’s red dress and screws a stranger she picked up at a bar. Her life affirming action probably spurs shy Laura to go for Martin. She brings him home and he becomes a fixture. Hilda clues him in to Adri’s disease. He stays at Laura’s and helps Adri finish painting the apartment, but a drunken, stony afternoon leads to a confused grope, which Laura walks in on. Yet, Martin and Laura begin their romance. Martin assumes responsibility as Laura’s love sobers him up and he begins to hope for something more.

When Mauro’s forced to halve Laura’s salary, Martin suggests an accordion benefit to raise money. Even Mauro rises to the occasion, advancing food and drinks. A desperate ill-conceived attempted robbery happily has no consequences. Eventually Martin convinces Mauro to lend the sisters his car. The make a lovely camping road trip , which ends the film.

Siero, also an actress, is adept at wrapping us in the intimate moments of her characters while avoiding clichéd melodramatic tropes. A roving, probing camera and numerous close-ups reveal two very entwined sisters, at home in their characters. A delicate edit, sparse original music by Chango Spaciuk, Daniel Sebastián Ortega’s cinematography, Julieta Dolinsky’s art direction and  Lucía Sciannamea’s costumes all collude to create a believable memorable portrait. A feeling of lyrical acceptance suffuses the film, which is dedicated “to Adri” in the final shot.

Mexican director Maria Novaro’s lovely “The Good Herbs” (“Las Buenos Hierbas”) was my favorite film in the series. A revelation.

María Novaro (“Danzon”, “Without A Trace”) has always stylized her films with rich colors. Here, fully in command of her tools, she fashions a poetic mother-daughter ode, peopled with interesting background characters.

Hippyish Dalia (Ursula Pruneda) works at Radio Cactus a funky community radio station. El Rot (Rodrigo Solis) the DJ who’s lobbying to return the Aztec cactus symbol to the Mexico’s federal symbol, has a quiet crush on indifferent Dalia. She takes up with Gabo, played by Gabino Rodríguez, the improvisational star of all of Sebastián Hiriart’s films.

Her mother Lala, played by the force of nature known as Ofelia Medina is a master herbalist. Decades of traveling the indigenous healing paths, visiting and taking tips and clippings from indigenous shamans (she took mushrooms with Oaxaca’s famed Maria Sabina, whose mushroom chants play under a moving scene of private ritual) have enabled her to grow a vast herbal garden for the University. It’s virtually her private Eden. Dalia, in flash backs recalls wandering through the groves clipping plants.

Alas, this powerful fortress, this woman who represented something Dalia resisted, is disappearing under her Alzheimers. Suddenly Dalia realizes it’s too late to study with the middle aged mother she assumed would be around for decades to come. She dotes on her, mothering her as Lala appears to be one age after another, a young girl, a reckless teen. The woman with the cure for all her friends cannot cure herself.

At first, while Lala is coherent, she entrusts Dalia with her research work into pre-Columbian healing plants. Each plant serves a body purpose, but more importantly, it heals an emotional wounding of the soul. Before Dalia can learn any off her mother’s hard -won secretes Lala begins drowning in a fierce early onset of the disease.

She makes Dalia promise to never leave her in sad place with sick people. Lala demands to be cared for by friends

Ofelia Medina, who played Frida in Paul Leduc’s exquisite impressionist “Frida’ (1986) has the piercing quality of a Greek Tragedan. She captures the screen with her animal power.

Older neighbor Blanquita (powerfully played by iconic Ana Ofelia Murguía) is haunted by the ghost of her lovely Quincenera granddaughter, murdered on the day of her celebration. The ghost, in her bloody Quincenera dress wanders through the film. In one scene, Blanquita, one of the friends tending to the failing Lala, asks her to watch over her granddaughter once she dies. Let me speak bluntly, she says.” I believe you will die before do, watch over her.” Blanquita gossips with her neighbors, including the sexy Ana (Miriam Balderas),  Occasionally Blanquita ask for some of the smoke “that makes you laugh” smoking pot with the younger Dalia and .The film reproduces the women’s world in a way few films have.

Brilliant art direction by Lorenza Manrique’s  and equally precise costume design by Leticia Palacios’s (“Hidalgo – La historia jamás contada”, “Sin Nombre”) create a stylized botanical symphony that fully expresses Novaro’s melancholy poetic vision. 

Pages from an Aztec botanical act as chapter interstitials. The delicately animated plants subtly grow and twine on the page before us in.

Novaro and Barroso’s close-ups of plants are as vivid and pregnant with meaning as Georgia O”Keefe’s. Tensile and as “present” as actors there portraits emblazon the film.

Novaro captures the trembling stillness of a moonlit garden. As Lala wanders outside to contact her natural power, the fronds furl in the night breeze and we are suddenly there, rapt.

With its quirky powerful characters, Navaro’s created the most moving of the many films I’ve seen about Alzheimer. In a haunting scene at the film’s turning point, when youthful Lala’s disease suddenly gets the better of her, Dalia sits on her mother’s bed and coaches Lala to put on a skirt. Lala pulls top after top out of her closet, eventually pilling layers of tops on, without ever finding a skirt. All the while, she rushes back to the bed where her botanicals are laid out, commanding Dalia to find the plant that will offer her the end of pain and fear.

There is no deus ex machina. Commanding a mood both modern and slightly magical realist, Novaro guides us towards an inevitable ending, both sad, and poetically perfect.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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