First time feature director Javier Andrade’s “The Porcelain Horse”, Ecuador’s official Foreign Oscar submission, is an assured piece of work. The edgy family tragedy, laced with punky satire, is set in Andrade’s hometown Portoviejo, a coastal port of 100,000 inhabitants at the time this story unrolls.
The title “A Porcelain Horse” refers to a valuable collectable which serves as both an inciting object (which like Desdemona’s handkerchief in Othello, sets off a series of tragedies) and the recurrent tent pole on which Andrade hangs his character study of two over privileged youth, the Chavez boys. Raised in Ecuador’s’ elite, both brothers, aggressively rebellious Punk musician Luis(Victor Arauz) and older brother, louche womanizer Paco (Francisco Savinovich) are free base addicts, shielded from arrest by their family’s elite connections. TV Star Arauz and artist/ musician Savinovich turn in intense performances that keep you involved no matter what they’re up to.
Andrade takes on the Latin cult of fatherhood, with relationships between fathers and kids, and ersatz fathers and kids.
Father Carlos Chavez (played by music legend Hector Napolitano), studied engineering in Italy. When he returned, he founded a political party and a bank, ensuring his family’s power connections. Neither son wants to follow in his footsteps.
Luis is ‘fathered’ by drug dealer Lagarto (Andrés Crespo) who lets him run up insurmountable debts, pawning valuable objects he’s stolen from his family’s home. His mother Elena (Maribel Solines) an ex beauty queen with a talent for denial, has banned Luis from their house, but that doesn’t stop his ceaseless search for base.
Paco, the heir apparent, busy dodging his expected role in life, is something else again. Soon we discover he’s still carrying on with his high school sweetheart Lucia (Leovanna Orlandini) behind the back of her marriage- of convenience husband Rodrigo. (Non-actor Leovanna, the granddaughter of former president León Febres-Cordero, is a model and architect. This is her first film role.)
All the young characters are expected to assume their roles in the conservative elite. Rodrigo knocked Lucia up on a junior year abroad at Cambridge. Rodrigo, a closeted gay man plays hetero to salve his family’s pride. Unaware that he’s gay, Lucia’s family expects her to keep her sexless marriage together.
Paco’s caustic narration, a counterpoint to snapshots of a golden childhood, details one horrific lapse in judgment after the next. Distanced by bitter irony from the events he describes, Paco longs for his place in Society and, in the end, makes the leap.
One of many party scenes introduces the ensemble: Spoiled sister Viviana (Luisa Cueta) dates Paco’s natural enemy, wormy Manuel (Francsico Aquinaga). Inside player Rodrigo, whose father helped put the current President in power, is angling to use his new found connections. Pushing through new “custom regulations” he signs off on paperwork that sets Manuel up as a major Cocaine smuggler. Rodrigo gets his cut.
“Usually at this time of night my brother get the worst ideas”, Paco explains as Luis, desperate to score, attempts to steal the valuable Porcelain horse. Father Carlos catches him in the act, puts up a fight and dies off camera. The entire family joins in with characters running off screen to join in the fracas.
The family splits apart. Mother Elena and Viviana moved to Miami, with the family inheritance. The boys camp out in the family house, which they slowly empty, pawning belongings to pay their dealer.
Andrade mixes his drama with nostalgia; In the middle of the violent chaos of the film, Paco and Lucia reminisce about their first time, on the floor of her father’s basement, to the background noises of gardeners and servants working outside.
Things get dicey when Lucia, the spoiled daughter of powerful politico Don Pedro Rodriguez Bernal (Alejandro Trepaud) leaves her husband, moving into Paco’s family home, losing custody of her young son.
Lucia and Paco blithely go to her parent’s home expecting their help, but embarrassed by Lucia’s decision, her parents insist Pedrito stay with them, and eventually they cut her off. Don Pedro, a self-made supermarket magnate and Senator in the party Carlos Chavez formed, cannot forgive them.
“Cuckolded” Rodrigo romances Luis (“Who made you a Man?’, he asks the morning after), and gets him a record deal. As his record producer and manager Rodrigo takes on a paternal role.
But Luis’s acting out, fueled by guilt over his father’s death, increases his addiction. Local success with his band isn’t enough to stop his self-destruct. He keeps borrowing money from Rodrigo, who cuts him off.
Luis steal back the Porcelain Horse as a gift of atonement for his dead father’s birthday.
Legarto swears revenge. He tracks him down at a New Year’s dinner with both couples, Paco and Lucia, Luis and Rodrigo and young Pablito. Once again Paco is absent, in the bathroom with Pablito, and the camera follow him. Discovering the bodies, Paco asks himself, “What would my father do in this situation.” He calls the Senator and rides shotgun when militarized Police assassinate Legarto’s whole family.
“You did the right thing son’ says the commanding officer. “These people need to be stopped. Too bad they resisted arrest.”
At last Paco steps into his father’s shoes and does what’s expected of him by his society. Paco and Don Pedro bond over their loss.
When next we see him, he’s the up and coming politician, Don Pedro’s chosen successor as Senator. He joined Don Pedro’s Special Narcotics Unit; His first bust- Manuel, who used his connections to import Cocaine to the U.S. Rodrigo’s name was never mentioned in his report. Engaged to Malena, the boring daughter of the biggest factory owner in the region, he’s angling to be president.
Avoiding the melodramatic violence that dots films of this ilk, Andrade and DP Chris Teague (“Children of Invention”, 2009) put what violence there is off camera. The unease is threatening, as the audience’s mind fills the scenes with horrific details.
In a post-screening Q&A, Andrade mentioned a mystery in his posh childhood neighborhood, on which this story is based.
For a country with a nascent film industry, Andrade’s assembled an impressive cast, many of whom (Victor Arauz “Luis”, Andrés Crespo “Lagarto” and Alejandro Fajardo “Rodrigo “appeared in Iván Mora Manzano’s 2012 “No Autumn, No Spring”.
The original title “Mejor No Hablar de Ciertas Cosas” (“Better not to speak of certain things”) captures the see no evil ambiance of the cloistered elite families that form the backdrop. Andrade’s crafted a dysfunctional coming of age, a sort of Hamlet set against excessive addiction, where rich kids mimic the self-destructive behavior of world class Rock Stars, without the protection fame can provide. SEE, ANDRADE”S A COMER.