Saúl (Gael García Bernal) is a gay wrestler who performs for his local lucha libre matches. Wanting to evolve from his typical role as a El Topo, he develops the persona of Cassandro, a flamboyant “exótico” whose feminine energy taunts his more macho luchador opponents in the ring. Exóticos usually elicit boos from the audience and ultimately lose the match. But Cassandro wants to change that. As Saúl/Cassandro works with a new trainer on his skills, he grapples with his relationship with his in-the-closet boyfriend, his distant and homophobic father and his ailing mother.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams, Cassandro is based on the true story of wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, known as the Liberace of lucha libre. Gael García Bernal delivers one of the most spirited performances I’ve ever seen. He truly embodies this character, giving Saúl gravitas and Cassandro verve. The film conveys a strong message of acceptance and joy in individual expression. This one will be a crowd pleaser for sure.
Cassandro premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
This crowd pleaser will have viewers reaching for the tissues. Directed by Christopher Zalla, Radical is based on the true story of Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher from Matamoros, Mexico who made a huge impact on the sixth grade students at Jose Urbina Elementary School. Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio, a newcomer to the area who has a “radical” teaching methodology. When he takes over the sixth grade class of an impoverished school, he throws all the rules out the window. His unconventional methods spark the curiosity of kids who were otherwise expected to drop out of school within the next few years.
The movie spotlights three kids in particular. Nico is being groomed to become part of the local drug cartel. But he soon takes an interest in science, especially in boats, and hopes he can stay in school a bit longer to avoid a life of crime. Lupe is the oldest sibling of four and the expectation is that she help her parents with the care of her youngest. She is really interested in philosophy, especially the work of John Stuart Mill, but her intellectual journey puts her at odds with her family’s expectations. Sergio’s top student is Paloma, a bright young mind with an interest in aerospace engineering. She shows a lot of potential but is beholden to her responsibility as the sole caretaker of her sick father.
Eugenio Derbez really shines as the Sergio. He conveys a great sense of empathy and caring that demonstrates the impact a good teacher can have on students. The film as a whole really celebrates education. It also offers a sobering revelation that potential does not necessarily guarantee opportunity.
I could see Radical movie being the next CODA. However, given the limited appeal of foreign-language movies—Radical is in Spanish—I worry that not enough people will watch this terrific film. Radical is a bit on the longer side and could use some trimming. The ending is both awe-inspiring and heart-breaking. My hope is that this reaches a broader audience and that this will help the school get the resources it needs.
Radical premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Set in the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, Charcoal/Carvão tells the story of an impoverished family who make an almost Faustian bargain to lift themselves up out of their situation. Irene (Maeve Jinkings) cares for her ailing father but between that, raising her son Jean (Jean Costa) and dealing with her husband Jairo’s (Romulo Braga) reckless behavior, she is overwhelmed. When a nurse, Juracy (Aline Marta), offers Irene a shady deal to help the family, after much consideration Irene agrees. The plan involves getting rid of Irene’s father and secretly replacing him with Miguel (César Bordón), an Argentine drug lord who faked his own death and is now in hiding. Irene and her family keep up appearances. Jean goes to school, Jairo continues to work harvesting charcoal and Irene sells her chicken dinners. But the influx of cash and the looming danger that hangs over this volatile stranger, threatens to push the family over the edge.
“Charcoal is my attempt to understand how violence, religion and hypocrisy have taken over our lives and bodies in a way that we don’t’ even notice any more.”
Written and directed by Carolina Markowicz, Charcoal/Carvãois an unrelentingly brutal film about the lengths people will go to escape their situation. The film is deceptively quiet which makes certain scenes all that more shocking. Bookended with religious scenes and music, the story aptly explores how desperation takes away our morals and basic humanity. The performances came across so natural that it’s easy to forget we’re watching actors playing roles and not real people living their lives. Markowicz does a brilliant job enveloping the audience in the world of her characters that it feels like we are right there with them.
Charcoal/Carvãois emotionally devastating and draining. It’s a film to watch. But only once.
Note to add: both Portuguese and Spanish are spoken in the film.
Charcoal/Carvão premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
After Raquel’s mother died at the hands of an abusive ex, Raquel (Valentina Herszage) and her father move back to his hometown. There he starts a small community grocery store and Raquel develops a friendship with teens at the local evangelical church. Raquel is deeply religious and receives a calling to explore her spirituality through her own church and study of the bible. This upsets the local religious leader and her daughter who encourage the community to retaliate against Raquel and her father.
Directed by Mariana Bastos, Raquel 1:1 is a bold exploration of female agency and spirituality. Raquel is not portrayed as a victim of religious repression rather a victim of righteous entitlement. The thematic elements are subtle but still hold power.
Raquel’s past trauma is presented through sound as the particulars of her mother’s death are detailed through her thought process. The story is part coming-of-age story and part religious horror.
Given the political and social climate of Brazil the filmmakers are waiting for a good opportunity to screen Raquel 1:1 in their home country. I hope this film gets wide distribution because it’s a unique and compelling film about religion, trauma and the fight to be true to oneself.
Raquel 1:1 had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
“What happens to brown girls who never learn who to love themselves brown?”
Dominicans have a long and tortured relationship with their hair. As a Dominican-American woman I know this all too well. My mother and grandmother were both hairstylists who specialized in relaxing Dominican hair to a more culturally appealing state. Wearing one’s hair “natural” was looked down upon. The pain of not being something acceptable and having to change yourself to fit an aesthetic is passed on from generation and the harm lingers for years.
This is why I’m grateful for the precious gift that is The Ritual of Beauty (2022). Directed by Shenny De Los Angeles and Maria Marrone, is a short documentary that sheds light on the social custom of straightening hair and how it keeps Dominican women from loving themselves. The doc focuses on a young Dominican woman who is on a journey to embrace her natural hair. And in doing so, she examines the stories of her mother and grandmother whose different relationships with their own hair spoke volumes of what they thought about themselves. The doc is haunting and poetic and revealing. A truly amazing film.
The Ritual to Beauty was part of the 2022 Slamdance FIlm Festival line-up.