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SXSW: Days of the Whale

Cristina (Laura Tobón) and her boyfriend Simon (David Escallón) are two street artists living in Medellin, Colombia. They collaborate on their graffiti art, live in a commune with other artists and rescue a stray dog. Cristina is a free spirit and lacks any interest in University life spends most of her time wandering the streets, making art and hanging out with Simon. Her family life is tense and divided. She lives with her father (Christian Tappan) and his new bride and her mother (Margarita Restrepo) has fled Medellin in fear for her life. When a local gang spray paints the threatening message “snitches get stitches””/“los sapos mueren por la boca”, Cristina and Simon decide to paint over it with the image of the whale. Will this act of defiance put their lives at risk?

Days of the Whale/Los dias de la ballena was written, directed and produced by Colombian filmmaker Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. This is an auspicious start to what I hope is a long and fruitful career. Arroyave studied communication and film in Colombia, Argentina and Cuba and brings a new and fresh perspective to Latinoamérica cinema. 

It’s important to step out of our own bubbles and explore the world around us. Days of the Whale offers viewers an insight into life in Medellin, Colombia through the perspectives of two young free-spirited artists. I love how Arroyave’s film drives home the symbolism of the whale. We see a whale trapped in a canal and as the film progresses the city kills the whale in stages. Cristina decides on a whale as the image to draw over the gang’s threatening message. Her reasoning is that they travel, take care of their young and its her mother’s favorite animal. The whale is symbolic of freedom, specifically creative freedom and being free from the fear that can stifle artistic expression. It can also symbolize being true to yourself and freedom to live your life, as Cristina and Simon do in spite of the oppression from local gang members.

Days of the Whale is a promising debut from a fresh new voice. It explores art as both expression and defiance and shines a spotlight on one of the lesser known urban communities of South America. It also features a fantastic soundtrack with a mix of Colombian hip hop and Cuban salsa.

Days of the Whale had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.

For Cine Suffragette, I interviewed Catalina Arroyave Restrepo. Check out the interview in Spanish here and English-language version here!

Update June 2020: Days of the Whale will have a virtual theatrical release on July 24th.

TIFF Review: Belmonte

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by Raquel Stecher

Belmonte
dir. Federico Veiroj
Starring Gonzalo Delgado

Review:

Belmonte is a man in crisis. A celebrated artist, he paints surreal images of naked men on oversize canvases. Belmonte sells his paintings to wealthy patrons but bemoans the commercialization of his work. When he’s not dealing with the art world he’s a single dad making an effort to have a meaningful relationship with his daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo). But his ex-wife is about to have a new child and when Belmonte asks her for more time with Celeste, she pushes back because she wants their daughter to be fully immersed in her own family life. The story follows Belmonte as he grapples with single parenthood and the art world. It also explores his relationship with women and the touch of madness that many great artists deal with.

Veiroj’ film is both a tender portrait of a single father trying to connect with his young daughter and a quirky portrait of a borderline tormented artist. I say borderline because he hasn’t gone off the depend but he begins his slow descent. I found the scenes with Belmonte and Celeste quite touching. I wish the film had spent more time exploring his artistic process but I did get a sense of how Belmonte functions in his given career and how artists must strike a balance between the creation which is key to their passion and the more commercial aspects of the business side of things (patrons, exhibits, catalogs, shmoozing, etc.). While the film makes sure to explore Belmonte’s sex life I felt that this really didn’t add anything to the story, except for some titillation, and could have been removed without affecting the overall movie.

This is the first Uruguayan film I’ve seen and I’d love to see more. I’d recommend Belmonte to anyone who has an appreciation for Latin American cinema, which inherently defies conformity. It’s an unconventional film that requires some patience and acceptance from the viewer.  I particularly loved the sweet father-daughter story which is truly the heart of this film.

I attended a press and industry screening of Belmonte at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

 

TIFF Review: The Quietude

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by Raquel Stecher

La quietud
dir. Pablo Trapero
Starring: Martina Gusman, Bérénice Bejo, Edgar Ramírez, Graciela Borges

Review:

Set in a country estate in Argentina, The Quietude tells the story of two sisters Mia (Martina Gusman) and Eugenia (Bérénice Bejo). Eugenia travels back from Paris to The Quietude, the family’s expansive estate, when their father suffers a debilitating stroke. As the two pick up where they left off secrets start to bubble up to the surface: a pregnancy, extra marital affairs, fraud, toxic relationships and secret papers. This is more than just a story about rich people behaving badly. It’s about a family delving into a state of chaos as everything begins to unravel.

Pablo Trapero’s film takes the viewer on a wild ride they don’t even know they’re on. The story has several twists and turns and it borders on the edge of melodrama but never crosses the line into soap opera territory. The sexuality in the film is at times titillating and confusing. The gaze of the male director was palpable. There is a scene with the two sisters that to me felt more like a male fantasy than something that would occur between the characters. Gusman and Bejo (best known for The Artist) play their parts beautifully and in a rare instance in the history of cinema, they actually look like sisters. The standout performance is delivered by veteran actress Graciela Borges who plays the deeply tormented matriarch of the family.

Throughout the film, the family’s chaotic state is represented through reoccurring electrical outages that cause the lights to flicker and the music to screech to a stop. The Quietude is filled with absurd moments that become almost humorous. There is so much built up tension that at the film’s biggest climactic scene the audience let out a laugh. Less so because the scene was funny but because we needed to let something out.

The Quietude is dark and mysterious. While the male gaze was a bit heavy handed, I still felt like the female characters were interesting and the leads had some wonderful moments to shine.

Trapero’s film has been picked up by Columbia Pictures but no US release date has been announced. His film The Clan is available to watch on Netflix.

I attended a special press and industry screening of The Quietude at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

En el Séptimo Día

Representation matters.

En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) tells the story of José (Fernando Cardona) a Mexican immigrant working and living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He lives in an overcrowded apartment with his friends. Every day they work at a local restaurant, washing dishes, delivering food and bussing tables. Others sell cotton candy on the street, work construction jobs, etc. On the seventh day, Sunday, they’re free to do what they love the most: play soccer. The story follows José and his friends during one week which starts with a semi-final tournament and ends with the much anticipated final game. The problem is José’s boss, who considers him the most valued employee among the immigrant workers at the restaurant, needs him to work on Sunday for a private event. But this means José, who is also the most valued player on his soccer team, will have to miss the game. With each new day we are exposed to aspects of José’s life including his coworkers, his friends, the blue collar workers he meets on his delivery route as well as the pregnant wife waiting for him in Mexico. In the end, José has to chose between the work that feeds him and the joy that sustains him.

 

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“I don’t see any other way. Either we get slaughtered or I get fired.” – José

En el Séptimo Día is a poignant drama about an underrepresented group of individuals who are an important part of the fabric of American society. This quiet film is about finding small joys in a life filled with endless work. You just don’t see stories about Hispanic immigrants. Perhaps first and second generation Latino Americans but not immigrants who are starting a new life in America. And in a time where ICE reigns and our nation is plagued with fear mongering, a humane story about Mexican immigrants adds some empathy and understanding where it was lacking before.

The film was written, produced and directed by Jim McKay, best known for his stories about average folks including Girls Town (1996), Our Song (2000) and Everyday People (2004). According to an interview on the Cinema Guild website, McKay’s inspiration for the film came from a variety of sources including his own work on Our Song and Everyday People, his wife’s documentary La Boda, and his own experience working in a restaurant alongside Mexician immigrant workers from the Yucatan. The biggest source was Mexican New York by Robert Smith, a book profiling a community of immigrants from Puebla, Mexico who had settled in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The majority of the cast members, including the star Fernando Cardona, are non-actors. McKay said, “the film is about Mexican immigrants and I was determined to make it with Mexican immigrants.” He sought out not only Mexicans but ones based in Sunset Park where the story takes place. However in the interview McKay makes it clear that the actors are playing characters and not themselves. The film was shot over 19 days in June and July of 2016 in Sunset Park, Park Slope and Gowanus in Brooklyn, NY. A few scenes were shot on a rainy day on October. McKay injects as much realism in his film which watches like a hybrid feature film/documentary.

The movie is primarily in Spanish with several conversations in English. It adds authenticity to the story. McKay and his team did a great job casting the variety of players especially Fernando Cardona who delivers a fine performance and is just captivating to watch on screen. I fell in love with this movie and its characters and was rooting on for José. I particularly enjoyed one scene when José is waiting outside a building where he’s going to make a delivery. He meets a blue collar worker who speaks Spanish and they chat about their mutual love for soccer. It’s a brilliant moment when commonality brings together two people from seemingly very different worlds.

En el Séptimo Día stole my heart. This is one you won’t want to miss.

 

 

En el Séptimo Día is showing in theaters across the country through August and September. Visit the Cinema Guild website for details.

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