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.
A routine operation on a dog ends in tragedy when veterinarian Mario (Guillermo Arengo) makes a crucial mistake. Whether it was negligence or an error in judgment we’re not sure. What we do know is that the dog is dead and the owner is mad.
Mario and his recent retiree wife Silvia (Pelusa Vidal) live cushy lives in Montevideo, Uruguay and they want to keep it that way. The dog’s death is a catalyst for the chaos in their lives. Protestors make a scene outside Mario’s clinic. Someone has broken into their home and Silvia suspects their maid. When Mario and Silvia stay at their daughter’s home for a while, paranoia sets in. A violent act sets Mario and Silvia in motion to preserve their status quo.
Written and directed by Matias Ganz, A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro is a quiet and subversive thriller that demonstrates the lengths people will go to keep their comfortable lifestyles. There is a clear message about the social and economic inequalities of present day Uruguay. The subjects who suffer the most are the maid and her boyfriend who are lower on the social ladder as indigenous blue collar workers. Mario and Silvia as more prosperous Caucasians benefit from their status and can easily cover up their irrational behaviors.
Ganz was inspired to tell a story about the social and political turmoil of his home country with an influx of immigrants and a strong culture that takes pride in their European ancestry. In his director’s statement he says…
“A large part of the country’s population is of European descent and does not feel like they belong to those who have been wrongfully named Latinos… Politicians latch on to any petty crime to enhance their electoral chances… thus feeding the people’s growing sense of insecurity.”
A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro captures the social turmoil of a country in flux through its focus on the absurd actions of a microcosm of its upper middle class culture.
A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro had its North American premiere at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.
“We money brokers are the root of all evil. We’re to blame for everything that’s rotten in this world.”
Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler)
Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) makes money off of money. He gets his start in the currency racket by way of his new boss Swostaiger (Luis Machin). He even marries the boss’ daughter Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), an emotionally reserved woman who is no nonsense and all business. Brause’s success catches up with him and he gets greedy, taking advantage of the Uruguay’s fragile economy and his boss’ good nature. After going to jail for three years for his involvement in a corruption scandal, he’s back at it. Narrated by Brause himself, we follow his journey over two decades spanning from early 1960s to the late 1970s. The story is mostly set in Montevideo, Uruguay but Brause’s adventures also take him deep into the Amazon of Brazil, to Buenos Aires and to Switzerland. Brause gets deeper and deeper into trouble. His biggest nemesis Bompland (Luis Machin) threatens to take him for all he’s worth. When he isn’t facing financial problems he’s dealing with his failing health and a wife who doesn’t love him but is determined to keep the business of their marriage going. To get out of his bind with Bompland, Brause will have to go to great lengths to protect his future and that of his family.
Directed by Federico Veiroj, The Moneychanger (Así habló el cambista) paints the portrait of a man who is simply up to no good. It has a terrific sense of place and time and offers wonderful performances from its stars Hendler, Fonzi, Machin and in particular Benjamin Vicuna who is brilliant as the evil Bombland. The film suffers from a lack of consistent tension and overall clarity. The actual currency fraud is confusing and the viewer is left in the dark of what exactly Brause is doing to get himself in all of this trouble. This isn’t a thriller and I found it effective as a saga focusing on its one main character. The story incorporates references to Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple. As a trilingual viewer (English, Spanish and Portuguese), I was curious to see the two Brazilian characters, including Moacyr (German de Silva) who becomes Brause’s business partner and confidante, speak Portuguese to Brause while he responds in Spanish. Fascinating!
Last year I watched Veiroj’s Belmonte at TIFF which worked similarly to The Moneychanger as the portrait of one man whose life starts to spiral out of control. You can read my review of that film here. It’s also currently available on Netflix. I quite enjoy Veiroj’s approach and look forward to more of his work in the future.
Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Platform competition series.
“I don’t know how to love… If I could start all over, would I do the same thing?”
Ekaj (Jake Mestre) arrives in New York City after fleeing his emotionally abusive father. He’s a young beautiful gay teen looking for his place in the world. Unfortunately the cycle of abuse continues. He gravitates towards men who take advantage of his vulnerable state including his new boyfriend Johnny (Scooter LaForge), a narcissistic painter who exploits Ekaj for his own twisted pleasure. One day in the park, Ekaj meets Mecca (Badd Idea), a fellow hustler. In Mecca Ekaj finds a kindred spirit and the two quickly bond. Their friendship is the only truly good situation in their lives. Mecca suffers from AIDS and drug addiction. Ekaj escorts to make money which has the unfortunate affect of exposing him to more physical abuse. Can Ekaj find some semblance of stability and contentment?
“Men are very insecure. I hate men. I even hate myself.”
Ekaj is a modern day Midnight Cowboy. It’s raw, gritty, sensitive, organic and real. The camera gets right up into the faces of its subjects and we can’t help but be emotionally invested in Ekaj. The film was written, directed and produced by Cati Gonzalez and features an all-male cast. This makes for an interesting gender dynamic having a female POV on the lives of men. The two leads are of Puerto Rican descent and I love that this is an indie film by a female filmmaker with queer Latino characters. The scenes between Jake Mestre and Badd Idea are really the heart of the film. Their tender friendship is beautiful to see even in the midst of their harrowing struggles. Ekaj serves a window into the world of a marginalized community and encourages the viewer to find some empathy within themselves.
Set in 1986, writer and director Hari Sama’s newest film This is Not Berlin follows Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) a teen trying to find his own place in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for him. He and his best friend Gera (Jose Antonion Toldano) attend Catholic school in the suburbs of Mexico City. Carlos is disinterested in his soccer friends’ rivalry with another school. Instead he spends his time tinkering with electronics, hanging out with Gera and getting advice from his uncle Esteban (Hari Sama).
One day Gera’s sister Rita (Ximena Romo), the lead singer of a local punk band takes the two friends to a club, as a thank you to Carlos for helping fix her synthesizer. Both Carlos and Gera are thrust into the underworld of Mexico City. The drug and booze fueled scene is where rebellious youths escape for the freedom to express their sexuality. There Carlos meets Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a photographer who is attracted to Carlos. Through Nicho, Carlos becomes part of a community of artists whose unconventional forms of artistic expression including outlandish performance art. As Carlos and Gera drift apart and tragedy befalls Carlos’ family, will his newfound rebellion help him find his true self? Or will it keep him away from what truly matters?
This is Not Berlin is inspired by director Hari Sama’s teenage years in Lomas Verdes, a suburb in Mexico. About the writing process, Sama says “the research took me to painful places of my adolescence but also allowed me to revisit the moments that made me a filmmaker and musician.”
One of my favorite aspects of the film was Sama’s role as Esteban, Carlos’ uncle, mentor and confidante. Esteban seems to be the only one in Carlos’ who truly understands his struggles. They have some wonderful moments together and some deep philosophical discussions.
“Have you ever felt like you want something but there’s something inside you that won’t let you do it? Like a voice that doesn’t shut up and it’s not even yours.”
“Love is very wacky… but when you find it, when you have that moment of silence with someone… taking that leap is worth it.”
Had the plot shifted and focused more on the friendship with Carlos and Gera with Esteban as the anchor, essentially making in a buddy movie, it would have been a stronger movie. Like Y Tu Mama Tambien but with a much different ending. I was particularly drawn to the theme of loyalty and the difference between those who stick around and those who abandon you when times get tough.
This is Not Berlin is a deep exploration of artistic expression and finding your true self. The opening scene is quite breathtaking. Carlos stands in the middle of a fight between the two rival Catholic school soccer teams. It’s clear that Carlos is lost in the chaos around him. He doesn’t participate in the fight and eventually it overwhelms him. The performance art scenes are quite provocative. I hope we see a lot more from Hari Sama.
This is Not Berlin recently premiered at Sundance and had it’s New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.