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SXSW: Raquel 1:1

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.

Slamdance: The Ritual to Beauty

“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.

Sundance: La Guerra Civil

When Oscar de la Hoya and Julio César Chávez went head-to-head in the boxing ring, it was an event. Referred to as the “Ultimate Glory”, this 1996 match not only pitted two of the most talented boxers against each other, it also started a cultural war. Julio César Chávez was the pride and joy of Mexico. He holds the record of the longest undefeated streak which began with his very first professional match. He was a champ that Mexicans could get behind. Oscar de la Hoya represented the expats. The Mexicans who left their home country years ago to seek opportunities in the States. De la Hoya showed promise at an early age and admired the great Chávez. But the Mexicans scored de la Hoya. Despite his 100% Mexican heritage and being fluent in Spanish, they felt he wasn’t Mexican enough. Not like Chávez. So when it came to that fateful day in 1996, Chávez stood with his country rallying behind him. But de la Hoya came armed with youthful vigor and a secret weapon: a brilliant coach who taught him how to take Chávez down.

Directed by Eva Longoria Bastón, La Guerra Civil expertly demonstrates not only the importance of the Chávez vs de la Hoya fight but also how the careers of these two boxing champions were intrinsically tied to their cultural identities. Both Chávez and de la Hoya were interviewed for the documentary along with sports journalists, latinx celebrities, family members and various experts. There is an air of familiarity in the film. Perhaps the friendly vibe prevented the documentary from going more in-depth into serious matters involving the two subjects including their drug addictions and various tragedies. These are briefly mentioned but not discussed at length.

The documentary is bilingual with interviewees speaking English and Spanish. 

La Guerra Civil premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

AFI Fest: The Death Cleaner/El limpiador

Based in Mexico City, forensic cleaner Donovan Tavera does the work that few others are willing to do. With the highest respect for the deceased, Tavera will come into a home and clean up the aftermath, offering loved ones one of the final steps in the healing process. Directed by Louise Monlaü, The New York Times documentary short The Death Cleaner/El limpiador, paints a portrait of a unique businessman who offers a compassionate service. This short is available to watch on YouTube (player embedded below).

The Death Cleaner/El limpiador premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of the Shorts Competition.

Ema

Reggaeton dancer Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) is in a tumultuous relationship with her choreographer/husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal). The two seem hellbent at destroying their relationship, throwing verbal jabs at each other and pouring salt on emotional wounds. Their adopted son Polo (Cristián Suárez) has been taken away for his destructive behavior and rehomed with a new family. Ema is desperate to get Polo back and will go to great lengths, including targeting the two new parents, to get him back. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery and destruction in order to fulfill her deepest desires.

Ema, you’re going to battle.”

Director Pablo Larraín’s erotically charged Ema sets the screen ablaze with its magnetic star Mariana Di Girolamo. Her unique look, donning bleach blonde shellacked hair and a piercing gaze, is mesmerizing and you can’t help but fall for her like the other characters do in her story. There are some heavy themes including toxic relationships, parenthood, polyamory, self-destruction, sadism and pyromania. Scenes are intercut with dance sequences that feel seamless.

It’s difficult to understand why some of the characters, particularly Gaston, are so hard on Ema. And at one point I was getting We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) vibes but Polo’s mental health struggles are not at all explored. I wish Ema’s story came with more background  and context but that might have taken away from her mystery and charm.

TW: Depictions of fire and the aftermath of a serious burn. This film premiered at TIFF a couple years ago and while I wanted to watch it then I recently had burned my leg and couldn’t deal with any imagery of a burn victim (Ema’s sister after an accident) and fire (Ema sets objects on fire with a flamethrower). I’m glad I waited as I was much more prepared to watch the film this time around.

Ema is a paradigm: she’s a character of characters. Daughter, mother, sister, wife, lover and leader. She’s very powerful and presents a striking, beautiful sort of femininity. She’s motivated by relentless individualism, as she clearly knows what she wants and is capable of seducing those around her in order to line up her destiny. She wants to be a mother and have a family; perhaps what moves and motivates her the most is love.

Pablo Larraín

Music Box Films will be releasing Ema on digital and VOD on September 14th. Visit the official website for more information.

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