Birds of Passage (2019)

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Direction: Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego
Country: Colombia

Notable Colombian director Ciro Guerra, here teaming up with debutant Cristina Gallego, has carved his own style with stunning works that speak for themselves. Birds of Passage succeeds to the mesmerizing Oscar-nominated adventure that was Embrace of the Serpent in his short yet exceptional filmography. Even not as striking as the latter, this new film provides extraordinary moments of mature cinema.

Divided into five acts and inspired by real events, the film, written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, boasts an effective narrative delineated with refinement, integrity, and a cultivated cinematic sensibility that unfolds in a mixed style that incorporates the mysticism associated with the indigenous Wayuu clan traditions of the Guajira Peninsula in the northernmost part of Colombia and the violent, materialistic world of the noir gangster movies.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is not doing so well in his coffee trade, struggling financially to pay the heavy dowry asked by the family of his intended wife, Zaida (Natalia Reyes). The latter was conveniently prepared to embrace the role of a dedicated wife. Her mother, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the superstitious, ambitious and reasonably cautious matriarch who communicates with the spirits, taught her everything she must know.

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Rapayet's solution to the problem consists in teaming up with the voracious Montcho (Jhon Narváez), a childhood friend from a different ethnicity, and sell marijuana to the Americans, a very lucrative business that will cast aside any economic difficulty. However, tragedy and war struck the indigenous family, firstly due to Montcho’s shameless criminal practices and obsession for power, and secondly, due to Leonidas (Greider Meza), Ursula’s vile and vicious younger son.

In addition to David Gallego’s delightful cinematography, which captures both luxurious and arid landscapes with the same exuberance, we have enthralling folk music connected to ancient traditions, dreams, allegories, and premonitions in a stylized, hybrid tale of power, love, vendetta, and honor. This is powerful cinema.

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Land and Shade (2015)

Directed by: Cesar Augusto Acevedo
Country: Colombia / other

Coming from Colombia and deserving special attention worldwide, “Land and Shade” was distinguished with 4 prestigious awards at Cannes (Golden Camera, France 4 Visionary Award, SACD Award, Grand Golden Rail) and also conquered other trophies in Mumbai, Thessaloniki, and San Sebastian. I must state that it justified all of them. 

The writer/director, Cesar Augusto Acevedo, did a staggering work and is already marked as the next man to watch out due to this astounding debut feature. 
The incisive drama gradually attains high emotional levels at the same time that catches the viewer with its powerful, well-guided storyline and striking imagery. Joining the celebrated Ciro Guerra, who has been the summit of the Colombian modern cinema with gems such as “The Wind Journeys” and “Embrace of the Serpent”, Mr. Acevedo assures a place in the podium of the country’s cinematic creators, together with William Vega, artisan of another outstanding debut, “La Sirga”.

Don Alfonso (Haimer Leal), an old local farmer, returns to the secluded land he had abandoned many years ago when he was told it would be gradually discontinued of its landscape and factories to be turned into a huge sugar cane plantation. After 17 years, he agreed to go back in order to take care of his dying son, Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), a former sugar cane worker who has trouble breathing due to the continuous inhalation of dust and ashes along the years, consequence of the daily burn of the fields, which is a regular practice of the harvesting. 
Besides his bedridden son, Alfonso meets his sweet 6-year-old grandson, Manuel (Felipe Cárdenas), and his sympathetic daughter-in-law, Esperanza (Marleyda Soto), and re-encounters his embittered ex-wife, Alicia (Hilda Ruiz), who keeps stubbornly refusing to leave the property she was able to save. In a cold way, she gives Alfonso all the instructions about the tasks to perform in her absence. While he’ll stay home cooking, cleaning, washing, and keeping an eye in Gerardo and Manuel, Alicia and Esperanza are going to the fields to work and bring some money home. This is an extremely tiresome and underpaid job, which clearly starts exhausting the women.

Realistic and constructive, “Land and Shade”, is made of dualities and doubts. 
It’s simultaneously sad and vitalizing, portraying the dim indoors as gloomy and suffocating while some outdoor scenes, regardless the real circumstances, often pulse with light, a kite, and chirping birds. The doubts had to do with the choices of each character. Everyone ponders: staying or leaving? That’s the question. 
To balance the agony, sacrifice, and misery of this broken family suddenly united by an imminent death, the film counterpoints with solidarity, humanity, and forgiveness.
This is one of the most intense movies I’ve seen lately, and both director and cast consciously and confidently paddle toward the right direction, escorting the film to a triumphant realm.

Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

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Directed by Ciro Guerra
Country: Colombia / other

The excellence of Ciro Guerra’s new odyssey, “Embrace of the Serpent”, wasn’t particularly a surprise for me. The Colombian filmmaker had already conquered my respect in 2009 when he released the brilliant “The Wind Journeys”, another eventful and exploratory journey, set in the arid Colombian territories, in which a valuable accordion had to be recovered after being stolen.

For “Serpent”, an Amazonian epic inspired by the real journals of the European explorers, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes, he engendered a totally different approach, employing an evocative black-and-white to the striking images that stubbornly remain in our minds due to the beautiful, contrasting tones, and the irreproachable compositions by the skillful cinematographer, David Gallego.

I was fascinated by the aesthetic and narrative qualities of the film, which starts by following the young, strong, and wise shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), the last survivor of his tribe after the aggressive invasion of the greedy white men with the malevolent intention to steal the rubber from their forests. Segregated and self-sufficient, Karamakate has never submitted to the white domination, fighting them bravely whenever is needed.
One day, two explorers, traveling in a boat, approach him and ask specifically for his help. One of them is Manduca (Yauenku Migue), a native member of another Amazonian tribe that gave in to the brutal white men without putting up a fight. He’s a traumatized former slave of the rubber exploration fields, who managed to become a free man. The other visitor is called Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German scientist who has been exploring the region for four years and is very sick. According to the locals, only Karamakate can cure him through a very rare local plant.
Reluctantly, Karamakate agrees to help Theo if he accepts to be submitted to an essential spiritual and physical probation. The trio embarks on a delirious expedition in search of the miraculous plant, making occasional stops for sleeping and getting food. Firstly, they spend one night with a friendly tribe whose leader ends up stealing Theo’s compass. Days later, in need of food to proceed, they contact with a strict missionary priest who can’t refrain from whipping the local kids who disobey his orders. The last and more chaotic encounter happens when they bump into a feverish white Messiah whose followers are immersed in sickness, lust, and insanity.
Intercalated with the story of the young Karamakate, we also have the adventures of the elderly Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) who nearly 40 years later, and despite starting to forget the priceless knowledge he acquired over the years, still welcomes Evan (Brionne Davis), an insomniac American explorer who needs the sacred Yakruna plant to heal his disorder. 

Impeccably directed and flawlessly portrayed, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a spiritual experience about colonialism that not always delivers the answers we want. Its trippy finale can be seen as a sort of a freaky embellishment from the director, but is also left open to different interpretations. The eminent transcendental accessories throughout the film give us a vividly expressive perspective about the shock of different cultures, the good and the bad in the human nature, and the forever-complex relation between nature and civilization.

Gente De Bien (2014)

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Directed by Franco Lolli
Country: Colombia / France

“Gente de Bien” has a double meaning in Spanish since it may want to refer to good people or rich people. For this observant French-Colombian drama, Franco Lolli’s directorial debut, both options may apply. 
Here, the eyes are put on the 10-year-old Eric (Bryan Santamaria), whose mother is leaving Bogotá for a better job. Since she can’t afford to take Eric with her, the solution is sending him to his estranged father, Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Perez), a skilled handyman at the service of the wealthy and considerate matriarch, Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero). In this strange new environment, Eric, who misses playing soccer with his mates, is taken to Maria Isabel’s house where his father replaces the old furniture and everything seems even more unfamiliar. Maria Isabel doesn’t give up on trying to give an adequate education to Francisco and Juana, her spoiled children, who slowly show a contemptuous bias toward Eric. Coming from a much lower social class, Eric never lowers his head, often reacting in a brusque way, and showing an intransigent personality that culminates with a reproachable attempt to steal cash from the host’s purse. 

At the same time, the worried Gabriel, immersed in financial debt, starts looking for a bigger apartment where he can live a bit more comfortably with Eric and the latter’s little dog. Lacking the money to rent the apartment, Gabriel visits his sister, Marta, with the intention of getting a loan from her. Despite the refusal, she invites them to her house where she lives with her husband and kids. However, things don’t go any smoother.
Aware of Gabriel’s difficulties, Maria Isabel makes an irrefutable proposition in order to help him. She’s willing to accept them at her country villa where her family reunites every year during the Christmas season. Once living in the same house as the rich family, both Gabriel and Eric feel detached and unhappy. The former ends up returning to Bogotá. Will Eric be able to adapt to the surrogate family, taking into account that not everyone tolerates well his presence?

Equally subtle and authentic, “Gente de Bien” is never precipitated in its storytelling, relying on the sensitive performances of its cast to build genuinely human characters in a natural manner. It’s this intentional lethargy that makes us understand better the diversified emotional states. The screenplay, devoid of big twists, focuses more on the simple daily situations that mirror the Colombian socio-economic gaps. Nonetheless, what we see in Mr. Lolli’s auspicious first work, can be transported to anywhere in the world.

The Towrope - La Sirga (2012)

The Towrope - La Sirga (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: William Vega
Country: Colombia / others

Movie Review: Art-house Colombian drama “La Sirga” is a dazzling feast for the eyes, punctuated by heavy silences, occasionally broken by howling wind blows that causes rattling sounds coming from the corrugated zinc of ‘La Sirga’, an old hostel placed in a remote swampy field near La Cocha lake, Southwest Colombia. The film, written and directed by debutant William Vega, follows Alicia, a 19-year-old Colombian girl who is fleeing from the guerrilla war that victimized her family, arriving to La Cocha to heal her psychological wounds, which are reflected in her nocturnal somnambulism. Reticent uncle Oscar, who warns about the rough work required in the area, will accept her in his house as a member of the family, despite of peeking into her room every night when she undresses, along with his son Fredy. The magnificent cinematography composed of grey skies, luxury vegetation, soaked fields, and foggy atmosphere, probably won’t be sufficient to please every audiences. The same analysis applies to the quiet pace and story’s development, which associated to the elusive plot, can be seen as a setback. Intended or not, the fact is “La Sirga” will stick to your mind, not for its floating narrative or impenetrable metaphors, but for its images and sound. William Vega showed to have the film controlled in every moment, addressing traumas of war and consequent human response in a subtle and original manner. Uncertainty is what reigns in realistic “La Sirga”.

La Playa DC (2012)

La Playa DC (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: Juan Andrés Arango
Country: Colombia / others

Movie Review: Drugs and racism are addressed without any special feature in this drama focused on Tomas, an Afro-Colombian teenager who tries to survive in the streets of Bogotá after leaving home due to incompatibility with his mother’s white boyfriend. When he learns about the disappearance of his traumatized and drug addict younger brother, Jairo, he starts beating the streets, joined by his other brother Chaco whose dream is to leave for north. An opportunity to work as barber will be given to Tomas, but the good winds don't blow to his side, since he lost the confidence of his employer, all to save his brother from the drug dealers’ hands. Observant yet somehow bashful, “La Playa DC” seems to accept too easily the fate of these brave kids, painting a too bland and softened picture of a reality that requires some more stimulating vibes to be distinguishable. Debutant writer/director and former cinematographer, Juan Andrés Arango, despite the good intentions, lingers too much in stories about hair and haircuts instead of putting a bit more anger and frustration in the scenes. This way the film loses the additional strength that the drama needed to be placed above similar works. With moments of real tension being just a mirage, “La Playa DC” turned out to be another volatile, low-key exercise on street survival and broken family. Nonprofessional actor Juan Carlos Guevara did a competent job.

Porfirio (2011)

Porfirio (2011)
Directed by: Alejandro Landes
Country: Colombia / others

Review: “Porfirio” shows the real life of Porfirio Ramirez, a 55 year-old Colombian man who was shot in the spine by a police officer, becoming paraplegic. The film centers in his day-to-day life, showing not only the constant physical struggle to accomplish the most basic tasks, but also the dependence from his son’s help, as well as some intimate moments with his girlfriend. Porfirio is trying to sue the state without success; he wasn’t even granted with any type of rehab, and his compensation never arrived. In order to call the attention for his case, he tried to hijack a plane with two grenades concealed in his diaper. This docudrama represents his last hope for justice, after having been sentenced with eight years of house arrest. Alejandro Landes adopted the same slow pace and rawness that characterize the style of Mexican Carlos Reygadas, although with diminished doses of abstraction. The images are colorful, the humor is subtle and the heat can almost be felt from outside the screen. Without any shame or complex, "Porfirio" says a lot about humanity and justice, at the same time that points a finger at the incompetent Colombian state. 

The Squad (2011)

Directed by: Jaime Osorio Marquez
Country: Colombia

Plot: A team of Colombian soldiers are sent to an isolated outpost after losing contact with their comrades in arms.
Review: The similarities of this story with the Serbian “The Enemy”, reviewed five days ago in this blog, are too much evident. The screenwriters from both movies were not the same and the movies are from the same year. I just wanted to share this curious fact. Anyway, the Colombian “The squad” was much more efficient and scary than its twin Serbian competitor. Maintaining a certain ambiguity and the tension levels at top from start to end, it also revealed to have a great direction and musical score behind the story. Aberrant and creepy!
Relevant awards: -

The Colors of the Mountain (2010)

Directed by: Carlos César Arbeláez
Country: Colombia

Plot: Manuel, age: 9, has an old ball and dreams of becoming a great goalkeeper. His wishes seem set to come true when his father gives him a new ball. But an unexpected accident sends the ball flying into a minefield.
Quick comment: A colombian childhood drama where the horrors of war are shared with the pleasures of playing soccer. In a standard way and without great prominence it was a good effort to depict friendship, discard of life dreams and swift growing up in a war environment where the behaviour and mind of a child can radically change.
Relevant Awards: Best colombian film at Bogotá Film Fest. (Colombia).

The Wind Journeys (2009)

Realizado por: Ciro Guerra
País: Colômbia

Após a morte da sua mulher, um homem decide fazer uma longa viagem pelo norte da Colômbia, com o objectivo de devolver um acordeão ao seu antigo mestre. Para isso, vai contar com a companhia de um jovem aprendiz que se disponibiliza para acompanha-lo nesta missão. Durante o percurso irão passar por diversas aventuras e cruzar-se com diversas personagens.
Vencedor de diversos prémios internacionais (Cannes, Bogotá, Cartagena e Santa Bárbara), trata-se de um filme diferente, interessantíssimo e com uma magnífica cinematografia.