Thursday, February 02, 2012

Spanish-Language: Nostalgia for the Light and Miss Bala

Weak attempt at a theme post, seeing as these two movies really have very little to do with each other than both being in Spanish. I did see them on consecutive nights, though, so that's kind of a theme. But, as far as Latin American countries go, the current situations in Nostalgia's Chile and Miss Bala's Mexico are strikingly different: Chile appears to now be quite stable and relatively prosperous, although one likely gets a rather skewed view from Nostalgia: It mostly takes place in the pristine desert, with the main buildings seen a pristine astronomy. The Tijuana of Miss Bala, on the other hand, is chaotic, the sort of place where drug lords can move around with large weapons and only attract a little attention.

Both are pretty good movies, though. If you're reading this on the day it's posted, you may still have a chance to see Miss Bala in Boston; I was the only one in the theater for the 7:40pm show on Tuesday, and it deserves a little more than that.

Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2012 in the Brattle Theatre [(Some of) The Best of 2011, 35mm]

I don't think it was Patricio Guzmán's plan to do a bait-and-switch with his documentary Nostalgia for the Light, but if it was, he executes an unusually smooth and effective one here: It's one thing to start with astronomy and end with mass murder, but pulling the two subjects together so well that the audience will thank you for switching things up is a really neat trick.

Chile's Atacama Desert, with its complete lack of humidity, is the best place in the world to observe the southern sky, and as a result astronomers from around the world have been building telescopes there for over a century. The still, dry air and lack of any sort of native life makes the area valuable to many others aside from those looking to the heavens, though: The drawings of Pre-Colombian natives are still clearly visible in many places, and the widows and orphans of those "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime hope that their loved ones' hidden remains have also been preserved.

Though the study of far-off stars and human atrocities may seem like completely different subjects, Guzmán links them by pointing out how all human observation is of the past. As astronomer Gaspar Galaz explains, the far-off galaxies he observes are seen as they were millions to billions of years in the past; the sun in the sky is that of eight minutes ago; the moon we see is that of one second ago; even what we feel when touching things has a small delay in reaching our brains. Archeologist Lautaro Núñez expands on this, pointing out how the drawings of ancient peoples may be easily accessible, but it is very difficult to learn about nineteenth-century Chile. Later, it is taken as a given information from mere decades ago has been actively suppressed. Though everybody in Atacama is looking to learn something different, they are all facing variations of the same limits.

Full review at EFC.

Miss Bala

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, digital)

Miss Bala was Mexico's submission for "best foreign language film" at the Academy Awards this year, but didn't quite make the cut. That's may be appropriate, depending on how you look at it - its either a thriller that's short one twist and thus settles for being merely very, very good or an excellent attempt to communicate the constant, unending tension of life in certain parts of Mexico. Either way, it's a movie well worth watching, and in many ways exceptional - it's a rare movie that can sustain tension as long and as well as this one.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is twenty-three and lives with her father and little brother on the outskirts of Tijuana, and quite pretty, enough so that she is able to talk her way into the Miss Baja California contest despite being quite unprepared. Her friend Zusu makes it too, and parties with her gangster boyfriend to celebrate. Laura is trying to get her out of there when all hell breaks loose between rival gangs, and her attempts to find Zusu instead lead her to Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), a big name in the La Estrella crime syndicate with a favor to ask. Of course, Lino's in trouble too, so doing him favors probably just makes the peril less immediate.

Director Gerardo Naranjo and his co-writer Mauricio Katz do a number of things very well here, but one thing that is especially impressive is how, once they've started to bear down on Laura and the audience, they maintain a remarkably constant pressure. It's not so much that Naranjo (who also edits) never eases up - although that's rare - but the build-up is such a well-executed slow burn that the audience seldom feels the need for immediate cathartic release. That's good, because the closest thing to comic relief is when the story moves through the Miss Baja California pageant, which by that point seems surreally superficial compared to what Laura's been through. In fact, the filmmakers barely let up for exposition - Laura receives much more in the way of instructions than information, and since the audience is almost never privy to anything she can't see, we (like she) must piece things together from overheard news reports and first-hand experience.

Full review at EFC.

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