The Chicago Latino Film Festival reaches an impressive milestone this year by turning 30-years-old. Founder Pepe Vargas and co. are celebrating in style, screening 92 features and 39 shorts from around the world. In addition to showcasing new work by established auteurs and exciting younger filmmakers, the fest will also be offering a sidebar devoted to Spanish-language Oscar nominees from the 1960s through the present; and the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, star of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, will also be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award and be feted with a mini-retrospective of her work. Below are previews of some of the most noteworthy films playing the festival. The full lineup can be found on the CLFF website here:
Macario (Gavaldon, Mexico, 1960)
If you only see one movie in CLFF’s Latino Oscar sidebar, please make it Roberto Gavaldon’s 1960 masterpiece, the first Mexican movie to ever receive a Best Foreign Film nomination. An adaptation of a story by German author B. Traven (who also wrote the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), this dark fairy tale centers on the title character, a peasant whose wife presents him with the gift of a stolen turkey on the Day of the Dead. While eating the meal alone in a forest, Macario is visited by three spirits (representing Satan, God and Death, respectively), each of whom asks for a share of the food. Macario turns down the first two visitors but strikes a bargain with the third in exchange for a jug of water that seems to have miraculous healing properties. But this gift turns into a curse when Macario’s newfound skills as a healer transform his previously humble nature into one of greediness instead. Unlike the other Oscar-nominated Spanish-language films at CLFF (all of which are readily available on home video), the amazingly photographed Macario is unavailable on DVD, rarely revived and should look gorgeous projected in 35mm. Especially memorable is a dreamy climax taking place in the caves of Cacahuamilpa, a location lit only by thousands of candles and a triumph of atmosphere from Mexico’s greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (who also shot films for Luis Bunuel, Emilio Fernandez and John Ford). Macario screens on Monday, April 7.
The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013)
An ambitious and assured debut feature from writer/director Claudia Pinto, The Longest Distance tracks the criss-crossing lives of a diverse group of characters in contemporary Venezuela. The film begins in urban Caracas, where a bourgeois woman dies as the result of a senseless and violent crime. Following her funeral, her young son runs away from home to meet his Spanish grandmother (Carme Elias) in the mountainous region of La Gran Sabana where, unbeknownst to him, she has chosen to end her life. Among the other important characters are the boy’s father and a twenty-something hooligan trying to turn his life around whom the boy befriends on his journey. While descriptions of the plot may sound schematic, the end result is anything but: Pinto’s ability to render characters of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds as flesh-and-blood human beings is impressive in the extreme. So is her fluid camerawork and expert cross-cutting, the latter of which lends the film a powerful novelistic density. At only 36-years-old, Claudia Pinto is clearly a director to watch. The Longest Distance screens Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5.
Elena (Costa, Brazil/USA, 2013)
Director Petra Costa’s remarkable autobiographical/confessional documentary (the second such film to play Chicago in as many months following What Now? Remind Me at the European Union Film Festival) tackles the subject of the 1990 suicide of her older sister Elena. An aspiring actress from Brazil, Elena Costa ended her life in New York City at the age of 20-years-old and Petra, 13 years her junior, has been attempting to make sense of the event ever since. The film mixes excerpts from old home movies with new footage of Petra and her mother returning to their former New York apartment and the hospital where Elena was pronounced dead. The personal nature of the project eventually gives way to full-blown catharsis as Petra includes increasingly poetic images (e.g., shots of unidentified women floating in water) and voice-over narration that explores the notion that Petra feels she and her sister are in some ways the same person. This is an emotionally tough, occasionally harrowing, and very well-made non-fiction feature. Elena screens on Friday, April 11 and Sunday, April 13.
Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013)
Anina Yatay Salas, the protagonist of this delightful animated film, is a 10-year-old girl who is frequently made fun of by her classmates at school due to her triple palindromic name. After getting into a playground fight with Yisel, a much larger nemesis whom Anina refers to as an “elephant,” both girls are given an unusual punishment by the school’s principal: they receive sealed black envelopes that they are instructed not to open nor tell anyone about for a week. While the contents of the dreaded envelope haunts her nightmares, Anina embarks on an odyssey in which she learns a great deal about herself and the importance of developing empathy for others. What really makes this worth seeking out, however, is the beautiful hand-drawn animation, which perfectly compliments the smart story and is charming precisely because of its “flaws.” Anina also proves that, in the age of Pixar wizardry, just because animation is simple doesn’t mean it can’t also be detailed: the characters here all have giant heads, round black eyes, tiny noses and mouths, and spindly limbs, but the subtle variations in their appearances are incredibly clever and fascinating to behold. Anina screens on Monday, April 14 and Wednesday, April 16.
Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013)
Although Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria received a very quiet commercial release in Chicago earlier in the year, I urge anyone who missed this winning comedy/drama to make it a point of catching it on the big screen at CLFF — especially since the film’s radiant star, Paulina Garcia, will be on hand to collect a lifetime achievement award. Garcia carries the movie by appearing, as the resilient title character, in literally every scene. Even more impressive is how Gloria, a 50-something divorcee, is not a stereotypical neurotic single woman desperate for midlife romance (though she does briefly find that) but rather an ordinary, smart, sexy, well-adjusted woman who is content to live alone, loves her grown children, works at what looks like a mundane office job, listens to pop music, and spends her free time dancing at the local discotheque. The film’s central conflict eventually emerges from Gloria’s relationship with Rodolpho (Sergio Hernández), an older man with commitment issues. But this is, thankfully, also a movie that is in no real hurry to do anything: it does not put its characters through the paces of a formulaic plot, nor does it seem eager to give viewers a familiar set of emotional experiences. Lelio’s camera merely observes Gloria and if audiences have fallen in love with her, that’s likely because Lelio has not insisted that we have to. I found this emotionally affecting and highly original character study to be, well, glorious. Gloria screens on Thursday, April 17th.