Oscar Foreign-Language: Latin American Films Go Easy on the Edgy

Robert Koehler
Variety

The year 2016 isn’t exactly overflowing with unmissable movies from Latin America. This despite producing, on a steady and annual basis, some of the most interesting cinema anywhere.

So it might be wise to tamp down expectations that this year’s roster of films (14 total) submitted for consideration for the foreign-language Oscar will produce some kind of world-beater.

There’s always the tricky consideration that what might be terrific cinema isn’t the right strategic pick for a given country’s industry reps to submit to the Academy.

Take, for example, three strong, uncompromising, sometimes even brilliant films: two from Argentina, Eduardo Williams’ “The Human Surge,” and Nele Wohlatz’s “The Future Perfect,” and one from Mexico, Amat Escalante’s “Untamed.”

These films may have dazzled crowds, juries, and critics at major festivals, but none were submitted, and it’s possible these movies’ wild, and wildly experimental strokes wouldn’t play well with the Academy’s foreign-language committee’s still-conservative tastes.

Two films are in the contenders conversation: Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda” from Chile and Jonas Cuaron’s Mexican border thriller, “Desierto,” both starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Larrain’s account of how poet-politician Pablo Neruda eluded a manhunt foisted by his right-wing foes is ambiguous to the end about whether its poet hero just may be a scoundrel (or that its fascist cop, played by Bernal, may be a good guy after all). Cuaron’s movie is essentially an elaborate chase sequence stretched to feature length.

More exciting is rising Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas’ “From Afar,” Venice’s 2015 Golden Lion winner.

It finds fascinating character layers as it steadily builds a tense and unexpected relationship between a Caracas street hustler and a middle-aged man who makes, of all things, dental work.

Best of all, Jose Luis Rugeles displays a formidable balance of craft and storytelling art in “Alias Maria,” his powerful adventure and character study of a teen girl in Colombia’s Farc guerrilla army faced with an impossible assignment.

Some picks are, at best, odd. It may have won a Tiger prize in Rotterdam, but Juan Daniel Fernandez’s Peruvian youth adventure “Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes)” is a hot mess on the screen, while, Gaston Duprat’s mild Argentine satire, “The Distinguished Citizen” (for which Oscar Martinez won the lead actor prize in Venice) lands only soft and fleeting blows at small-town backwardness and cultural snobbery.

These titles will be competing with Julia Vargas-Weise’s stilted Bolivian thriller, “Sealed Cargo”; Pavel Giroud’s Cuban drama, “The Companion”; Ecuadorean Sebastian Cordero’s political thriller, “Such Is Life in the Tropics”; Ricardo Aguilar Navarro and Manuel Rodriguez’s drama, “Salsipuedes,” and a romantic-comedy from Costa Rica, Hernan Jimenez’s “About Us.”

Two were unavailable to watch: Fernando Baez Mella’s Dominican Republic film, “Flor de Azucar,” and Manane Rodriguez’s “Breadcrumbs,” from Uruguay.
And back to those strategic considerations. Unfortunately for competing melodrama “Little Secret,” the film was slotted by Brazil over Kleber Mendonca Filho’s magnificent drama starring Sonia Braga, “Aquarius,” in what’s widely interpreted as punishment for Mendonca’s protest during Cannes over the then-impending impeachment of Brazil’s impeached President Dilma Rousseff.

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