Birds of Passage
Birds of Passage

The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center routinely offers some of the best film festival programming in the region—and we’re not just talking about documentaries. Now in its 29th year, the AFI Silver’s annual celebration of new work from Latin America (as well as Spain and Portugal) includes 43 films from 22 countries. Such high-profile fare like Birds of Passage may show up in local arthouses later, but for many of these films, this may be your only chance to see them on the big screen. We’ve only seen a handful of this year’s selections, but if it’s fair to extrapolate from that sample, the lineup is particularly strong.

Birds of PassageDirected by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego Colombia

This festival opener—a strong contender for next year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar—begins with a vivid courtship ritual from the Wayuu people in Colombia. It’s a vision of tradition that’s corrupted all too soon. Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is a young woman preparing to meet suitors in a dance called the yonna, in which she wears a flowing red garment while chasing prospective mates—like Raphayet (José Acosta). Yet Zaida’s mother, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), isn’t so sure about this cocksure young man, and the film bears out her fears all too well. Over a span of decades, the film follows Raphayet and his wife as they preside over a growing marijuana empire. The family moves on from humble, tranquil origins to a modern, lavish lifestyle and heavily armed guards. And despite her initial disapproval, the conservative matriarch, so protective of her heritage, becomes as bloodthirsty as the outsiders she condemns. Husband-and-wife directing duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego follow up their Oscar-nominated Amazon jungle drama Embrace of the Serpent with another impressive look at a culture in peril. While that 2015 film evoked the forbidding landscapes of Werner Herzog for its indictment of colonialism, Birds of Passage effectively suggests a descent into criminal madness right out of Scarface. Still, despite such clear cultural influences, this is a crime epic like no other, a bitter lament of lost innocence in what once seemed like paradise.

Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept.15 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

El ÁngelDirected by Luis Ortega Argentina

This true crime drama introduces us to Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro), a baby-faced 17-year-old, as he’s sneaking into a house in a posh area of Buenos Aires. His trespassing seems just slightly mischievous: He puts on a vinyl record and dances, and he’s a pretty good dancer, his wavy hair shaking along as he grooves. Who would mind if he took a few souvenirs when he left? Yet this petty thief, the product of a loving, middle class home, would go on to become one of Argentina’s most notorious serial killers. Director Luis Ortega charts Carlos’ increasingly brutal, remorseless violence as he teams up with classmate Ramón (Chino Darín, looking a lot like his father Ricardo of Wild Tales). With its charismatic leads, sexual ambiguity, and chooglin’ soundtrack of early ’70s Argentinian rock, it’s as entertaining as crime dramas get. But the movie seems to whitewash the transgressions of Carlos Eduardo Robledo Puch, who murdered 11 people in a 1971 crime spree. Ferro is impressive in his first feature, and a dead ringer for the young killer, but if this is one of the more accomplished examples of post-Tarantino blood-thirst, those deep vinyl cuts make it as superficial as a K-tel compilation.

Sept. 29, 7:15 p.m. and Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

MuseoDirected by Alonso Ruizpalacios Mexico

Juan (Gael García Bernal of Amores Perros) and Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) are both a little old to be living at home, but such is the Mexican family. While Juan bickers with his siblings, who inexplicably call him “Shorty,” Wilson dotes on his ailing father and doesn’t want to miss what may be their last Christmas together. After a disastrous holiday dinner with his extended family, Juan meets Wilson for a midnight rendezvous at the museum to steal the heritage that seems elusive in his own home. Museo is based on the 1985 case of two veterinary school students who pulled off a shocking art heist from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. The amateur thieves took advantage of drunk guards on Christmas Eve and escaped with more than 100 priceless Mayan artifacts. The movie boasts an exciting set-up and the hot subtext of cultural plundering, but it doesn’t take off, floundering after the heist as the thieves struggle to unload their high-profile contraband. Director Alonso Ruizpalacios has the bones of a slam dunk heist movie and a promising cast. Unfortunately, despite Bernal’s star power, the material somehow gets away from the filmmakers like so many unfenceable antiquities.

Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Good MannersDirected by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas Brazil

Clara (Isabél Zuaa, a Portuguese actress who began her career as a dancer) is an African-Brazilian nurse who comes from a working-class section of São Paulo. She moves to a ritzy part of town when she takes a job as a live-in nanny for Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who’s expecting a baby. The women don’t see eye to eye at first, with Ana correcting her charge’s manners and Clara subtly rolling her eyes at her boss’ goofy workouts. Still, the pair develop an unlikely friendship—and more—but Clara is understandably concerned when her boss and lover starts sleepwalking. When the baby finally comes, it’s not what anyone expected. Did I mention that this sensitive character study is a Brazilian baby werewolf movie? Directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas (Hard Labor) patiently set up their feral child conceit, gleefully careening from a somnambulant Ana devouring a cat to performing ditzy aerobics the next morning. In fact, it takes nearly half the movie’s 135-minute run time for all those full moons to pay off. The cuddly beast may not be as interesting as the beauties at the center of this thriller of manners, but just when the plot threatens to become a little more predictable, veteran Tropicalia singer Cida Moreira, who plays Clara’s landlady, launches into a moving ballad.

Sept. 15 at 6:45 p.m. and Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Virus TropicalDirected by Santiago Caicedo Colombia/Ecuador

Santiago Caicedo’s adaptation of the graphic memoir by cartoonist Power Paola tells a typical coming-of-age story. But its vivid black-and-white animation (which would have fit right in with the underground comics of Raw magazine) is so distinct that it turns the artist’s life into a bold, dizzying ride. Paolo’s progress begins, aptly enough, with the delirious moment of her conception, which occurred after her mother had her tubes tied (the movie’s title comes from the doctor’s explanation of this unexpected pregnancy). Wiggling sperm cells fighting for her mother’s egg echo the idiosyncratic line work that makes these two-dimensional characters come alive. Paola was born in Quito, Ecuador, the youngest of three daughters. After her father returned to a priesthood that he had never really left, the family moved to Cali, Colombia, where the then-teenaged outsider struggled much like any other transfer student in a new school. With an endearing indie-rock soundtrack (wait for the “Martian” song), Virus Tropical follows Paola and her siblings as they grow up in the ’70s and ’80s, navigating peer pressures, punk music, and fashion trends. As they try to get through, adolescent Paola blossoms from the baby of the family to a remarkably self-possessed young woman.

Sept. 15 at 5:05 p.m. and Sept. 16 at 3:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.