A still from Ema

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Most theaters in D.C. and Maryland remain closed, but that isn’t stopping AFI from showcasing the best films from the Latin American world. Now in its 31st year, the AFI Latin American Festival is full of smart, involving films that audiences can watch virtually. Some of them are challenging, both in terms of form and content, while others are total crowd-pleasers. The festival runs between Friday, Sept. 25 and Wednesday, Oct. 7, and here is a guide to its excellent slate.

Ema

In the United States, director Pablo Larraín is probably best known for Jackie, an observant biopic of Jackie O, with Natalie Portman playing the former First Lady. The Chilean film Ema is his follow-up, and here his subject is even more enigmatic. Mariana Di Girolamo plays Ema, a dancer who specializes in reggaeton. Her husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal) is also her choreographer, and they are reeling from a personal loss. After a disastrous adoption, Ema called Child Services to collect her son and put him back in the foster care system. Larraín follows Ema’s intense, wildly unethical journey to reunite with him.

There is a touch of noir to Ema, with the femme fatale as the central character. She finds the nice, middle class couple who now care for the boy. Instead of stealing him outright, she seduces both parents, with them unaware they’re cheating on each other with the same person. This film has a fluid sense of modern sexuality, to the point where institutions like marriage and family can easily be dismantled. Larraín intersperses Ema with beautiful dance sequences and crisp cinematography. If this drama provides no easy answers, at least it’s a delight to behold.

The Heist of the Century

At last, a superlative title that lives up to its name. Directed with showmanship by Ariel Winograd, The Heist of the Century is a classic riff on the caper movie. The characters are sharply drawn, with the usual obstacles in their way. Because this film is based on an actual 2006 Argentina robbery, there is also genuine tension about how it will all resolve.

There are six robbers of the Banco Rio in Acassuso, a small town outside Buenos Aires, but two of them stand out above the rest. Fernando (Diego Peretti) is more of a philosopher than thief—there is a karmic elegance to his plan—while Mario (Guillermo Francella) is the familiar smooth-talking criminal. It would be awful to reveal the precise details of the heist, since the film’s greatest pleasure is to keep the audience guessing just how they manage to pull it off. The heist does, however, involve a mix of technical ingenuity and the skillful manipulation of Miguel (Luis Luque), the hapless police negotiator.

This film has just the right balance of suspense and comedy, the sort of thing you should rush to see before the inevitable American remake.

Kokoloko

Speaking of American remakes, Kokoloko is the latest from Gerardo Naranjo, whose last feature Miss Bala was remade into a so-so American star vehicle for Gina Rodriguez. Now Naranjo steps completely outside the Hollywood system, filming on location with unknown actors and vivid, dreamlike 16mm cameras.

Alejandra Herrera plays Marisol, a woman who lives in the beach communities of Oaxaca, and she is caught between two men. Her older lover is Mundo (Noé Hernández), an aspiring gun runner for the local guerrilla force. Then there is her cousin Mauro (Eduardo Mendizábal), whose desire to control Marisol is pathological. Naranjo follows these three tragic people through a series of melodramatic betrayals, and Kokoloko has an episodic, fractured style. The film’s tension is between its art house sensibility and the familiar story of romantic betrayal. This gives it a universal quality, as if it is a long forgotten artifact.

Kokoloko is an unlikely travelogue since so much of the story involves mayhem and murder, but the 16mm imagery is a pleasure to behold. Think of it like a flashback to your most disastrous vacation that somehow still managed to look great.

The Mole Agent

Now that documentary miniseries are extremely popular on streaming services, audiences are more used to how nonfiction cinema unfolds. They would be pleasantly surprised by The Mole Agent, a documentary that provocatively blurs the line between fact and fiction.

Rómulo is a private detective who needs to investigate a nursing home. His solution is simple: He has auditions for octogenarians to record the home from the inside. He finds Sergio, a charming mild-mannered widower who still has his wits about him. Director Maite Alberdi has permission to film inside the home, but the caretakers are unaware of Sergio’s role in it.

At first, The Mole Agent works as comedy because Sergio is a terrible spy (none of his observations are all that useful). But then the film shifts into something else entirely, with Sergio becoming the nursing home’s eligible bachelor and fiercest advocate. The line between recreation and cinema vérité is deliberately unclear, and yet the message is unshakable—elderly people deserve more dignity than they get, and the loneliness they face is a tragedy.

Submersible

The claustrophobic thriller is nothing new. There have been films set entirely within the confines of a tank, for example, or someone trapped in a coffin. Submersible gives that tradition a run for its money with a setting that is deeply unpleasant and grimy.

Director Alfredo León León sets his film entirely inside a makeshift submarine, one that is coming apart when the film starts. If military-grade submarines look polished and sanitary, this looks like spare parts from the dump cobbled together with duct tape. Three men operate the submersible, and they are smuggling drugs for an unseen cartel. A surprise awaits them, however, in the cargo hold: a young woman who is meant as a “queen” for wherever she lands.

León shoots the cramped spaces from a wide variety of angles. The suspense in Submersible involves whether these men can complete the mission, or whether the woman can escape, and all that is before the sub starts to sink. This is the sort of nasty thriller where no character is especially likable, and yet it is easy to care about what happens because their situation is so desperate.