We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The fallout of colonialism is the unofficial theme to the 2021 AFI Latin American Film Festival. Over the course of three weeks, films of all types consider the implications of European colonizers devastating the Americas’ Indigenous population and their resources. Many of the films are a tough moral reckoning; others use oblique storytelling techniques to suggest corruption that lurks just beneath the surface. While there are some pure entertainments, including a slasher flick that arrives just in time for Halloween, this well-curated festival offers area movie-goers an opportunity to consider the deep, painful historical impacts of centuries of colonization. Now that the festival has transitioned back to in-person screenings after a virtual festival last year, this collection of LAFF highlights should help you decide what to prioritize.
It has been nearly five hundred years since Europeans first arrived in Mexico. 499 is director Rodrigo Reyes’ attempt to reckon with how history informs what happens in modern-day Mexico.
499 is unusual because it molds fiction and documentary formats. If many documentaries seek to illuminate and inform, then this film is meant to disabuse our current way of thinking. The premise is unabashedly surreal: One day an unnamed conquistador (Eduardo San Juan Breña) wakes up in the future, on the shores of modern Mexico. There is no attempt to explain how he arrives there, and he wears clothing from the era as he wonders through the land he and Hernán Cortés once colonized.
In terms of mood and effect, 499 is similar to The Wings of Desire, a film where a literal angel observes humanity in Berlin before the Wall fell. This conquistador rarely interacts with Mexicans directly, and instead bears witness to what they endure. Reyes imagines him as a mournful figure, full of regret, and the voiceovers are more sympathetic than you might expect. We get the sense he rues ever setting foot on this land.
Such a premise allows Reyes to put familiar imagery in a new context. The conquistador thought he was sailing for paradise, so there is an added dimension of sadness as he wanders through a landfill or a graveyard of abandoned police vehicles. We hear several accounts of ordinary people, some of whom have missing loved ones or joined a militia, and the film suggests this is the consequence of unintentional moral rot. This film is quietly observed and photographed, and while it depicts real horrors, there is hope in the suggestion that reckoning with history is the only way to heal.
Fans of slow-burn espionage will find much to enjoy in Azor, a thriller about corruption in Argentina in the late 20th century. Most of the characters in this film are quiet, even mild-mannered, but they are capable or amoral conduct and financial deals that have ferocious, cruel consequences. The protagonist for this film may be an unassuming Swiss banker, but he would be at home in a novel by Graham Greene or John le Carré.
When Yvan (Fabrizio Rongione) arrives in Argentina with his wife Inés (Stephanie Cléau), he needs to settle old accounts. His partner Keys is missing—we never see him on camera—and his absence has possibly sent the bank into jeopardy. Writer and director Andreas Fontana has uncommon confidence for a first-time filmmaker, using quiet dialogue and the customs of the wealthy to slowly depict what is happening just under their noses.
It is important that, up until a crucial point, we only see the military junta in the background. Depicting them head-on, making ordinary arrested citizens the subject of the drama, would be the wrong editorial decision for the film. Yvan must see the junta and their arrests in the background, specifically so he can join a milieu of willful ignorance. Most of the film are a series of conversations, as Yvan learns more about Keys and what he needs to save his bank, that amount to moral provocations. These wealthy men and women do not care about their countrymen, and want to see how much indifference Yvan can tolerate before he’s let into a right corners of society.
Rongione’s performance is slight, and devastating in a way. By the time he makes a riverboat journey (an allusion to Heart of Darkness), his transformation is complete. He is ruthless while preserving the right appearance, and probably is unaware of the change within him.
The festival lists King Car, a Brazilian film from Renata Pinheiro, as a “sci-fi drama.” This is not entirely accurate, since there is no “science” to explain its central conceit. It is closer to films like Rubber, the French black comedy where a car tire inexplicably becomes sentient and murderous. Pinheiro is an ambitious filmmaker, using her premise to explore socioeconomic fault lines in modern Brazil, except the dark material never evolves beyond a thought exercise.
The film is set in an anonymous forgotten town, one where people have few hopes or prospects. In this world, a boy named Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.) develops an unusual ability. Cars have the ability to speak to him, and he can communicate back. At first he sees this ability as a burden, since the cars do not value human life the way we do, but soon his Uncle Zé (Matheus Nachtergaele) sees the matter differently. He turns one of the talking cars into a muscled-out “King,” and stirs the townspeople into cult-like admiration of it.
King Car is at its best when we are unsure of where it is going. The voice of the car is eerie: a needling singsong voice that delights in getting humans to act in their own interests. There are elements of horror and surrealism, except once Uncle Zé’s plan hatches into motion, the film opts for a more didactic route. Dialogue sounds like a senior thesis about how relationship to technology and our climate, not about a schemer who thinks a talking car is his path to a better life. The focus shifts from character to more heady thematic material, which is makes it more difficult to maintain our interest.
Sometimes Pinheiro indulges in weird scenes to keep us on our toes. There are “sex” scenes where woman writhe on the cars, an immediate callback to David Cronenberg films like Crash. Danger does not interest them, however, as they are exploring new connections with little apparent reasoning behind it. King Car ultimately has a patchwork quality, a collection of disjointed flourishes that confuse eccentricity with provocation.
The Last Matinee
Unlike the other reviewed films here, The Last Matinee is firmly a horror film. It has no ambition beyond genre thrills, riffing on Italian giallo and American slasher fare that values gore more than mood. Although it never aims for big scares, its cycle of tension and release would play amazingly in a crowded theater.
Director and co-writer Maximiliano Contenti sets the film in Montevideo in the early 1990s, a period where it was still normal for folks to drop into a cinema without knowing what’s playing. The film follows one night at a run-down urban cinema where a handful of stragglers catch a low budget monster film (the movie-within-a-movie is 2011’s Frankenstein: Day of the Beast, which is agreeably gross and surprising). Little do the moviegoers know that there is a murderous psychopath in their midst, one who favors souvenirs that may make the most seasoned horror fan wince.
Thanks to a patience first half and the synth musical score, The Last Matinee includes a lot of build-up and subplots involving all the characters. There is a couple on an awkward first date, a group of young friends, the frustrated projections, and more. We learn just enough about the characters, so that when the body count grows, we care about the outcome.
The deaths in this film are not sudden. The editing gives the audience plenty of time to anticipate what will happen, so Contenti lingers on each gory detail. In this space—one that wallows in impaling and severed limbs—a shrieking audience will add to the film’s overall effect. Like many low-rent horror films, The Last Matinee is designed for communal experience and for attendees to join in the fun. It is not a great film, but after so many months without such an opportunity, it’s about time we celebrate bad taste in a shared space of likeminded deviants.
Nothing but the Sun
This solemn documentary almost serves as a companion to 499, since both films consider the long-term effects of colonialization. Director Arami Ullón follows Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, an Aroyeo Indigenous man, as he attempts to record and interview other Aroyeo who were ripped out of their homes by missionaries. It is a difficult documentary where sorrow is the overarching emotion, but the fierce commitment to the recording projects means it is never maudlin.
Mateo and his fellow Aroyeo live in a sun-drenched, remote part of Paraguay; there is no infrastructure, and save for a scene at church, you would not know a community lives here. In his interviews, Mateo wonders about what is lost by “leaving the forest,” a shorthand for ancient traditions that missionaries found sinful and godless. The answer is more complicated than you may think, and Mateo proves a deeply empathetic interviewer.
Ullón is not subtle about how she depicts the conditions in this community. There is a long, challenging montage where her camera regards one decaying animal carcass after another. She shows how they struggle with access to water, and how the Paraguay government offers them a pittance every two months. This will provoke real outrage, and Nothing but the Sun is shrewd enough to stand back, letting the imagery and interviewees speak for themselves. This film continues in a tradition of great documentaries: by letting the audience make up their own mind, they will take up the argument as their own.
The title Nothing but the Sun refers to how the missionaries claimed ownership over everything except the heat source overhead. Mateo ruefully wonders why their occupiers never claimed the sun was theirs, and since their lives remain utterly upended, his rhetorical question not hyperbolic, but matter-of-fact.