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Dystopian Landscapes and Daydreams: Neighboring Scenes 2019

Highlights from New York’s festival of new Latin American cinema.
Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
Murder Me, Monster
“Making a film is close to dreaming,” Carlos Reygadas said in his Master Class at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. “When you’re dreaming, you’re not thinking is this a traveling or a close-up. Film has a unique logic, it’s not logical.” The last phrase is an oxymoron, but filmmakers can surely be both intuitive and calculating. Reygadas envisions entire scenes before filming them, but goes with the flow on the set. And indeed it’s this mix of the planned and the strange, the utterly unpredictable, perhaps even superfluous, that informs some of the best films in this year’s Neighboring Scenes: Latin American Cinema festival.
In addition to Reygadas’s pictorially striking Our Time (2018), which opens the festival, daydreams are also palatable in Alejandro Fadel’s assured claustrophobic Murder Me, Monster, as well as in Julio Hernández Cordon’s less satisfying Buy Me a Gun. Of all films presented in Neighboring Scenes this year, Murder Me, Monster is the most indefinable: a noir, a doomed love story, and a gory, icky body horror, with echoes of Andrzej Żuławki’s Possession (1981). In an atmosphere that has all the torpid moral darkness of Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991), a sullen, non-communicative police officer, Cruz (Victor Lopez), must solve a gruesome murder. A savagely mulled body of a woman has turned up in an isolated rural community, and the murderer appears to be the increasingly delusional husband (Esteban Bigliardi) of Cruz’s lover. From one scene to the next, we watch Cruz stumble on bizarre clues: an enormous tooth, which hints at some kind of Big Foot creature, a hunt for the husband, an accumulation of murders, and finally the bitter realization that the creature, whatever it may be, has uncanny telepathic powers. That is, if the monster exists in this semi-fairytale world, and isn’t a mass hallucination induced by local lore. The film is billed as a philosophical horror, and indeed, Fadel cleverly suggests that between a dark passion and its consummation, between a dream of power and its execution, there lie questions of how we come to know and believe what’s real, or moral—an epistemology of horror.
Buy Me a Gun, on the other hand, never crosses over into hallucinatory terrain, and feels more strained for it. In a dystopian future, drug traffickers take over Mexico, to the point where no women and almost no children remain. The world is adult and male, with a few kids hiding or in the narcos’ hands. In this grim scenario, a young girl named Huck (Matilde Hernández Guinea) must evade traffickers, withstand her father’s groveling to the guerrilla and his drug addiction, and help her friend find his hand, which had been severed when he escaped from captivity. Cordón, previously known for equally grim I Promise You Anarchy (2015), sets up this picaresque tale as a treasure hunt, but the likable performances by child actors don’t quite overcome this story’s thinness.
Children are also the main protagonists in Iván Fund’s dreamy There Will Come Soft Rains. A film in which all adults are suddenly found asleep one morning—and remain asleep throughout—may not sound like the most exciting scenario, but Fund approaches it with whimsy and an uncanny gift for communicating complex emotions with images. The entire plot is made of minute actions: A small boy ransacks a pantry, children go rummaging in their parents’ things, nature invades the house and dogs, crickets and peacocks roam free. But freedom is never far from fear, as Fund beautifully shows: In one scene, an infant desperately clings to the side of his sleeping mother in a silent bedroom. What are the most basic terms of human survival? And just how vulnerable, or resilient, are we, at our very core? Like Buy Me a Gun, this is also an adventure road film, but one that constantly brings its fantastic scenario down to the earthy details.The text in the inter-titles channels Brothers Grimm, and abandonment anxiety hovers over the entire picture. And yet, its ending is clearly inspired by the magical-realist rapture of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—awe is born in the midst of terror.
Daydreams and darkness—dark fears—permeate Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta’s Outer Edge, in which inhabitants of Brazil’s Belo Horizonte, a sprawling megalopolis, party and discuss their anxieties in nocturnal settings, or, in one memorably eerie scene, make out in a secluded public space. As other Brazilian filmmakers of late, most notably Adirley Queirós (of Once There Was Brasilia, 2017) and Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins (of In the Heart of the World, 2019), Belico and Marotta make Belo Horizonte their protagonist: City as a nightmare, a maze, an entrance to both forbidden pleasures and an intimation of death. The context of police brutality and high death rates among black Brazilian youth mingle in this film, which, at its most poetic, channels both the grim predictions of urbanists and the stark visions of Afro-Brazilian rituals.
Lastly, in Ignacio Juricic Merillán’s astonishing Enigma, it is familiar social reality that slowly reveals itself with a morbid intensity of a dream. The film’s protagonist, a middle-aged wife and mother, played by the incredible Claudia Cabezas, must contend with a busy household filled with gossip and drama. Yet the most painful event in her life—her daughter’s unresolved murder—isn’t being discussed at all, by anyone. Keeping most of the action indoors, and so enhancing the sense of secrecy and confinement, Merillán unravels this minutely, delicately woven story as a net of hints and off-hand remarks. No innuendo is innocent, and no small detail escapes the troubled mother’s mind. It is as if, after years of sleeping, she is awakens to face what she has long intuited. Meanwhile, her female friends and family members chat casually, complain of husbands and routines, do their hair, babysit, but under all this normality, the monstrous truth lurks. Merillán’s greatest feat is then to take a narrative told in half-murmurs and whispers, and punctuated by ellipses, and then allow this silence build up until it’s deafening. 
"Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema" runs February 22 – 28, 2019 at the New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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