Vancouver Latin American Film Festival hits sweet 16

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      Under the lively direction of Christian Sida-Valenzuela, the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival returns for its 16th year with a roster of solid festival hits and a handful of more challenging titles. Opening the festival on Thursday (August 23) at SFU Woodward’s, small-town tale Retablo sets the tone for this year’s focus on the Andean cinema of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

      Told partly in the Quechua language, Retablo also happens to square with VLAFF’s interest in Indigenous and queer subject matter, further explored in its Indigenous Films From BC and Beyond series—featuring the tough but astonishing DTES-located mini-doc, “The Still Life of Harley Prosper”—and a program of shorts called Queer Pix.

      The commitment to diversity also expands this year into A Spotlight on Black Cinema, headlined at the Cinematheque next Friday (August 31) by the Brazilian short, “FotogrÁFRICA”.

      It all ends at SFU Woodwards next Sunday (September 2) with Perros, yet another fine if unsettling drama drawn from Chile’s wounded past, starring the great Pablo Larrain regulars Antonia Zegers and Alfredo Castro. In between is a rousing bill of International Hits, works by New Directors, and the ever-vital Activismo! series.

      To get you started, here are a few that we liked. Find the entire schedule at the VLAFF website.

      Oso Polar

      (Mexico)

      Nebbishy Heriberto sets off to a high-school reunion in his mother’s 1982 station wagon, picking up good-time hus­tler Trujillo and bibulous rich bitch Flor along the way. A string of booze stops, engine troubles, and other less obvious impediments makes long work of a short ride, while the school-yard hierarchy of the past is quickly reasserted. This is the kind of shading we’d expect from any good drama, but Marcelo Tobar’s iPhone-shot feature is so deceptively naturalistic that we’re utterly sideswiped by what happens next. It’s devilishly effective, closing on a postcredits image that dials the enigmatic creep factor way up into the red.

      Vancity, August 29 (6:30 p.m.); Cinematheque, August 31 (9:30 p.m.)

      Nobody’s Watching

      (Argentina)

      Back in Buenos Aires, Nico can’t cross the road without being recognized for his role in the popular soap opera Rivales. He isn’t worth shit in New York City, mind you, where the very underemployed actor gets by on a restaurant job and nannying gigs for prosperous friends. Julia Solomonoff’s film arrives in the International Hits series, and in that spirit it’s a breezy winner that doesn’t bring too much grit to its autumnal depiction of one man’s ongoing humiliation. But it isn’t vacuous, either. Nico (attractive Guillermo Pfening) finds himself in this unkind world after fleeing a toxic relationship with a producer who still exerts his unsavoury influence from the neighbouring continent. In New York, a powerful female casting agent is no less prepared to use him as a side of beef—all of which amounts to a pleasingly queer twist on #MeToo.

      Vancity, August 29 (8:45 p.m.); Cinematheque, September 1 (4:45 p.m.)

      One Last Afternoon

      (Peru)

      A middle-aged couple reunite and wander the streets of Lima while they wait for a judge to put the stamp on a marriage that ended 19 years earlier. Former freedom fighters Ramón and Laura are lucky to still be walking at all, it seems, since their relationship ended at roughly the same time that some of their comrades died in a hail of police bullets. Two decades later, it transpires that he still clings somewhat brokenly to his leftist ideology, while middle-class Laura has returned to the fold and a career in advertising. See where this might be going? One Last Afternoon covers a lot of ground in its back-and-forth journey between the personal and the political, cathartic bursts of violence included, but it’s the unpredictable messiness of human nature that trumps everything in a smart and satisfying twist ending.

      Cinematheque, August 29 (7 p.m.) and September 2 (5:45 p.m.)

      Medea

      (Costa Rica)

      The question that nags as Medea continues on its bleak but entirely captivating 70 minutes: why does nobody notice that young María José is visibly pregnant? Her parents are no use as they chitter about immigrants and ISIS and ridicule a would-be boyfriend who can’t afford a car. Her gay best friend is long gone by the time an all-nighter brings us to the mounting horrors of the film’s final 10 minutes. Nobody apparently cares too much about the inexpressive 25-year-old except us, and fearless Liliana Biamonte—who looks like a borderline Greta Gerwig—works overtime to test our goodwill. It’s a gambit that pays off big-time.

      Cinematheque, August 30 (5 p.m.) and September 1 (9:30 p.m.)

      Two Irenes

      (Brazil)

      Director Fabio Meira’s beautiful feature hums with the haunted quality of childhood. At first it’s hard to know what’s actually real in this tale of a morose 13-year-old, a middle child with middle-child problems, made infinitely weirder by her encounter with the film’s other Irene—an uninhibited alter ego with whom she apparently shares a key family member. This movie shouldn’t work, if we’re applying logic to its gently delirious scenario. But why do that with a tone this seductive? The lacy, sun-kissed sensuality of Picnic at Hanging Rock comes to mind, and it’s every bit as timeless, although Two Irenes also feels very much grounded in the dust of its rural Brazilian setting. If anything at VLAFF deserves the “not-to-be-missed” tag, it’s this one.

      Cinematheque, August 31 (7:15 p.m.); SFU Woodward’s, September 1 (5 p.m.)

      The Vancouver Latin American Film Festival runs from Friday (August 23) to September 2. For more information and ticket information, visit the website.

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