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Recent Colombian cinema comes to Boston, via MFA

COLOMBIAN CINEMA:

FROM MAGIC TO REALISM

A 10-program series of

recent Colombian cinema.

July 17 to 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

ALTHOUGH THE FIRST FILMS appeared in Colombia as early as 1905, and the first feature film there was completed in 1914, the country has had difficulty producing an indigenous film industry. Most filmmaking efforts were at best sporadic and -- despite individual successes -- the attempts ultimately fizzled out. All that, however, is changing rapidly.

The last two decades saw the rise of a whole generation of Colombian filmmakers who attended film schools in Colombia, the United States, and Europe. A national cinema has slowly and surely begun to emerge, which is as distinct as

it is diverse. Until about 1984, progress was painfully slow. Since then, however, Colombian cinema has seen its most sustained activity yet -- undoubtedly due

to the financial assistance provided

by FOCINE, Colombia's national film organization.

Despite these developments, Colombian cinema has remained virtually unknown to Americans. Now, however, that too is about to change: thanks to the efforts of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a series of recent Colombian films -- including both narrative feature films and documentaries -- has been touring the country. The series comes to Boston tonight at the Museum of Fine Arts and will continue on successive Fridays through July 27. This series as a whole provides an excellent and rare glimpse into a national cinema that is on the verge of blooming.

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Of the five films that were available for press screening, the most interesting is undoubtedly T'ecnicas de duelo (Details of a Duel/A Matter of Honor, 1988, Sergio Cabrera), at the MFA on June 29. Based on a true incident, it tells the story of two men in a small Andean town who, as a matter of honor, have decided to fight a duel. One man is the local butcher; the other is the local schoolteacher. Once comrades in the political opposition, an unspecified dispute between them has turned them against each other.

The film chronicles their preparation for battle and the eventual duel itself in the style of a black comedy. When the local police sergeant informs the judge that the two men will fight a duel, the judge (who also happens to be the town's mayor) practically beams with delight. "It's a chance to weaken the opposition, and without any effort on our part," he dryly observes. Similarly, in the thick of their duel, the schoolteacher looks around at the crowd of people who have gathered and suddenly realizes the humorous absurdity of the situation. "We're the only two serious persons in the whole town," he exclaims to the butcher. Such moments spice the film and make for an interesting spin on usual tales about the duels of honor.

Technically, the film is shot well and looks good. The acting is uniformly excellent, from the two leads down to the humorously dim-witted corporal who assists the police sergeant. The only main criticism of the film is that it unnecessarily repeats shots of the butcher's wife washing clothes and swimming as the men prepare for and fight their duel. The idea is to show how oblivious she is, but that is already apparent very early in the film.

Overall, though, T'ecnicas de duelo touches on a number of serious issues, ranging from personal honor to political camaraderie to religious charlatans. And throughout it all, a sharp sense of satirical humor permeates the film's attitudes toward the village and its institutions.

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The narrative film in the series that most directly addresses political issues is C'ondores no entierran todos los d'ias (A Man of Principle, 1984, Francisco Norden), at the MFA on July 6. Back in the late 1940s, Colombia was racked by assassinations and political violence during which 200,000 people died. This film tells the rise and fall of one perpetrator of such violence, who came to be known as "El Condor." The film begins with a brutal massacre of a whole family, and throughout the film a sense of pervading doom links the characters and their town as

they wonder which of their neighbors

will be killed tomorrow. Those courageous enough to speak out are quickly silenced.

The movie tells the story from the perspective of the characters in the town itself. This perspective is at the same time the film's strongest point and its primary limitation: The focus on the townsfolk and on El Condor himself recreates the terror and brutality of the situation quite well, but becomes constraining because events in the rest of the country -- political upheavals and changes of government, for example -- suddenly appear without any prior explanation or preparation. One moment El Condor is going about his business, apparently in full control of the situation. The next moment he's informed that the Conservatives have been overthrown and that he has to escape. This flow of events is choppy and disorienting to the viewer. In addition, it makes one wonder why, if the truly decisive events were happening elsewhere, does the film focus only on El Condor and his reign of terror in this one town.

Another limitation of the film is its technical constraints. At least on two occasions, significant events are shown only through reaction shots of onlookers, which are accompanied by some rather unconvincing sound effects. Directors who use such techniques also try to mask their technical limitations with strong acting, but unfortunately that is not the case here. The haphazard subtitles don't help either: In one fast-paced conversation it's impossible to match words with their speakers, and a whole written prologue that establishes the film's context goes untranslated.

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Similar technical problems limit the efficacy of Luis Fernando (Pacho) Bott'ia's film La boda del acordeonista (The Accordionist's Wedding, 1986), which plays tonight. The most notable problem is that the film was originally shot on 16 mm and was then blown up to 35 mm. The acting, too, sometimes leaves something to be desired.

However, what makes this movie of interest is its story. Of all the films screened in advance, this one is the most quintessentially Colombian in the sense that

it embodies many elements of "magic realism."

The tale concerns a beautiful river maiden who seduces young men to leave their homes and live with her in the depths of the water. The cyclical nature of events, the folklorish style, the romanticism of a dangerous love, magical events -- all are to be found in this story of a young accordion player who is lured away from his fianc'ee by the mysterious and beautiful river siren.

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The influence of Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, the Nobel prize winning Colombian author, on magic realism is enormous. Strangely enough, the two films in the series in which he was directly involved do not reflect that influence as much as one might expect.

La langosta azul (The Blue Lobster), showing on July 20, is a 29-minute, black-and-white, silent film written and directed in 1954 by M'arquez and three other people. It's a strange film about an American who comes to Colombia carrying a suitcase full of lobsters wrapped in plastic. The biggest of the lobsters gets stolen by a black cat, and the man goes looking everywhere for the lobster for the rest of the movie. Surrealistic and bizarre, the film is highly reminiscent of Luis Bu~nuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929).

The other film with M'arquez's direct input (he wrote the screenplay) is Jorge Ali Triana's Tiempo de morir (A Time to Die, 1985), which will be shown July 13. The film essentially unravels as an American western with some Marquezian and Colombian undertones. Gustavo Angarita plays an aging man who returns home after spending 18 years in prison for killing a man in a duel. He wants to rebuild a peaceful life and resume his relationship with the woman he loved, but the two sons of the man he killed have vowed to take revenge and force him to fight. This story could have been taken straight out of American westerns, but the Colombian setting certainly puts its own spin on familiar notions of machismo, honor, and revenge. And the technical production values and the acting are excellent. The film is hardly a great work of art, but it makes for some interesting viewing.

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As these films make clear, the timing of the series couldn't be more fortunate, because the first hesitant footsteps of a reborn Colombian cinema have begun to give way to more confident filmmaking. Colombian cinema is on the verge of blooming into a full-blown national cinema movement and is laden with a myriad of exciting opportunities. If all goes well -- if the political and economic situation in Colombia stabilizes, if FOCINE and other film organizations there can continue providing financial and technical support, if directors and actors and writers can gain more experience and maturity -- Colombian cinema will flourish. Who knows? Perhaps it can flourish to the point that a second series of Colombian films can tour the United States and the world in only a few years. The possibilities are endless.