By Joe Miller
The defining moment of the 40th International Film Festival of Uruguay came during the question-and-answer period after the screening of Delia (2021), a documentary about an Uruguayan woman who wrote poetry to help endure the 11 years her husband spent in prison as a political prisoner under the country’s dictatorship in the late 70s and early 80s. The film’s director, Victoria Pena Echeverría, had been friends with Delia Gonzáles and her family since childhood, and had long known the story of her husband’s imprisonment, but she had never thought to ask what the experience was like for Delia. When she set out to learn more, Delia shared her writings with her, which she had never shown to anyone, not even her husband and family. Much of the film is of family members reading them for the first time out loud, overcome with emotion. Throughout, Delia seems perplexed as to why anyone would be interested in her writings or her life. At one point while being filmed working in the kitchen, she asks who would want to watch her chopping onions. But the film makes clear not only how significant her story and perspective are, but also the importance of knowing that her voice and her words went unheard for decades. After the lights came up, and the director and her crew stood before the crowd, a man of the generation that had lived through the dictatorship had tears streaming down his face as he praised the film for bringing to light a viewpoint of history that had heretofore been unknown. And all around in the audience people were crying and nodding their heads. In the following days, the Montevideo newspapers featured the film prominently in their coverage of the festival, bringing Delia’s voice and experience to the larger community, giving it a place in history, and with it, power to shape the future.
The theme for this year’s festival was “70 años de vida, 40 de festival”, celebrating the anniversary of the festival itself, and that of its host institution, Cinemateca Uruguaya, and the numbers 40 and 70 were on display everywhere during the 11-day event—on the brochures, posters, and staff T-shirts, and projected across the big screens between movies—continually calling to mind two very different periods of time in the South American country. In 1952, when Cinemateca Uruguaya was born, the country was nearing the end of a long era of economic growth, progressive policies, and robust democracy that had earned it the nickname the “Switzerland of Latin America.” In 1982, when the festival began, the country was in the final years of a brutal 12-year dictatorship (during which the Cinemateca was among the few centers of resistance). In 2022, Uruguay is home to one of the few full democracies in the Western Hemisphere, and its policies are again gaining international acclaim. To reflect on this span of time now as a film-festival-goer, at an event replete with thought-provoking and moving films—stories of struggles for power, justice, and human and civil rights; for identity, community and dignity; for equality and equity, resistance and reconciliation; and for love of all varieties—was to appreciate the fragility, tenuousness and hopefulness of the human condition. And to feel gratitude and awe for cinema. In the span of less than three decades, a great democracy fell. In four, it rose back up and has remained strong. Yet across the extremes of all those years, “vida”—life, cinema—has flourished in Uruguay.
The festival offered 170 films (105 features and 65 shorts) from 50 different countries, including six other competitive categories: International Feature Films, Iberoamerican Feature Films, New Directors, Children’s Cinema, International and Uruguayan Shorts, as well as a panorama of recent international films, a selection of films about cinema and music, and a focus on Swiss cinema, which included a retrospective of films by Nicolas Wadimoff. Delia won a special mention in the Human Rights Cinema competition, which for many years has been a recurring and signature feature of the festival. But films with socio-political subjects and themes were not confined to this category. In my experience, the the most powerful and immediately relevant were found in the International competition, in particular Robe of Gems (Manto de gemas) (2022), the first feature by Natalia López Gallardo (which won the jury prize in the category, and earlier this year took the SIlver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival), and Klondike (2022), by Maryna Er Gorbach—two very different films set in very different warzones. Klondike takes place in the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, during the beginning days of the war that would lead to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It begins with a young couple talking about their dreams. The woman is pregnant, and the man promises her that they’ll soon build an addition to their house. Suddenly their living room wall explodes away—blown up by a misfired Russian missile. From there, it’s a classically structured, gripping, suspenseful movie ride. Against a peaceful backdrop of sunny wheatfields, the couple’s lives are menaced by Russian separatists—unrelentingly callous, cruel, selfish and macho villains—each moment worse than the last until it ends with an absolutely gut-wrenching shot, almost too agonizing to watch, yet rich with metaphor, and classically, beautiful composed. Klondike would be a provocative and moving film under any circumstance, but it was especially so knowing that at the very moment we were watching the film in Uruguay, Russia was bearing down on the exact same region with full military force. Like everyone, I’ve been watching the news of the invasion with shock and dismay, but in my identification with the main characters on the big screen, the experience of Klondike brought another order of magnitude to my emotional response; I felt as though I could understand the war in Ukraine not in abstract geo-political terms, as something distant from me, as the story of an evil Putin wreaking havoc on a part of the world I’ve never been to, but as an expression of the ugliest aspects of humanity, which can rise from any corner of the earth, among any nation of people, given the right circumstances.
Robe of Gems takes place in Mexico, in the fog of the war on drugs. It follows a woman named Isabel and her family as they move into a country villa she inherited from her mother. She strikes up a relationship with Maria, her mother’s long-time domestic worker, and when Maria’s sister disappears, and her family, in their efforts to find her sister, is drawn into the dangerous criminal underworld, Isabel becomes involved too, plunging deeper and deeper into peril. But that’s a gross oversimplification of how the film plays out. It’s more like a wondrous and terrifying fever dream. As it says in the film’s description, “Lopez mixes dreams, reality and metaphors to show the varying degrees of loss and abandonment experienced by all characters,” but she doesn’t provide clear markers differentiating the dreams from the realities and metaphors (at least not any I was able to discern in a first viewing), so the viewer can never be certain which is which. As the film unfolded, I gave up trying to follow the plot and instead abandoned myself to the cinematic fury. From the opening shot—a long, slow fade-in on a line of trees silhouetted by morning light—to the last—a fiery scene in extreme slow-motion—the screen is awash with striking and exquisite, boldly composed images. The film’s color palette is muted, the lighting soft with a honey-like quality, which enhances the overall dreamy (and nightmarish) feel of the film. Lopez’s previous acclaim has been for her work as editor on some of the most narratively daring films to come out of Latin America over the last ten years [e.g. Jauja (2014) and Post Tenebras Lux (2012)], and here she employs her skills like a composer of a great symphony—playing the violent, loud and chaotic scenes against the quieter moments—the long close-up shots of faces in consternation or mourning or anger or shock and disbelief, the moments when the film slows to take in the peaceful landscape, the slowed-down images of fire. When it was over, I immediately wanted to see the film again, multiple times. No doubt I will in the coming years, but probably never as magnificently as at Cinemateca Uruguaya’s Sala 1, with its huge screen and thunderous sound system.
I was able to watch on average two films every day of the 11-day festival, too many to summarize here. But there are many moments and images that will stay with me going forward: herds of llamas with bright pink ribbons tied around their ears prancing across sweeping panoramas of the Altiplano region of Bolivia in Utama (2022), Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature about an elderly couple who face death in the midst of a terrible drought, which won honorable mention in the International Competition; Mexico’s drug war as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy in Estacion catorce (2021), by Diana Cordozo, which begins violently and grimly but softens into a clever story of the wisdom of childhood amid the foolishness of adults; the touching beauty of Private Desert (Deserto Particular) (2021), by Aly Muritiba, winner in the Iberoamerican category, in which a macho cop who sets off for the small Brazilian town where his internet romance lives, only to discover that she’s a he, but in time stays in love just the same; the stroboscopic fury of Mostro (2021), by José Pablo Escamilla, which, like Lopez’s Robe of Gems, is a story of a woman’s disappearance in Mexico expressed through cinematic extremes to transcend plot and evoke feelings, with a structure more like music than a movie, like some crazy electric symphony in light; the lowlight calm and pensiveness of The Inner Cage (Ariaferma) (2021), by Leonardo di Costanzo, a morality tale set in an ancient prison on an isolated Italian mountaintop; the poetic pastiche of A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), by Payal Kapadia, winner in the New Directors category, which blends found footage of student protests in India with letters between two lovers who are from different castes to form a fulsome meditation on love amid discord and crisis; the touching story of Ibrahim (2020), by Samir Guesm, in which the son of an immigrant in France must atone for a petty crime he committed that cost his father dearly; the happy ending of Vacio (2020), by Paúl Venegas, in which the protagonist, a Chinese immigrant, narrowly escapes the clutches of mobsters in Ecuador and finds peace and a home in Montevideo, and it ends with a beautiful helicopter shot of Ciudad Vieja, the neighborhood where the Cinemateca is located.
And of course, there were more Uruguayan films than would likely be found anywhere else. The festival’s closing-event feature was The Employer and the Employee (El empleado y el patrón) (2021), by local favorite Manuel Nieto Zas, which was highly anticipated in Montevideo after its premiere at Cannes last year; it played to sold-out audiences in all three of Cinemateca’s theaters. A subtle but powerful story of class and family tensions in the rural area near the Uruguay/Brazil border, it hinges on a heartbreaking tragedy and concludes with a strange but riveting horse race along the highways that traverse the South American grasslands. It’s another one I’ll be watching again several times to pick up the nuances of the characters’ relationships and the complex social structures they live in. But I was even more taken by The Perfect David (El perfecto David) (2021), by Felipe Gomez Aparicio—which is not to say I enjoyed it, because I’m not sure if I did. It’s a creepy story about a teenage bodybuilder who’s lorded over by his mother—daily she measures his muscles in scenes that are lit with the kind of low lighting that one might expect to see in a sex scene, images that made me very uncomfortable but which were, at the same time, exceedingly beautiful, with classical compositions of body, light, and form. I was grimacing throughout the watching, but afterward the film stuck with me, its story and images haunting me for days. There were a few lighter, more fun and entertaining films in the festival, too, and the best ones were Uruguayan, most notably Alter (2022), by Joaquín González Vaillant, and Fantasmática (2022), by Sebastián Bugna and winner of the competition for Uruguayan shorts. The former is a quasi documentary about a young man who loses his job and embarks on adventure as an imitator of Luis Miguel. It’s hilarious because he doesn’t look like the singer at all, and to my ears, doesn’t sound a whole lot like him, but he nonetheless gains 15 minutes of fame in Uruguay’s media world, appearing on talk shows and an episode of Uruguay’s Got Talent. The protagonist has a sharp wit, but he’s also somewhat philosophical and self-reflective and his self insights, which come at dramatic moments in the story, give the film some heft. The latter is a chiaroscuro terror poem in black and white in which a poor hooded soul limps from one hellish dystopian scene to another. Bugna’s use of simple superimposition for special effects is brilliant, and breathtaking to see on a big screen. And though Ana Katz is technically not Uruguayan, she is married to one (actor/director Daniel Hendler), so no one will punish me for including her latest, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (El perro que no calla) (2021), among the country’s best offerings in the festival. It was one of the films I was most looking forward to, as I’ve loved the films of hers that I’ve seen, especially My Friend from the Park (Mi amiga del parque) (2015), which was filmed in Montevideo’s Parque Rodó. I didn’t expect an absolute masterpiece and such a huge artistic step upwards for the veteran director. Filmed in black and white, and intermittently over five years, in the manner of Boyhood (2014), as if it were a series of shorts, it follows a young man named Sabastián (played by Katz’s brother, Daniel) as he drifts through life from bad situation to good and back again and so on, from singlehood and dog parenting to marriage and human parenting, through jobs and unemployment and international health crises. The plot structure calls to mind the films of Martín Rjetman, with their many abrupt and strange twists, except here the turns take place in ellipses, and the shifts, while not always entirely realistic, are never so far out as to seem impossible; Sabastián will be moving along when suddenly it’s months or years later and his life has changed, often for the stranger, and his hair longer or shorter, his clean face now covered with whiskers or vice versa. But whereas Rejtman films are emotionally detached, Katz’s new work radiates pathos and love, and it’s profoundly moving, especially the short animated scenes that appear at key moments to convey the characters’ emotional responses to the events in their lives—not fast animation like cartoons, but highly expressive drawings that are set into movement through dissolves. It was for me the most satisfying movie viewing experience of the festival.
Cinemateca Uruguaya is an ideal place for an international film festival—in many ways, idyllic: it’s in a new building on the Rambla, Montevideo’s palm-lined waterfront, just a couple of blocks from the ornate and iconic Palacio Salvo (where the Cinemateca was once housed many years ago). The lobby has glass walls on three sides, with some panels translucent magenta, so as the low autumn sunlight drifted toward night it cast sweeping beams of pink glow across the spaces. Reflections play across the glass like superimpositions in a dream sequence, and the walls, too, which are covered in brushed metal. A staircase rises from the middle of the space toward the three theaters on the second floor, so as you ascend you feel you’re in a metaphor for cinema as transcendence. Yet, beautiful and wondrous as it is, the Cinemateca is not situated in an idyll; the real world intrudes from all sides: as festival-goers lounge on the patio, less fortunate folks from the neighborhood wander through and beg for coins and food, and almost every afternoon a woman hangs out there carrying on full conversations with herself and no one else. And everywhere in the city there are reminders of Uruguay’s recent dark past—monuments and museums, flags and posters, grafiti, stenciled designs of a flower with a missing petal and the question, Dónde están?, signifying the Uruguayans who were disappeared during the dictatorship. Same too of its brighter present—in the posters, stickers and flags that remain all around the city after a recent national election, which, despite being decided by a razor-thin margin, was peaceful, almost amiable. The connections between the themes of the films that grace the Cinemateca’s screens and the struggles and triumphs of life itself were plain to see, and this made the whole festival experience very profound indeed. One of my professors in film school used to say that the movies are like a great bonfire where we gather around to share stories and together learn how we are to be with one another on this planet. He called it “the tribal dance.” I’ve long puzzled with this notion, because it’s too broad and positive to encompass the breadth of cinema, from the most insipid and sexist Hollywood schlock to the latest internationally acclaimed art-house sensation and every commercially viable or nonviable variation in between. But for a wonderful week and a half in Montevideo, at least for this cinephile, it felt true.