Indie Spotlight: 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival

Paulina García and Valentina Muhr star in Moisés Sepúlveda’s “Illiterate.” Courtesy of Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Paulina García and Valentina Muhr star in Moisés Sepúlveda’s “Illiterate.” Courtesy of Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Though I’ve lived in the Windy City for a number of years, this year marked my first visit to the Chicago Latino Film Festival. It most certainly won’t be my last. Now in its thirtieth year, this marvelously vibrant festival is presented by the International Latino Cultural Center and offers cinephiles the rare opportunity to have intimate discussions with filmmakers in a variety of languages. If a guest isn’t bilingual, a skilled interpreter assists the audience in getting their questions answered. I’ve attended three screenings at this year’s festival (which runs through April 17th), and every single one was followed by an insightful and immensely enjoyable Q&A session. If you love movies and haven’t yet given this festival a shot, you are missing out.

Here are a couple highlights from the festival’s 2014 edition. Though Claudia Pinto’s Venezuelan drama, “The Longest Distance,” has already screened, it will surely land an American distributor if there is any justice in the world. Rare is the picture with landscapes so breathtaking that they cause the audience to audibly gasp. This is the first film ever to be shot almost entirely in the Amazon jungle in Venezuela, and cinematographer Gabriel Guerra serves up a sumptuous feast for the eyes that causes nature itself to reverberate with an almost spiritual grandeur. In the foreground of this mighty canvas are wounded souls seeking to regain a purpose in life, even if their purpose is ultimately to leave life behind.

After the murder of her daughter on the crime-ridden streets of Caracas, ailing Martina (Carme Elias) travels to Southeastern Venezuela with the secret mission to travel up Mount Roraima and die on its peak. Her plans are disrupted by the sudden arrival of her daughter’s young son, Lucas (played by a remarkably natural child actor, Omar Moya), who runs away from an unhappy home to find his long-estranged grandmother, with the help of a compassionate thug (Alec Whaite). As a meditation on the role each of us play in our own destiny, I found Pinto’s film evocative of Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” which is set to screen later this month at Ebertfest.

Whaite, a first-time film actor whose movie star features could land him the roles ordinarily reserved for Orlando Bloom, took part in a lively post-film discussion at the festival. He took an Ellen-like selfie with the packed house and said that he would be sending it to Pinto the next morning. Upon leaving the theater, an audience member loudly stated, “My girlfriend thinks you’re hot!” thus prompting Whaite to mock-plead, “Please…don’t go!” Here’s footage of Whaite at the Montreal Film Festival, where “The Longest Distance” went on to win the Glauber Rocha Award for Best Latin American Film.

One of the most thrilling events scheduled for this year’s festival is the arrival of Paulina García, one of the finest actresses in world cinema. She’s scheduled to attend a screening of Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria,” the most acclaimed Chilean film since Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid,” and will be honored with a special achievement award on closing night. Yet those wishing to see another fiercely captivating performance by García will have the opportunity to see her in a role strikingly different from the liberated free spirit she embodies in “Gloria.” 

At 7:30pm on April 15th, festival audiences will have their third and final chance to see García in “Illiterate” (“Las Analfabetas”), the riveting directorial debut of Moisés Sepúlveda. Though some critics have complained that the film barely strays from its stage-bound source material, Sepúlveda uses the claustrophobic script to his thematic advantage, illustrating how two unlikely companions are linked by their shared sense of entrapment. Middle-aged Ximena (García) has spent her life concealing the fact that she can’t read, while her plucky young tutor, Jackeline (an equally impressive Valentina Muhr), has been suppressing secrets of her own. Both women suffer from stunted growth, and it’s through their volatile sessions together that they begin to reach a deeper understanding of the world that exists around them and within themselves. 

I love when a film takes me places I hadn’t expected it to go and avoids the sort of clichéd revelations that serve as narrative crutches in so many so-called “honest” American films. Like “The Maid,” “Illiterate” gets a great deal of mileage simply from the unpredictability of its characters and their hopelessly tangled web of emotions. García is never more compelling than when the camera lingers on her face, bringing out the vulnerability that she keeps neatly tucked beneath her content façade, while Muhr can bring down the house simply by expelling a sardonic sigh of doubt after her grouchy pupil labels her a “friend.” Watching these two women act together is more pleasurable than any special effect Marvel money can buy. 

For the full festival line-up, visit ChicagoLatinoFilmFestival.org.

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