Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Written & Directed by Ciro Guerra
The story feels familiar, well-tread territory. A visitor from the Western world ventures into the dark jungles seeking knowledge, a cure, a remedy, wealth, and fortune. A strange and mystic native guides them through this exotic land, and it either ends in triumph or tragedy, the Westerner at the forefront of the story. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra takes this framework and subverts it, turns this into the account of the native with the Westerner becoming a background supporting figure. Guerra tells of two visitors to the same native Amazonian shaman, thirty years apart, but both men are seeking the same curative plant. Through these dual points in time, the audience can witness the decay of native cultures, ravaged by the effects of interlopers on their land.
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Written & Directed by Jayro Bustamante
It’s a deceptively told and shot tale, much like the camera pushing through the coffee plants, quietly and slowly, revealing secrets about our protagonist. Ixcanul is the story of Maria, a young woman, who is a Kaqchikel Mayan living the volcanic soil hills of Guatemala. She has been promised to Ignacio, the coffee plantation foreman for whom her father works. She secretly meets with Pepe, one of the workers, closer to her age and eventually gives up her virginity to him. Pepe half-heartedly promises to bring Maria along with him when he begins the daunting trek to cross the United States border. Of course, he slips away in the night, leaving Maria with a growing burden that will derail her parents’ plans for her.
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Written & Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Cleo is a maid in 1970s Mexico City, working at a home in the Colonia Roma neighborhood for a doctor and his family. The patriarch of the family leaves for a work trip to Quebec which is quickly revealed to be an excuse to leave his family. Cleo works to serve the family while living a private life beyond their gaze. She finds out she is pregnant after a series of dates with her new boyfriend, Fermin. He shows little interest in staying to gather her child and Cleo is left to reveal her condition to her employer. In the background, cultural and political strife in Mexico are unfolding, and from time to time these conflicts cross over into Cleo and her employers’ lives. Otherwise, Roma unfolds as an unassuming slice of life picture.
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The Incident (2014)
Written & Directed by Isaac Ezban
Two brothers have been caught red-handed committing an undescribed crime. They are ambushed by a police officer who directs them down the stairwell of their apartment building to his car. However, on the way, a loud boom sounds from somewhere outside, and suddenly they find themselves caught in a looping stairwell without end or beginning. A family sets out to drop off the kids with their father while mom and stepdad are headed to the beach. On the road, they hear a loud boom and then find themselves on an infinitely looping stretch of highway. What is happening? Why are these people trapped?
It is literally impossible to discuss this film without spoilers so if you don’t want to know what happens, turn back now. The film is on Netflix, come back after you have watched it.
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The Untamed (2016)
Written & Directed by Amat Escalante
In a cabin in the woods, far from the city, live an old scientist and his wife. Inside their barn, they house something fantastic and terrific. But if that’s where you think the film will spend most of its time, then you are wrong. After a teasing opening sequence, shot with beautiful horror, we follow Veronica, a young woman enthralled with the thing in the barn. Veronica is injured after an encounter and meets nurse Fabian. She introduces Fabian to this same object of pleasure and revulsion. Fabian’s sister, Alejandra is married and dealing with the increasing drudgery of domestic life and the distance of her husband Angel. Angel is secretly having an affair with Fabian behind his wife’s back, but the latter breaks it off after feeling his devotion grow to the thing. It becomes very apparent that this story will only end tragically.
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Men With Guns (1997)
Starring Federico Luppi
Throughout history it is apparent that the people who get to make the rules are the ones with the bigger weapons. The entire continents of Africa, South and North America were conquered simply because Western civilization developed guns and gunpowder before the aboriginal peoples of the New World. And even now, with an annual budget of $708 billion for defense, the United States rules because it has the “guns”. Its this situation and state of humanity that director John Sayles starts out from in this film. Instead of sticking to the grittiness of reality, Sayles opts for a more magic realist mode which is appropriate for the picture’s setting in an unnamed Central American country.
Doctor Humberto Fuentes is an aging man, physician to members of his country’s military echelons and father to adult children who seem to grate on his last nerve. Dr. Fuentes holds a group of med students he mentored up as his true children, proud that they helped him form a program to administer medicine to the native people living in the jungles and hills of his country. This dream is shattered when he witnesses one doctor in the city, working as a fence for illegal goods. He questions the man who tells him to visit another student doctor in a rural village to understand why it has come to this. Dr. Fuentes embarks on journey that takes him from remote outpost to remote outpost and introduces him to a cast of characters who represent ideas and icons much larger than themselves.
The film is a spiritual successor to many great myths, the Wizard of Oz, and the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The people that make up Fuentes traveling band by the end of the film are all slightly larger than life. As the term “magic realism” implies they exhibit that larger nature yet are still individual characters with very distinctive personalities. One of the most interesting characters is Padre Portillo, a priest who has a death warrant from the military on his head for the suspicion of collaborating with rebel guerrillas. Portillo refers to himself a “a ghost”, believing that the moment he had to abandon the village where he was stationed, and in effect abandon the Church, he was no longer alive or dead.
Much like Lone Star and Matewan, Men With Guns allows John Sayles to examine the concept of hierarchies. In all these films, the authority only retains their power through harsh, absurd violence. The victims of this violence often have no understanding of the method behind, and they frankly don’t care. All they know is that a gun barrel is pointed at them and they simply don’t want to die. Sayles is asking us if we follow the strictures of society because we truly believe in them or because we fear the guns. Dr. Fuentes is representative of the upper class, he practices philanthropy and simply assumes his good works filter down to the people at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, his journey reveals to him that the very power structure he has had unblinking faith in burns villages down to “protect” the very people who live in them.
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