It takes some guts to make a film where the closest anyone gets to resolution is a dead body being re-interred after its 10 years of settled decomposition are interrupted by the lease on the plot coming up. This is just one of the dangling elements that make up Andrés Wood’s engaging and intimate examination of life in the city of Santiago de Chile, The Good Life (La Buena vida).
Even the corpse only gets another 10 years’ peace. There are always negotiations pending for Wood’s characters. They are allowed development but no conclusions, drama but no dénouement. Not that they are casual drifters; their desires and ambitions are concrete forces driving them on but life keeps turning solidity to haziness and even death doesn’t offer finality.
The Good Life was just one notable achievement on display at the 2008 Discovering Latin America Film Festival. As a triumph of imagination and resourcefulness over obvious budgetary limits it is perhaps fairly typical of the best films coming out of South America. Pablo Trapero’s prison drama Lion’s Den (Leonera), on the other hand, could never be described as typical or limited in any way. It’s a film that delivers the best you can expect from cinema, a totally absorbing emotional experience. In contrast to The Good Life, Lion’s Den focuses entirely on one character, Julia, a 25-year-old student who wakes up with blood on her shoulder and two bodies slumped in her flat and proceeds to travel, pregnant, through the Argentine legal system. Martina Gusman’s performance as Julia is astonishing. She begins as a blank and is progressively more vividly outlined as the film unfolds. It’s an emotional journey without clichés or superfluous sentiment. Trapero makes full use of his prison locations, hovering over their spaces, letting the stillness speak for the agonising passing of time and coaxing a curious mixture of cosiness and frustration from the children’s section to which Julia’s pregnancy grants her access. After the birth of her son, we get one magically incongruous scene of the prison’s brightly lit night-time serenity interrupted by the baby’s cries and the consequent howling chorus of fellow infant inmates.
Lion’s Den was the highlight of this year’s DLAFF for this writer. The festival has grown considerably over the seven years of its existence. This year, there were 21 feature films and seven documentaries shown at seven London locations. It is now the most significant opportunity there is to see South American films in the UK, an especially remarkable achievement considering the festival is run entirely by volunteers. They even manage to donate a proportion of ticket sales to a chosen charity each year. This year’s beneficiary was Progressio, a group working with women suffering from AIDS and HIV in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Other notable screenings included the UK premiere of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin cabeza), a film that has divided critics following its appearances on the festival circuit, and Rodrigo PlÃ¡’s account of the Cristiada rebellion in 1920s Mexico, The Desert Within (Desierto adentro). I also enjoyed Espectro (Al final del espectro), a spooky thriller from Colombia that cleverly exploits its claustrophobic setting, and A Gastronomy Story (EstÃÂ³mago), a quirky and mischievous study of human appetites and weaknesses.