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Latin American Odysseys 

Festival entries from down south dwell on savagery and brutality

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
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Anyone watching the Latin American offerings at this festival would conclude that our southern neighbors commit acts of harrowing savagery against each other, if they're not themselves being tortured or executed by their own police forces and governments. Or it may just be that their filmmakers dwell on such cruelty. Down south, documentary, reality TV, and fiction blur together in a phantasmagoria of hell on a decidedly beautiful Earth.

In the grimy, likable Chilean picaresque Taxi for Three, cabbie Ulises, several payments away from owning his own taxi, navigates the poor Santiago neighborhoods for fares. When he's carjacked by robbers and given the choice of the steering wheel (as getaway driver) or the trunk (as hapless victim), his odyssey takes a desperate turn. Meanwhile, the thieves get too friendly with his Penelope and kids at home, who can't resist their sudden material prosperity, courtesy of the now live-in criminals. Finally, Ulises grabs the wheel in a twist on Taxi Driver.

A poor Andean farmer and his son also try to steer their own fate in the Venezuelan A House With a View of the Sea, when they're humiliated by the local don and seek revenge. Unfortunately, the harsh beauty of the highland landscape is enfeebled by the film's unrelenting sentimentality, overdramatic narrative turns, and stereotypical insistence on the stubborn goodness of the poor vs. the cruelty of the rich, including one character who can be explained only as a plot device. Much more brutal is The Trespasser, a fable of two São Paulo construction engineers who have a third partner killed, only to have the hit man invade their business and lives. Too bad the scarily effective performance by the repulsive assassin (like a young De Niro on bad cocaine) is undermined by the fizzle of an ending.

It's easy to get lost in the harrowing News From a Personal War, a nonfiction dispatch from the eternal conflict between corrupt cops and drug dealers, fought with automatic weapons in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Slum dwellers, prisoners, and policemen give testimony, but it's hard to tell them apart. The cynicism of the on-camera chief of police is breathtaking, as is footage of the shantytown women following officers taking a young suspect away, ensuring with their presence that he won't be executed.

The Golden Gate Award-winning documentary The Pinochet Case, a must-see, is a superb account of efforts to bring Chile's former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to justice, including his recent extradition from London. The film's inspirational subtext about international solidarity (especially the historical ties between Spain and Chile) and the moving testimony by victims of the horrific torture chambers at Villa Grimaldi expose the institutional roots of governmental terror.

The gorgeous but overwrought To the Left of the Father examines the reasons why a young man would abandon his prosperous Lebanese-Brazilian farming family in the idyllic Brazilian countryside. The virtues of this long, impressionistic film version of a novel about incest and corruption include a haunting soundtrack and superb landscapes. What sinks it are the interminable breast-beating monologues about the doom of it all. Maybe there'd be some life to it if the women spoke.

Taxi for Three: Friday, April 19, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Saturday, April 20, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 22, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki

A House With a View of the Sea: Tuesday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 25, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Trespasser: Friday, April 19, 7 p.m., Castro; Monday, April 22, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 24, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

News From a Personal War: Sunday, April 21, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 22, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Wednesday, April 24, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Pinochet Case: Monday, April 29, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 30, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

To the Left of the Father: Saturday, April 20, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 22, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

About The Author

Frako Loden

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