What's so disarming about this year's crop of festival-ready Latin American films is how willingly they let us in on their grapples with the anxiety of influence. Is there room for a regional identity, they ask, between the rock of Old World cinema and the hard place of Hollywood? These artists share an acute awareness of their ambition for a place on the mantel of world culture -- which is more than we can say for some of the American work that has influenced them. Their high, tense reach is a source of great vitality.
Brazil still seems like an epicenter, perhaps a blessing and a curse as its filmmakers decide whether to propagate the offhandedly romantic and festive tone, the carnival plumage, expected of them. Bus 174, a protracted documentary about a protracted bus hijacking, examines the doomed and neglected subculture of Rio de Janeiro's street kids. Underscoring director José Padilha's on-sleeve politics is an intention to disabuse North American audiences of the idea that all of Brazilian urbanity equals the lovely languor of Antonio Jobim as experienced in Starbucks (or, if we're gracious enough to remember it, in Black Orpheus). In Durval Discos (which played last week), about the diverting adventure that befalls a '70s-holdout record-store owner, director Anna Muylaert allows us some of that nostalgia, but only in exchange for permission to whittle it into absurdist satire. Claudio Assis' vignetted urban tapestry Mango Yellow, febrile or intoxicated or both, shrugs off conventional narrative structure like a good hipster festival darling should, but also exhibits a European master's loyalty to its quirky, yearning characters.
Uruguayan director Diego Arsuaga throttles into the culture and generation gaps head-on with The Last Train, in which a few aging radicals try to thwart the literal Hollywoodization of their national pride -- as exemplified by the old locomotive they kidnap for a politically righteous joy ride.
The most ambitious experiments come from Argentina, where in search of a poetry of human intimacy, directors are getting brazen. Santiago Loza won't be taken for a Brazilian, having notably plucked the plumage from his riveting debut, Extraño; a polished gem of potent silence, it couldn't be further from carnival-esque. Even at a rave, Loza's characters don't really dance, preferring instead to drift wordlessly into each other's inner lives.
Eliseo Subiela's Adventures of God is a collaboration with his students, who've obviously studied up on Buñuel, Fellini, Bergman -- the giants of Europe -- and American art-house titans like the Coen brothers. Subiela tries hard to articulate the dream-logic idiom, but he isn't quite fluent. As is true in any other language, there's a difference between really dreaming in it and hammering through its classroom exercises. This exercise is one of automatic writing -- the surrealist staple of creation by free association -- which, in the unavoidably collaborative, logistically complex medium of cinema, requires more than just pen and paper. Still, undaunted and unabashed, Subiela makes a noble effort. The world should pay attention.
Bus 174: Wednesday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 24, 2:30 p.m., Castro; Sunday, April 27, 6 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Mango Yellow: Saturday, April 26, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 29, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Last Train: Sunday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 29, 12:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Extraño: Monday, April 28, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 30, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Adventures of God: Sunday, April 27, 3:30 and 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki