Midaq Alley (1995)

“Midaq Alley” was directed by Jorge Fons and stars a very young Salma Hayek. It is based on an Egyptian novel written by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz in 1947 about a street in Cairo that represented a microcosm of the world. Fons moved the street to an alley in downtown Mexico and takes on societal issues of 1995.

It won 11 Ariel Awards including Best Picture and also won more than 49 international awards.

The story is divided into four chapters, each one told by a different character’s perspective: a bar owner experiencing confusing sexual feelings who subsequently is abusive toward his wife and son; young, passionate Alma played by Salma Hayek who is conflicted about how best to navigate her future in the alley; the older unfortunate looking Susanita who owns the apartment where many of the characters live; and two young men who have returned to the alley from the U.S.

The characters all struggle with poverty and societal constraints which cause them to face difficult choices that are handled compassionately. Excellent movie!

La Boyita (2009)

“La Boyita”, from Argentinean director Julia Solomonoff, is heartbreaking! It explores sexuality and the assignment of gender from a child’s perspective.

Jorgelina is a precocious prepubscent. She’s frustrated with her sister who has just started having periods but is also curious enough to go through her father’s medical books to try and understand what is happening.

Recognizing that his daughter is in need of attention, he takes her to his home in the country. She meets Mario with whom she becomes very attracted. Mario, however, keeps his distance because he is guarding a secret.

I won’t go into any further details other than to say that I think the beauty of the film is Jorgelina’s openness. She doesn’t yet have the societal prejudices of those older than her.

Japón (2002)

“Japón” (Japan) was directed by Carlos Reygadas, the same Mexican director who made “Battle in Heaven”. I appreciate both films and found both captivating, but both were very disturbing. (“Battle in Heaven” was much distrubing than “Japón”, however).

I am sure Reygadas means for his films to be disturbing, but I’m not entirely sure I understand why. Also, why is the movie called “Japón” when it has nothing to do with Japan? Perhaps it has to do with the meaning of the name? Japan means “the sun’s origin”. Perhaps Reygadas is saying that life originates in nature and what is natural and dies in what is man-made? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Japón is about a disabled artist who is leaving the city in search of a peaceful place to kill himself. He ends up in the home of a very gracious elderly indigenous woman who welcomes him without question. She lives in a comfortable, but aging home overlooking a beautiful, rugged expanse.

The contrast between the urban setting the man is leaving and the sprawling expanse of the woman’s home is stark. There is a strong juxtaposition between what is manmade and what is natural: the profane vs the sacred. But just because something is sacred does not mean it isn’t brutal. The natural landscape the woman’s home overlooks is beautiful, but it is also extremely brutal.

We never discover the man’s name, but the elderly woman’s name is Ascen which is short for Ascension. Ascension is not to be confused, however, with Asuncion, which is what the man first calls her. She explains the difference. Asuncion is Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. Ascension is Christ’s departure from Earth and his joining with God which involved suffering. Perhaps that has something to do with the title of the film? Maybe a play on words? (The origin of the Son). And a play on climbing (ascending) the mountain to get to Ascen’s home?

Ascen is humane and giving. Something about her and the brutal beauty of the terrain stirs life back into the man, so much so that he wants to have sex with her. She agrees. His body is aging, but not as much as hers. What does their union signify?

Perhaps it signifies the man’s ascent from his despair. But what about for the woman? She offers herself as a gift and doesn’t seem to receive any pleasure from the sex. Perhaps that’s the difference between the Asuncion and Ascension? Mary’s assumption did not involve suffering, but Jesus’ ascension, did. He descended into hell before ascending to Heaven. He had to take on all the sins of the world before he could ascend. Perhaps that is what Ascen is willing to do? Be a receptacle for the sins of the man?

I’m not sure. I’d have to watch the movie again to gain more insight. I might watch “Japón” again but I will NOT be watching “Battle in Heaven” again! (Or course, I say that now…)

Bad Day to Go Fishing (2009)

I really enjoyed “Bad Day to Go Fishing” (Mal día para pescar) by Uruguayan director Álvaro Brechner! The story line was great. I was curious about how the film would end from the opening scene. It was also very well-acted.

It’s about a very dapper impresario and an aging strong-man from Germany with health issues. The strong-man wants to make a comeback so he and his dapper organizer, who takes advantage of his desire for a comeback, travel throughout South America putting on wrestling shows.

They make a decent living and when they arrive at the village of Santa Maria (in an unknown South American country), they are greeted with more enthusiasm than anywhere else they have been. The local newspaper sponsors the show, volunteers enthusiastically put up posters, and a call is made to find a worthy opponent who will be paid $1,000 if he can beat the German strongman. A woman approaches the dapper organizer and offers her fiancé to fight the strongman. She is certain he will win.

The dapper organizer wants to milk the village for every penny he can get out of them, but (as they apparently say in card games in Santa Maria) is it a good day to go fishing?

Captivating film!

Viva Cuba (2005)

Viva Cuba was the first Cuban film to be awarded the Grand Prix Écrans Juniors’ for children’s cinema at Cannes. Cuba’s immigration problems are presented from the point of view of children who are uprooted and forced to leave behind friendships without being consulted by their parents.

“Viva Cuba” was directed by Juan Carlos Cremata who also directed “Nothing More”, but it is “Viva Cuba” that made him famous. It’s about two children, Malu and Jorgito, who have grown up in the same neighborhood, together. Their parents, like the parents of Romeo and Juliet, despise one another for various reasons (primarily socio-economic differences) and forbid their children from playing together. They are unaware of the strength of the bond that already exists between their children.

Malu’s mother is divorced from Malu’s father. She has a new fiance who wants her to move out of Cuba. Malu and Jorgito learn that the only way Malu might be able to remain in Cuba is if Malu’s father does not sign documents allowing Malu to leave. The two children run away from their homes and travel to the other side of the country in search of Malu’s father to convince him not to sign the documents. We, the viewers, get to take a beautiful excursion through the Cuban countryside along with them.

Ultimately, change, whether it be in the lives of children, adults or countries, is scary! But it is also inevitable. No matter how hard you try to keep change from happening, it happens. Understanding this is part of growing up – both for children and nations.

Finding Gastón (2014)

Finding Gastón (Buscando a Gastón) is a documentary about Peruvian chef and national hero, Gastón Acurio. I was very happy to learn about Gastón, but I’m not sure the documentary belongs in a “best of” film category. Nevertheless, interesting guy!

Gastón is an ambassador of Peruvian cuisine around the world. He had plans to become a lawyer but he left law school to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. In Paris, he met his German wife, Astrid. The couple moved to Peru in their twenties and opened a French restaurant called Astrid & Gastón in 1994. The restaurant was a success.

Gastón began experimenting with Cocina Novoandina, a style of cuisine that combines modern techniques with traditional Peruvian Andean herbs, spices, meats, vegetables and fruits. He is considered a major contributor to the cuisine. He has been so influential, in fact, that Peruvian food is often described as “Before Gastón” (BG) and “After Gastón” (AG).

He has introduced his unique blend of modern and ancient Peruvian cuisine to the entire world by opening franchises around the globe. He also opened a school to teach new generations how to cook Peruvian cuisine. He is considered to be one of the most important chefs in the world.

Battle in Heaven (2005)

“Battle in Heaven” (Batalla en el cielo) was extremely disturbing. It is by  Mexican director, Carlos Reygadas, who also directed the Mexican film Japón

The film has no script and the actors are not professional actors. They are asked to perform explicit sex scenes which are artfully done, I suppose. But what exactly is Reygadas asking of people by having them engage in explicit sex on film, especially if they aren’t professional actors? It feels exploitative to me.

The opening scene is fellatio between a beautiful young girl and a middle-aged, overweight man. We later learn that the girl is upper middle-class and that the man is a family servant hired by her father. She’s wealthy and bored so prostitutes herself for fun. The man has worked for her father since she was a child and she considers him to be the most stable part of her upbringing. So why do either of them feel compelled to have sex with one another? Maybe it’s a sort of bridge between class and race?

If you are wealthy and become a prostitute for the fun of it, you are likely rebelling against your upbringing. If you are a servant and risk having sex with your employer’s daughter, you are probably rebelling against your status as servant. And then there is the matter of the baby that was stolen for ransom and was accidentally killed…

It reminds me of a play I saw many years ago involving the Marquis de Sade and a Gordian knot. I don’t recall the name of the play, but the general idea was that the Marquis de Sade’s erotic literature was meant to be shocking because it was a metaphor for the moral absence that had been created by Christianity being used as a means of political control in European countries.

Perhaps there is something like that going on in “Battle in Heaven” having to do with Mexico? What is the battle in heaven?

Maybe if I watched it again it would make more sense, but nothing in me wants to see it again!