Each of San Diego's many (and I mean many) film festivals represents a unique opportunity for residents to break free of Hollywood's constraints and experience vital perspectives from the around the world. Our proximity to the Tijuana border region has long made the San Diego Latino Film Festival one of the most essential cultural events in town. Where else can you find films as diverse as Matteo Garrone's surreal anti-fable Tale of Tales, Marcia Tambutti Allende's riveting essay film Allende, Mi Abuelo Allende, and Michel Franco's antiseptic horror show Chronic?
Now celebrating its 23rd year, SDLFF runs through Sunday, March 20, at the AMC Fashion Valley Cinemas and the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. There are special programs on Colombian and Mexican cinema, along with sections devoted to documentary, short films and LGBTQ experiences among others. As of this publication, the festival is in mid-swing, so consider this a preview of the best films screening during the event's second half.
Arturo Ripstein's La Calle de la Amargura (aptly titled Bleak Street in English) lingers alongside struggling tenants of a destitute Mexican neighborhood as they negotiate the terms of daily survival. Twin luchadores refuse to take off their masks, two aging prostitutes fatefully try to relive the glory days, and multiple sets of parents fail to protect their children. Shot in pristine black and white, the film gracefully explores the long-term cost of economic and social disenfranchisement without dovetailing into misery porn.
Here, brutality is organic and time passes slowly. The steady camera seems to dance with each actor as they move through cramped, dank spaces. In these smooth, talky sequences both are in perfect unison, calling attention to the film's overt fascination with doubles. Risptein populates his entire film with partnerships that are doomed, a theme that crescendos with a single line of dialogue: "Better to be blind than alone."
Not for the faint of heart, Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a fascinating oddity about the plasticity of history and memory. The eponymous Soviet filmmaker (Elmer Bäck) of such Communist classics as Strike! and Battleship Potemkin arrives like a force of nature in Mexico to shoot a film. He quickly becomes enveloped in a heightened state of sexual awakening and madness.
The film marvelously contorts our expectations, using rear projection and expanded depth of field to play visual tricks aplenty while filling each frame with pristine texture. Greenaway's hyper-style matches his lead actor's insanely unhinged performance, creating an artificial version of reality that somehow feels closer to the truth than any historical account. See it on the biggest screen possible.
Footage from old family movies shot on aged film stock opens Karina Garcia Casanova's Juanicas, a personal documentary that confronts long-gestating effects of bipolar disorder and familial denial on a Mexican family that immigrated to Quebec. The images have very little meaning without context, so the director spends the duration doing her best to fill in the blanks, unpacking all of the emotional tumult associated with her brother Juan and his battle with depression.
Made up of footage taken from over eight years of filming, Juanicas merges heartbreaking interviews, hospital documents and panicked phone messages to paint a picture of the paralyzing grief felt by the filmmaker as she watches Juan and her mother simultaneously suffer from mental illness.
Garcia Casanova's intent is to bring this hidden disease that has ravaged her family out into the open. The most powerful moment comes when she films the damage done by Juan to their family home after one of his prolonged mania episodes. "This is what it was always like," she says crying, finally capturing physical evidence of a disease that had been, up to that point, pushed into to the shadows.
Do yourself a favor and see all three. For more information on SDLFF, including screening times for the above films, visit sdlatinofilmfestival.com.