Presented by the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, the Chicago Latino Film Festival opens Thursday, April 20, and continues daily through Thursday, May 4. All films screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois. General admission is $13, $10 for students, seniors, and members of ILCC; a festival pass, good for 12 general admissions, is $120 or $90 for ILCC members. For advance sales call 312-431-1330 or visit chicagolatinofilmfestival.org. Following are reviews of eight features screening at the festival; unless otherwise noted, all films are in Spanish with subtitles.
At Your Doorstep Set in Spain when the housing bubble burst in 2007—a full year before the financial crisis would be felt in the U.S.—this 2016 musical recalls Rent and Les Misérables in that the primary catalysts for the characters breaking into song are despair and displacement. But these songs, performed by a mix of professional and amateur vocalists, are less showy and also less memorable. The narrative revolves around an evicted woman (Spanish singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz), her husband, and their ten-year-old daughter, but also weaves in the woman's well-to-do banker friend (Oriol Vila) and the police officer who expels the family (Ivan Benet). Director Eduard Cortés, who cowrote the film with Piti Español, feels for the humiliated family but also for the guilt-ridden authorities as they carry out their jobs; the characters' pain is expressed unflinchingly in each song. —Leah Pickett 93 min. Fri 4/28, 6:15 PM, and Mon 5/1, 5:45 PM.
- Between Sea and Land
Between Sea and Land Former child actor Manolo Cruz scripted and stars in this 2016 Colombian drama, playing an impoverished young man whose body is painfully twisted by an incurable neuromuscular disorder. Dependent on a machine that uses electrical impulses to treat his contractions, he lies bedridden in his shack on a Caribbean inlet, barely able to glimpse the sea outside. The character's scenes with his mother (Vicky Hernández) and the next-door neighbor he adores (Viviana Serna) are engrossing in their unfussy realism, as Cruz (who dropped 44 pounds for the role) uses the tiniest of movements to suggest the red-blooded man trapped inside the infirm body. Carlos del Castillo directed. —Andrea Gronvall 98 min. Sat 4/29, 6:45 PM, and Tue 5/2, 6:15 PM.
- Dark Skull
Dark Skull The influence of Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso (Jauja, Los Muertos) hangs over this debut feature by Bolivian writer-director Kiro Russo. Like Alonso, Russo employs nonprofessional actors, immersive sound design, colorful locations (realized so vividly that they practically register as characters), and frequent narrative ellipses; they conjure such a strong mood that I was sucked in despite the derivative style. A young ne'er-do-well, struck by his father's death, abandons city life to return to the countryside where he was raised, move in with his grandmother, and join his uncle in the local coal mine. The young man clashes with his new surroundings, and his coworkers treat him with distrust, but eventually he takes his first steps toward maturity. Much of the action happens at night or underground, and Russo uses the dark environments to convey the protagonist's uneasiness as well as the seductive power of the unknown. —Ben Sachs 77 min. Tue 4/25, 8 PM, and Wed 4/26, 8:30 PM.
Dogs Method actor John Leguizamo plunges into character for this brutal Colombian drama (2016), playing a mild-mannered farmer whose crime of passion lands him in a decrepit prison full of scheming convicts and sadistic guards. Slow to adjust—and even slower to realize that his wife and son no longer want anything to do with him—the protagonist eventually learns to protect himself and settle scores on the inside. The film often recalls Jacques Audiard's French feature A Prophet (2009) but without the poetry or mysticism; here, revenge is a dish too cold to be savored. Harold Trompetero directed. —Andrea Gronvall 83 min. Fri 4/28, 7 PM; Sun 4/30, 8:45 PM; and Wed 5/3, 8:30 PM.
- Holy Biker
The Holy Biker This semicoherent action movie has something to do with Brazilian motorcycle gangs fighting in the desert to claim a Virgin Mary statue that's believed to have magic powers. The film's stark locations, religious symbolism, and violent eroticism sometimes recall the 1970s work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but first-time director Homero Olivetto lacks the other filmmaker's mad showmanship, delivering only a tepid biker saga with the occasional dreamlike flourish. There's some nice action, and Olivetto's use of sped-up motion heightens the suspense of the vehicular chases, but the movie tends to flatten out whenever the characters get off their bikes, and a pervasive air of sexism undermines the fun (the hero spends a good deal of the movie assisting a stranded woman from the city, who spontaneously disrobes and offers herself to him). In Portuguese with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 86 min. Fri 4/28, 8:30 PM, and Sun 4/30, 8:15 PM.
Olancho Manuel Chirinos, the central figure in this documentary, was a family-oriented farmer in the Olancho region of eastern Honduras who made big money playing drug cartel parties with his band, Los Plebes de Olancho ("A plebe is a farmer who struggles to survive," he explains). But when his song lyrics offended the narcos, Chirinos was forced to flee to the U.S., where he resides in North Carolina as an undocumented immigrant. Though plodding at times, the movie benefits from its humble, sympathetic subject; Chirinos discusses his complicated feelings about his homeland and playing for the narcos as well as his heartbreak at being separated from his family and his band. Documentary makers Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold were granted remarkable access to the musicians in Olancho and clearly care for them and their families, but they only scratch the surface of the unrelenting and often misunderstood issue of cartel violence driving refugees into the United States. —Leah Pickett 70 min. Sat 4/22, 6:15 PM, and Mon 4/24, 8 PM.
- One Night of Love
One Night of Love In this 2016 Argentine comedy, middle-aged spouses Leonel (Sebastian Wainraich) and Paola (Carla Peterson), disturbed to learn that their best married friends are breaking up, leave their two kids with Leonel's mother and attempt a date night in Buenos Aires. Their evening out is unobtrusively punctuated by flashbacks and dream sequences that reveal how their problems mirror those of their divorcing friends; in the film's most effective motif, Leonel and Paola repeat the abstract reasons given for the breakup—"the passing of time, the burnout, the routine"—but with growing self-awareness. Other Woody Allen-esque touches, such as the husband's Frank Sinatra CD continually skipping on the track "The Way You Look Tonight," lend even the more dramatic moments a wry charm. Hernán Guerschuny directed his own script. —Leah Pickett 90 min. Screens on Thursday, April 20, as part of the opening-night program; tickets are $90. Thu 4/20, 6 PM, and Sat 4/22, 6:30 PM.
Tamara This 2016 drama from Venezuelan-American filmmaker Elia K. Schneider fictionalizes the real-life story of Tamara Adrián, the first transgender person to be elected to Venezuela's National Assembly. Now one of the country's foremost LGBTQ and women's rights activists, Adrián transitioned from male to female while working as a professor at a Catholic university; a conservative upbringing in a predominantly Catholic country, among other factors, had discouraged her from publicly expressing her gender identity earlier in life. I was troubled to see, yet again, a male actor (Luis Fernández) playing a trans woman—it reinforces the harmful, often deadly stereotype that such a woman is simply a man in a dress—but arguably the casting makes sense here, given that the bulk of the film covers Adrián's life before her transition. —Leah Pickett 110 min. Screens on Thursday, May 4, as part of the closing-night program; tickets are $90. v