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Cine Las Americas kicks off a week of screenings

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The Cine Las Americas Film Festival has been bringing emerging and accomplished Latino voices to Austin movie audiences for the past 13 years.

This year's festival, which shifts into high gear this weekend, features the second directorial effort from Federico Veiroj. The Uruguayan's visually arresting "La Vida Útil" ("A Useful Life") tells the moving story of a man who must find new meaning in his life after the cinemateca at which he worked for 25 years is forced to close.

Though the festival offers a platform for young filmmakers such as Veiroj and Diego Muñoz, director of the kinetic police drama "Bitten Bullet," Cine Las Americas also spotlights works from established artists. "Nostalgia de la Luz," an artful meditation on time and memory from renowned Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, screens Saturday night.

Veteran filmmakers Fina Torres and Leon Ichaso, two Latino artists who have enjoyed success in their native countries (Venezuela and Cuba, respectively) as well as the United States, will screen their latest films. Torres' playful comedy "Habana Eva" explores the history and future of Cuba through the romantic complications of a young lady, while Ichaso's "Paraiso" follows the journey of one exiled Cuban attempting to survive in his new home of Miami.

The festival kicked off Thursday night with a screening of "Marimbas del Infierno" ("Marimbas from Hell"), a Guatemalan film that blends fiction and documentary to tell the story of an aging marimba player who discovers heavy metal. (For a review, visit austin360.com/movieblog.)

Spanish-language film, led by Mexican directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros") and Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mamá También"), experienced a resurgence at the beginning of the millennium. Cine Las Americas executive director Eugenio del Bosque says accessibility to low-cost digital technology and government-sponsored financial incentives have combined to spark an explosion of strong work from a wide range of Latin filmmakers.

While the festival focuses on what has long been considered a niche of the filmmaking market, del Bosque says the appeal of movies at Cine Las Americas speaks to an audience beyond Latin boundaries.

"In a so-called globalized world, the market is more open. And the quality of filmmaking in these countries is just as good as anywhere else in the world at this point," del Bosque said. "They are at the level of European or Asian or North American filmmaking, and I think a lot of them have an eye on the U.S. market. With the waves of immigration, and as generations of immigrants in the U.S. become educated and powerful enough to dictate cultural taste, there is going to be a market for these films."

Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from the festival.

'Nostalgia de la Luz' ('Nostalgia for the Light')

An early, beautiful image in director Patricio Guzmán's "Nostalgia for the Light" shows a view of Chile's Atacama Desert from space, and it looks like the brownest, driest spot on Earth.

Astronomers have set up observatories in the Atacama Desert — thousands of miles above sea level — to get what they consider to be the most unobstructed views of the stars and to explore the origins of the universe. They're well aware that what they're seeing is a picture of the past — that the light that has reached their telescopes has been traveling for thousands if not millions of years.

But there's another search for a more immediate past going on in the Atacama Desert. The barren area was used as a dumping ground for the bodies of people killed after the Chilean coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. So as the astronomers gaze into space, relatives of those killed during the Pinochet regime sift through the desert floor, hoping to find the bones of loved ones.

Guzmán, who is known for such highly charged political documentaries as "The Battle of Chile" and "The Pinochet Case," combines ethereal, out-of-this-world cinematography with the harsh realities of the desert. And by doing so, he makes "Nostalgia for the Light" a profound meditation on the past, rather than a political statement. It's perhaps his best work, and that's saying a lot.

— Charles Ealy

6:30 p.m. Saturday, Alamo South

'La Vida Útil' ('A Useful Life')

As attention spans shorten and cultural histories become lost to the graveyard of time, institutions such as the Uruguayan Cinemateca struggle to maintain relevance.

In director Federico Veiroj's wonderful "A Useful Life," Jorge steadfastly maintains the nonprofit cinema's mission of providing an artistic experience for the community, despite dwindling membership numbers, insufficient funds and crumbling equipment.

But when its funding is pulled, the Cinemateca faces eviction, and Jorge and the organization's director (played with profundity by the actual Cinemateca's former director, Manuel Martinez Carril) must face the grim reality of a life devoid of their true passion.

Jettisoned from the theater, Jorge tries to make sense of a new reality distorted by his all-encompassing romance for cinema. As he tries to find a more tangible love, Jorge (played by real-life critic Jorge Jellinek) becomes the auteur of his own life.

The stunning black-and-white film serves as a touching and dizzying homage to the magic of film and the devotion required to maintain the medium's place of cultural importance in a changing and often indifferent world.

— Matthew Odam

6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Alamo South

'Bala Mordida' ('Bitten Bullet')

A helicopter shot pans the dense, smog-blanketed streets of Mexico City to the soundtrack of Mexican rap-rock.

And after this title sequence, director Diego Munoz's debut feature, "Bitten Bullet," opens on a scene of corruption and confusion as officer Mauro Hernandez attempts to pinch money from an aging drug dealer — a hasty and ill-advised moment of avarice that leads to a violent confrontation between police and street thugs.

Back at the station, the sadistic Comandante Alatorre patrols the green-hued offices like a shark in a fish tank, using his officers as disposable bait and engendering paranoia and fear in a police force ill-equipped to fight rampant crime both on the streets and inside its own ranks.

As he attempts to protect his position on the force, Hernandez slowly comes to recognize that things are falling apart around him, while his opportunism leads him to lose his dignity and eventually his mind.

Munoz's attempts to weave together disparate narrative and thematic threads involving sensationalism of the media and political and social injustice make for a murky story at times, but the director shows great promise here with his ability to capture the unnerving pulse of the city and those who make it run.

Sporadic use of surveillance camera footage echoes HBO's "The Wire" and points to Munoz's ambition in examining the dense layers of institutional corruption.

— M.O.

10 p.m. Monday, Alamo South

'Habana Eva'

Director Fina Torres of Venezuela has a knack for telling deeply personal, often humorous stories. In 1985, she directed the drama "Oriana," which went on to win the Camera d'Or honoring first-time filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival. And in 2000, she directed the frothy, San Francisco-based romantic comedy "Woman on Top," starring Penélope Cruz.

With "Habana Eva," Torres returns to romance, this time looking at a young Cuban woman who has a lusty boyfriend but comes under the spell of a dashing, handsome capitalist who is visiting from Venezuela. It all takes place at a turning point in Cuba's history, as Fidel Castro starts loosening his grip on the island nation and as young people begin to dream of starting their own businesses.

Prakriti Maduro stars as Eva, who's torn between two lovers and her desire to escape a government-run sweatshop and start her own designer clothing business.

— C.E.

7:30 p.m. today, Alamo South

'La Mirada Invisible' ('The Invisible Eye')

In his third full-length feature, Argentine director Diego Lerman presents Buenos Aires in 1982 as a culture about to burst. President/strongman Leopoldo Galtieri's reign is starting to decay and paranoia is palpable as protesters begin to take to the streets. And cramped apartments contrast with enormous, ivy-covered buildings behind which the powerful have taken refuge.

María Teresa (Julieta Zylberberg) is a young assistant at elite high school Colegio Nacional. Young and inexperienced, virginal and severe, María Teresa wants to please her supervisor, Mr. Biasutto (a deeply creepy Osmar Nuñez).

Encouraged to spy on the students and report "subversives," María Teresa begins to conflate power and sexuality in increasingly damaging ways, her own repression a stark contrast to the life outside the school's walls.

Based on a novel by Martin Kohan, "The Invisible Eye" is a smart, minimalist meditation on the ways a dictatorship can deform people who should know better; Lerman wrings tension out of spare dialogue and long, quiet takes that speak volumes.

— Joe Gross

7 p.m. Monday, Alamo South

Cine Las Americas

When:Today through April 28

Where: Most films screen at Alamo South, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd., and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.

Cost: Passes, $75; admission is free for non-Alamo screenings; tickets for movies at the Alamo South are available online and at the door.

Information:cinelasamericas.org