Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bolivia.. Not a movie review.

Bolivia (2001), Argentina, Director: Adrián Caetano

Bolivia is a bleak, gray movie shot in black and white with a grainy look to it, which I thought just added to the mood of this absorbing movie. It examines the intersection of anger, poverty, and harsh economic conditions that almost always bring xenophobia boiling to the surface.

The setting is the somewhat rundown Parrilla restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the days of that nation’s economic crisis that began in the end of 1999. (link) but it could be anywhere in the world. Adrián Caetano's direction coupled with the excellent camera work make this rather simple story that revolves around the lives of characters at the bottom rung of the ladder in society gripping, human and yet horrifying.

The movie opens with a sign on the window “Cook Wanted”. The owner is the brusque Enrique (Enrique Liporace) who hires Freddy (Freddy Flores) a poker faced immigrant who has just arrived from his native La Paz, Bolivia, for 15 pesos a day. While the movie opens there is also a soccer game on between Argentina and Bolivia, with the latter being thrashed on the field and trashed by the announcer for their poor defense. This was an allegorical moment in this movie, laying the setting for a nationalistically tinged dismissive attitude towards the Bolivians that is then repeated in the movie in numerous ways that the camera captures brilliantly. “Bolivia” has an understated way of stating its case and uses a no frills approach that works for it surely had my attention.

The livelihood of Freddy is tied to that restaurant, as is that of another immigrant Rosa (Rosa Sánchez), who is hit upon by many customers of the cafe and being Paraguayan also the recipient of slurs, that she deals with a calm face, but has none of the wariness of the more recently arrived Freddy. I wondered if that was her “been there ..heard that one before” weariness hidden beneath a peaceful looking exterior.

The restaurant is a place to eat and commiserate and for those struggling on the margins of society in their own country a lifeline of sorts. It is that for the down on his luck Oso (Oscar Bertea), who is broke and almost going under and relies on Enrique for food and drink on his steadily growing tab. Freddy is an easy target for Oso, but also for pretty much any one else who chooses to pick on him. It takes the form of the very telling looks of the guys who are running an unauthorized telephone call center when they know where he is from, to the two policemen who stop Freddy the first night after work, who are openly disdainful of him.

That first night Freddy goes to sleep in another restaurant paying a peso for his coffee and begins another day filled with cleaning tables, working the grill and enduring the hostile stares and words of customers who resent the fact that Freddy an interloper gets to work while they, the citizens of their country struggle. Lest you wonder that there are no tender moments in the movie, there are.. the brusque Enrique while exploiting them for the cheap labor does have his nice side and Rosa and Freddy after a night out, come together in a frenzied, desperate intimacy born of people who are both outsiders in that country.

The movie ends in a stunning climax where all the resentments that have festered just boil and explode in one life altering moment. The movie ends as it began, with Enrique seen putting up a sign “Cook Wanted” on his restaurant window coming a full metaphorical circle, about the lives of those that are often invisible at the margins of society.

10 comments:

Id it is said...

Marginalized individuals and communities perhaps make dynamic subjects for artists; somehow creativity is a lot closer to pain and suffer ring than it is to joy and celebrations.
In the recent years Pamuk has written plenty on these communities, as have Desai and Vassanji. From the older group I can think of Thomas hardy who delved into themes born out of marginalization of people; Hawthorne was yet another.
IT wouldn't surprise me if we had a spate of Literature emanating from France and Germany given all the unrest within their immigrant populations that are crying neglect born out of rascism.

On a different note I read this another novel out of Bolivia that was pretty impressive: American Visa by Juan De Recacoechea.

Sanjay said...

Id, thank you very much for your comment, I agree that creativity is somehow closer to pain and suffering than it is to joy. The reasons behind this are fascinating too. I would offer that the creativity that emanates from pain is also more “arty” so to say. Does that appeal more to us maybe because as a society (esp in the US) we are conditioned and perhaps told to be cheery and happy regardless of how we feel?

Thank you for pointing out Pamuk and Desai, I will confess to not having read either of their works yet. I am familiar with both Vassanji’s writing (my current read) and American Visa by Juan De Recacoechea (next on my list), thanks to Lotus who had excellent posts about both. I am glad to see you think highly of both of them as well.

You bring up a good point about the literature coming from France & Germany. I am really interested in seeing what they have to say, since the nature of the adopted countries is different than places like US (with their history of immigration) which makes it hard to integrate given that their sense of national identity comes from their ethnic/cultural heritage. The immigrants here also are different in that their culture/religion for some is more dogmatic and some interpretations of that do not lend easily to integration. Not to mention issues of race as well. The US, Canadian and Australian societies also make it more easier for immigrants to integrate rather than places like Germany and France.

Do you know of any work coming out of these places that you would say is recommended reading?

Id it is said...

sanjay,
"Does that appeal more to us maybe because as a society (esp in the US) we are conditioned and perhaps told to be cheery and happy regardless of how we feel?" ...my take is that suffering and pain appeal because they are so distant; we live in a privileged world compared to most other nations. The pain and suffering they undergo is almost unreal for us' and thus attractive as it doesn't hurt. Sometimes I wonder whether these themes are appreciated as much in troubled nations such as Iraq, Somalia, even Pakistan where they are embedded in suffering and pain... what kind of art would appeal to them? One that soothes or that transports them into a world far away from theirs...

Off the top of my head I can only think of Muriel Barbery, a young French writer whose first novel was in the stores recently.

Sanjay said...

...my take is that suffering and pain appeal because they are so distant; we live in a privileged world compared to most other nations.

I think you make a very good point, but I would also say that the pain is also close to home. One has to look at some neighborhoods in inner cities and it all out there. But not all suffering and pain appeal just because they are far away, for a lot of ppl it is genuine empathy.

One that soothes or that transports them into a world far away from theirs...

I would say it depends on their own personal experiences and stories. If their world is too harsh then they want to be some place else I suppose for others it may appeal more since as you said the experience is further away so is the pain.

Thank you for the response as well as telling me about Muriel Barbery. I will surely follow up on that one.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

THanks so much for bringing our attention to yet another engrossing movie. I haven't had the opportunity to watch too much Argentinian cinema so I am sure I will relish this offering by Adrian Caetano.

The theme is one close to my heart. Occasionally I will work with immigrants (and refugees) and many of them will tell me how they went to another country in search of a better life only to be greeted with racism, extortion, hostility and further misery.

I'm curious how this movie ends, so I guess I'm just going to have to watch it!

Looking forward to your next review, Sanj, hope you're having a fantastic Sunday!

Id it is said...

This may come across as rather harsh, but my understanding is that ones ability to emapathize is inversely proportional to the amount of suffering and pain one has endured in ones life.

Would an Iraqi who has just lost his home and loved ones be able to empathize with the suffering of a homeless person out in sub zero temp in the Bronx? Unlikely, because your personal suffering and pain overwhelms you to the point that you are numb and oblivious to any other suffering outside of you.

'Extreme' suffering desensitizes 'extremely' and those exposed to such harsh pain become the terrorists and senseless killers of the future.
Sorry, if I got carried away...

Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, how are you? Thank you for your comment,I too hope you enjoy this movie.

I am truly impressed that you work with refugees and immigrants. You probably have listened to more real world stories and experiences and so this movie will surely appeal to you.

And yes the pivotal moment has to be seen on the screen, would love to know what you think of it.

My Sunday has been ok so far thanks, have a great week ahead.

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

wow! The comments to this post are incredibly engaging and thought-provoking.

I have nothing either engaging or thought-proviking to add...

Sanjay said...

@Id, you do have a point however I must disagree that extreme suffering desensitizes ‘extremely’ to make terrorists and killers of the future, this is not always true. Most of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 had not undergone the kind of extreme suffering that you talk about. It really does depend on the individual too doesn’t it? And no you have nothing to be sorry for, your opinions are always welcome.

@cdw. Thank you for stopping by , I am glad you read the comments. 

Nabeel said...

anything with star brackets (those awards) tend to be a pretty decent watch .. i'll definitely watch this one.