We’re just over a week away from Oscar nominations, and I have exciting news. For the first time ever, I will complete the International Feature shortlist! Okay fine, maybe it’s only exciting to me, but it is something of an achievement. I’ve now seen 12 of the 15 films, and with the announcement of Austria’s Great Freedom getting an American release date (March 4th according to its distributor, MUBI, but the nearest date I can find in Los Angeles is on the 11th, a week later), the remaining three all have a public release coming. The Worst Person in the World comes out this coming Friday, followed by Belgium’s Playground two weeks later. So while I won’t complete the list before nominations are released, I will at least complete it. The same will hold for the Documentary Feature shortlist, of which one film remains for me to see (Writing with Fire), but as of this publish it won’t be available until 3/4. All this means is that I’ll have to schedule my Blitz breakdowns for those respective categories for a date after I’m able to finish my viewings.
I mention all this hopefully interesting stuff because today’s entry, Plaza Catedral from Panama, is decidedly NOT interesting. Directed by Abner Benaim, the film is decently made, with some really nice photography in places. But the main story, about a woman forming a rapport with a street urchin, has been done so many times it might as well get its own subgenre parody movie. We even had one such film last year, The Life Ahead, which didn’t even get submitted by Italy, though its superfluous Diane Warren ballad got a nod for Original Song. And when your story is so worn out that it wasn’t even the first choice for a competitive country in this field, you know you don’t have much to go on.
The title refers to the apartment building where 40-year-old architect Alicia (Ilse Salas of Hidalgo and The Good Girls) resides after her divorce. Her child died in a freak accident at a very young age (the fact that her words and actions make this painfully obvious but she still takes more than half the film to say it is one of the more frustrating parts of the script), and it drove her and husband Diego (Manolo Cardona from Fort Bliss) apart. Every day when she gets home from work, Alicia is accosted by a street hustling kid who goes by “Chief,” played by young actor Fernando Xavier de Casta, who demands what is essentially a small bribe for the privilege of parking outside her own building and not having her car vandalized by local gangs. The two bicker and insult one another, with Chief constantly referring to Alicia as a “gringa” because of her lighter skin (she’s Mexican, not American) and Alicia regularly threatening to call the police.
However, one night, Alicia comes home to find Chief lying on the stairs inside her building, bleeding from a gunshot wound. She takes him to the hospital, but after the bullet is removed, he flees back to her house asking for shelter and protection, because apparently gunshot victims are arrested in the hospital. The rest of the film is about them coming to an understanding and developing a bond that is believable to no one, with an eventual seeming betrayal and redemption through violence and sacrifice that has been done to death.
It also doesn’t help that neither of these lead characters is in any way likable. Alicia is in mourning, which is understandable, but she takes out all of her problems on other people, including those who definitely don’t deserve it, like a friend who practices martial arts with her, or some random dude she brings home from the bar for sex. She even regularly sneaks into her old flat when her ex isn’t around just to sleep in her dead son’s bed, which is totally messed up. The only person who deserves any vitriol from her is her dickhead boss, a property manager trying to sell penthouse condos along the coast, and even then I can’t get behind it because he’s presented as a Jewish stereotype and it feels like an anti-Semitic dig on the director’s part for no reason.
As for Chief, he’s every street-wise kid you’ve seen in movies for the last 30 years. He’s a piece of shit, but he secretly has a heart of gold and oh so much tragedy in his backstory. I’m sorry. I don’t care. From the moment he literally jumps onto Alicia’s car to extort her to when he so very obliviously destroys her model bridge with a soccer ball, I hate this kid. If he were to ever climb on my car door for money, I’d smack him with said door. Maybe these were excellent performances because both leads were just so horrible and the actors are good people, but from where I sat, there was nothing truly redeemable about them to justify the forced relationship in this story.
Now, once you look away from the underwhelming plot and characters, there are some decent production aspects that go a long way towards saving this movie from the gutter. For one, British musician Matthew Herbert, who wrote and recorded the score for previous International Feature winner, A Fantastic Woman, provides a lovely, understated soundtrack here, laced with melancholy piano movements that do more to get across the emotion of the moment than anything the characters do.
Second, the cinematography is fairly strong, especially for a film that appears to have been made on a very modest budget. An opening rise up a construction elevator provides an excellent view of the city, paid off with a pretty cool suicide fantasy shot. A low-angle take from a different elevator shows Alicia’s face against two mirrored walls, creating four synchronous heads. A nightmare about Chief killing Alicia in her bed in silence is a stellar Hitchcockian homage. Even the long-delayed reveal of how Alicia’s son died is a moment of pure fucked up darkness.
And while the story and characters definitely leave you wanting, Benaim does know how to shock the audience. In addition to a few eye-popping scenes along the way, the film ends abruptly with a postscript that puts the film into a greater perspective, hammering its theme home to the audience in a more poignant and relevant way than the entire preceding 90+ minutes combined. I won’t reveal that detail here, because it may color your viewing of the movie, even though it technically has nothing to do with the plot. All I’ll say is that after seeing this one moment, I now completely understand why an otherwise bad film got submitted, why it got shortlisted, and why it may ultimately get nominated in a few days.
Sadly, one crystallizing moment isn’t enough to recommend the movie as a whole. Like I said, there are good production values, and the performances aren’t exactly bad, just in service of badly-written characters. If you’re trying to clear the shortlist yourself, this is certainly worth seeing, but as a work of pure cinema and entertainment, you can find the same story told much better in plenty of other places.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many films on the International shortlist have you seen? Are you disappointed by the lack of Van Halen in this review? Let me know!