Having recently watched the new Chilean film Thursday till Sunday, I was struck by how the Latin American Road Movie has come on in recent years.
The feeling of the open road is an especially evocative one – and one that cinema can exploit in especially powerful ways. The spatial awareness of the camera gives a vivid sense of location; the editing lends a haunting sense of time passing; the acting grants emotional credibility and makes the situation relatable to us the audience.
Yet in recent years, Latin American cinema has proven more adept than most at conveying the wistful, open-ended nature of the road trip. The recent trend can be traced back to Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien – the racy, sexy story of two horny adolescents who set off on a journey with an older, more sexually experienced woman.
The road movie device works especially well in the context of this film as it is, in essence, the story of two young guys attempting to find themselves. The aimless search for sexual and personal identity is reflected in the trip they take – one that they ultimately hope will take them to a fabled, idyllic beach. It is not just a physical journey; it’s also a journey to self-realisation. As the movie progresses, a pragmatic, disembodied voiceover lends a greater sense of melancholy, seemingly anticipating how events will play out.
So, form is well matched to content in Latin American cinema. Yet it’s also the extraordinary landscape of this part of the world that lends these particular road movies such an evocative edge. The Motorcycle Diaries (coincidentally, also starring Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Gael Garcia Bernal) is one of my favourite films, one of the reasons being that it takes the audience completely into a mystical, far-flung landscape that seems to change with every passing mile. It’s the dramatization of the real-life trip that the youthful Che Guevara took with his friend Alberto Granado.
The two men set off on a rickety and temperamental Norton 500 motorbike (dubbed ‘The Mighty One’). And the sights that they (and subsequently we the audience) take in on the journey are truly breathtaking, nowhere moreso than when they reach Maccu Piccu, the eerie lost city of the Incas. But the film is no mere travelogue; on arrival at the city, Guevara, the revolutionary fervour beginning to stir within him, ruminates on what it takes to destroy an entire society, and how this has a bearing on the age in which he lives.
So effective storytelling is married to stunning photography and a visceral feel for the landscape. But very often what gives these films a lasting impact is their patient, unassuming nature and absolute compassion for their characters. This was especially apparent in the lovely 2011 film Las Acacias, in which a logger must transport a woman and her baby from Asunsion del Paraguay to Buenos Aires. Along the way, a tender, unconsummated (at least in the film) relationship develops, one based on little more than sparse dialogue and longing glances.
Las Acacias proves that no effect is more special than the human face, and that the casting of actors with memorable phizogs is among the most powerful weapons in a movie’s arsenal. German de Silva is the central actor in Las Acacias and the history of his character is effectively etched onto his stubbled visage – one that softens and broadens subtly but clearly as the film proceeds. It’s one of those magical films in which we’re not just watching the characters; we’re reading them, trying to understand what they’re thinking and what’s driving them.
These principles also apply to recent release, Chilean movie Thursday till Sunday. It’s the deceptively simple story of a family who take a road trip to a beach which, the father explains, played a prominent role in his youth. But through the beautifully observant camerawork, telling slivers of dialogue and understated performances, it soon becomes clear that all is not right in this particular family. The mum and dad appear distant and on the verge of separation, adult concerns that lie in stark contrast to the sunny innocence of the two kids riding in the back of the car. These themes almost seem to magically creep up on the viewer, such is the tact and delicacy displayed in the direction.
It’s telling that last year’s most hyped mainstream road movie, On the Road (also directed by Walter Salles) should have deflated more rapidly than the air from a Michelin tyre. In the end, too much money was thrown at it, there was too much emphasis on the slickness of the filmmaking and acting; in short, it lacked that sense of spontaneity crucial to any road trip movie, ironic given that the source novel is the one that started it all. No, if you want to hit the road, the real gems now lie further afield. Compassionate, humanist, visually stunning, intellectually stimulating – the Latin American Road Trip Movie has proven to be one of the most compelling sub-genres to have emerged from world cinema in recent years.