Saturday, September 10, 2016

VEFFNY ’16: El Malquerido

It is tempting to dub Felipe Pirela the Venezuelan Jerry Lee Lewis, because of his marriage to thirteen-year-old Mariela Montiel. Yet somehow he got off easy in the national media, at least initially. It is pretty clear why. In terms of record sales, he was the Venezuelan Elvis and the effect of his romantic boleros could lead some to call him the Venezuelan Sinatra. However, their ill-advised union leads to bad karma over time in Diego Rísquez’s bio-pic, El Malquerido (trailer here), which screens as the opening night film of the 2016 Venezuelan Film Festival in New York.

While mounting his zillionth comeback, Pirela will tell his story on a Puerto Rican talk show, thereby supplying Rísquez’s flashback framing device. By this time, Pirela had declared Venezuela off-limits, for reasons we will soon understand. His early years follow a familiar pattern. Little Felipe croons for his adoring mother, who gets him a spot on a talent discovery radio show through s friend of a friend. Of course, he is a hit, generating increasingly professional gigs, until he signs with Billo Frómeta’s orchestra as a young man. His popularity explodes during his tenure with old beloved Billo, like Frank Sinatra’s stint with the Tommy Dorsey band. Inevitably, he goes solo, but that looks like a mistake in retrospect.

In the short term, Pirela makes a mountain of money. In the long term, he is doomed to sabotage himself. Montiel’s scoldy mother will also do her best to help. Frankly, there is something comforting about Pirela’s story, because it reassures us Latin American superstars are just as likely to fatally succumb to sex and drugs as the American and British rockstars we are more familiar with.

So yes, we know exactly where El Malquerido is headed, but the little, culturally specific details make it a rewarding ride anyway. Samantha Castillo does not have a lot of screen time, but she still manages to steal the picture as the legendary La Lupe, who sings with Pirela and offers him some advice he should have taken more seriously.

Jesús Chino Miranda is surprisingly sullen as Pirela, but it usually fits the dramatic context of his life. Natalia Roman gives the film an energy lift as Paquita, the Puerto Rican lover he should have been more faithful to (in jazz terms, she was the Cicely Tyson to his Miles Davis). However, it is hard to fathom how Greisy Mena’s Montiel could inspire such scandal given her mousy screen presence.

Pirela could sing a bolero and Billo could lead a band, so there is no shortage of distinctive music throughout the film. Considering how popular he clearly was, it is surprising he does not have more crossover recognition today, like Celia Cruz and La Lupe herself, but the part where he dies prematurely at thirty-one obviously did not help. Like a good bandleader, Rísquez keeps the drama snappy and showcases plenty of well-chosen tunes. Recommended for bolero fans, El Malquerido screens this Wednesday (9/14), at the Village East, as the opener of this year’s VEFFNY.