Saturday, March 04, 2017

MFF ’17: La Soledad

An estimated 85% of all conventional prescription drugs are no longer available in Venezuela. Queues stretch around the block at grocery stores, but there is no guarantee anything will be left on shelves after downtrodden Venezuelans spend hours waiting to get in. It is worth remembering the grim living conditions faced by average citizens the next time Joe P. Kennedy offers you some free heating oil from his bosses, Citgo Oil and the Chavez-Maduro regime. Life takes an even more desperate turn for a family of squatters in Jorge Thielen Armand’s docu-narrative hybrid La Soledad (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Miami Film Festival.

It was once a grand mansion in a fashionable district of Caracas, but it is now a crumbling shell. It really is the ancestral home of Thielen Armand’s family and his friend José Dolores López (“El Negro”) really lives there with his wife, daughter, and grandmother—at least he has up to now. The owners had allowed their former maid, Rosina Palomino to stay there, under the radar, in gratitude for her years of faithful service. However, her grandson José’s family attracted unwanted attention when the moved in. Frankly, the matriarch just unilaterally decides they are better off demolishing the house and selling off the land.

That puts her grown son Jorge (the meta-sounding “Jorge R. Thielen H.,” also playing himself) in an awkward position. Despite his upper-class lineage, he works as a handyman, frequently sharing his gigs with José. Facing the very real possibility of homelessness, the faithful grandson is simultaneously conducting a hard target search of every surviving pharmacy and free clinic in Caracas, hoping to find Palomino’s high blood pressure pills. Periodically, he also tries to buy milk for his eight-year-old-ish daughter, with only marginally better results. Out of concrete plans, José seeks deliverance in a family legend of buried treasure, in open defiance of the spectral slave, who was supposedly murdered to watch over it.

So, clearly the Chavist revolution has been a smashing success. Medical care and nutrition are practically non-existent, plus civil liberties have been sharply curtailed. On the bright side, the income disparities between the two families has been dramatically reduced.

Thielen Armand does indeed show viewers the queues, the crumbling buildings, and the dire implications of the consumer scarcities. However, La Soledad does not exactly represent a riveting work of storytelling. Frankly, this is a film more about sense of place, mise-en-scène, and poverty porn rather than thrilling narrative peaks and valleys. In many ways, it echoes Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure (both feature a lot of hardcore metal-detecting), but the grabbiest part of La Soledad is the treasure’s ghostly backstory.

It is undeniably compelling to watch the real life José, Jorge, and Palomino contend with their mean circumstances, but as a film La Soledad is rather static.  It provides a valuable time capsule record of living conditions under the Chavist regime, but the drifting narrative peters out instead of building towards a climax. Recommended as an impressionistic work of reportage rather than an accessible cinematic family drama, La Soledad screens Monday night (3/6) during this year’s Miami Film Festival.