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The man is the message in 'Bolivia'

Israel Adrian Caetano's film-festival mainstay offers a glimpse of the precarious existence of a modern Argentine.

June 06, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Life in "Bolivia," a parable about contemporary Argentina, is even grittier than the film's churning black-and-white cinematography. Set in Buenos Aires, the modestly conceived and executed story mainly unfolds in and around a dodgy neighborhood coffee shop, one of those expressionistic hot spots from which universal truths invariably seem to arise. Smack in the center of this social microcosm is the cafe's new cook, a Bolivian immigrant, Freddy (Freddy Flores), who shares tips and swaps glances with the waitress, Rosa (Rosa Sanchez), even as he tries to stay clear of the shop's boss (Enrique Liporace) and its various malcontent customers.

Shot in 2001 and programmed in festivals from Cannes to Rotterdam, "Bolivia" was written and directed by Uruguayan-born Israel Adrian Caetano, a leading figure in the new Argentine cinema. (Caetano's first feature, the 1998 release "Pizza, Beer, Cigarettes," helped jump-start new Argentine cinema; his most recent feature, "Red Bear," premiered at Cannes last year.)

As in a handful of other recent Argentine titles -- including the Oscar-nominated "Son of the Bride" and festival favorites like "La Cienaga" and "El Bonaerense" -- "Bolivia" offers up characters in a state of ongoing crisis. Underpaid and overwhelmed, financially unmoored and spiritually adrift, these are men and women for whom the tanking economy is, finally, just the most obvious manifestation of a deeper malaise.

Unease hangs over "Bolivia" from the start. Over images of an empty coffee shop that seems less shuttered than abandoned, we first hear the sounds of a job interview, followed by the frenzied roar of a soccer match. The job applicant turns out to be Freddy, an illegal immigrant whose gentle disposition bodes poorly for a long, healthy run. (As the sportscaster ominously proclaims, "The Bolivian defense is weak.") A former field hand, Freddy has left his land and young family to eke out a living in a country that can barely support its own people. During the day, he grills meat and potatoes for idling, snappish taxi drivers; at night, he shells out one of his hard-earned pesos for a shot of espresso and a seat in a cafe even more run-down than the one in which he works.

Argentine cinema has been hot news for years, but the films that have managed to secure distribution here tend to play along reassuringly familiar lines, like the sentimental melodrama "Son of the Bride." In contrast, "Bolivia" offers up marginalized characters living in the sort of shadow world rarely seen outside the country where the movie was made and the festivals where work of this type is a mainstay. There are no big surprises in Caetano's film, which plays out exactly as ordained, only a sense of life at its most precarious and real. Freddy struggles, but he also takes pleasure in his rough work and in the sound of his children's voices on the phone. He's a mournful figure, but the fact that he's a man, not a social issue, is this humble film's great revelation.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some adult language, discreet sex and violence

Freddy Flores...Freddy

Rosa Sanchez...Rosa

Oscar Bertea...Oso

Enrique Liporace...Jefe

Marcelo Videla...Marcelo

A La Expresion del Deseo production, with support from INCAA (Instituto Nacional de Cinematografia y Artes Audiovisuales de la Argentina), the Rotterdam Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund and Fundacion PROA. Writer-director Israel Adrian Caetano. Story Romina Lafranchini. Producer Roberto Ferro. Cinematography Julian Apezteguia. Editors Lucas Scavino, Santiato Ricci. Music Los Kjarkas. Art direction, wardrobe Maria Eva Duarte. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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