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Movie review: 'South of the Border'

Oliver Stone comes off as a kind of political sob sister in his look at the leaders of South America. It is more vanity project than substantial cinema.

July 02, 2010|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Some people go to South America and bring back T-shirts and big hats. Not Oliver Stone. A modern version of the traditional big game hunter, Stone went south and bagged interviews with the left-leaning leaders of seven countries for his new documentary, "South of the Border."


FOR THE RECORD:
"South of the Border": A review of the documentary "South of the Border" in Friday's Calendar section referred to the groundbreaking election that brought Evo Morales to power in Ecuador. Morales was elected president in Bolivia. —

This is not the first time Stone has gone the interview-the-ruler route, having previously directed "Comandante" and "Looking for Fidel," both about the loquacious Cuban leader.

Though Fidel's brother Raul makes a brief appearance here, "South of the Border" shows Stone expanding his horizons beyond Havana to include Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (the film's main focus), Bolivia's Evo Morales, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as well as the leaders of Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador.

As a judicious selection of clips from Fox News (if that's not a contradiction in terms) makes clear, these individuals are often depicted in American media as the devil's spawn, if not worse. It is Stone's position that there's nothing inherently evil about deciding that your own national interest may not coincide with that of the United States.

But even if you agree with the man's politics, maybe especially if you agree with the man's politics, it is hard not to feel frustrated by this vanity project of a film. Running a brief 78 minutes, it plays more like a fan's notes than a substantial piece of cinema, an extended home movie that will change few if any minds.

Though the film's brief length means it doesn't take the time to substantiate many of its claims (and a recent piece in the New York Times pointed out numerous errors), a larger problem is what we see of Stone's interactions with these various leaders. The director comes off as a kind of political sob sister who thrills at Chavez's enthusiasm — "I've never seen such energy, never," he gushes — and offering the equivalent of a papal blessing to Paraguay's Fernando Lugo: "You are a very gentle man, and a very good man, I think."

Stone also has a weakness for soliciting contrived personal glimpses of these quite serious individuals. So he has Chavez ride on a kid's bike way too small for him and entices a baffled Morales to kick around a soccer ball. This tactic backfires when he asks Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner how many pairs of shoes she has and she snaps that questions like that are never asked of a man.

Because "South of the Border" feels so flimsy, anyone interested in its subject matter would be better served by renting earlier, more substantial films on the same subjects.

If you are interested in the fascinating events around Chavez's rise to power, you can see "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," directed by two Irish filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, who were on the scene when the events happened.

And if you care about the groundbreaking election that brought Morales to power in Ecuador, creating a situation Kirchner described as "for the first time in the region, the leaders look like the people they govern," the film to watch is Rachel Boynton's "Our Brand Is Crisis," which shows how American political consultants tried in vain to get Morales' opponent into office.

Though Stone's personality gets in the way, "South of the Border" does offer brief glimpses of these leaders and their personal styles that are instructive. Perhaps the greatest service this slapdash film provides is to leave us wanting to know more because it tells us so little.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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