Karnawal

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Karnawal
"First-time feature director Juan Pablo Félix takes the same energetic, forthright approach to his filmmaking that his protagonist does to his beloved malambo dance." | Photo: Courtesy of POFF

First-time feature director Juan Pablo Félix takes the same energetic, forthright approach to his filmmaking that his protagonist does to his beloved malambo dance - a complex and rhythmic traditional dance from Argentina - with the director's fancy footwork moving seamlessly from indie drama and coming-of-age tale to tense thriller and back again.

Félix - whose film is a strong contender in Tallinn's First Feature competition - begins with social realism, as we meet baby-faced teenager Cabra (debutant Martin Lopez Lacci, whose malambo expertise is matched by a talent for acting) in his home in the north of Argentina, close to the Bolivian border. A telephone is ringing insistently, a device that Félix will return to through the film as a source of anxiety. More pressing perhaps are the tensions within the home Cabra shares his mum (Mónica Lairana), as her boyfriend (Diego Kremonisi) tries to persuade them to move south with him, tensions that are set to escalate further with the news that his incarcerated father "El Corto" (Alfredo Castro with a mane of hair so magnificent Aslan would be proud) is coming to visit on a weekend release from jail.

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This backdrop is seeded through the first portion of the film as Félix takes us on a tense cross-border foray with Cabra, who is bringing back contraband that turns out to be a lot hotter than he expected. The director captures both the broody rebellion of teenagehood in Cabra and that volatile blend of uncertainty and risk-taking that often comes in the no man's land between childhood and adulthood. He also immerses us in the feel of this area of northern Argentina, with cinematographer Ramiro Civita's camera plunging into the street-level bustle as Cabra walks through a market before picking up his load and later capturing the joyful chaos of the carnival.

Cabra is a kid of few words, with the shared looks, from glances to glares, between him and everyone else around him speaking volumes. Lairana also brings meaning to the tiniest gestures as we sense the way she is torn about her triangle of male relationships - her son rebellious, her new guy stable but verging on domineering and her husband who may be trouble on the inside but whose charming exterior is nevertheless appealing. We feel the emotional fingerprints of the past on the present in the glimmer of a smile she gives El Corto, her more relaxed emotions also mirrored at points by her son, who it's clear, is unwilling to leave himself open to further emotional damage from his father.

You could be forgiven, near the start of the film, for thinking the action will hinge on Cabra's upcoming malambo competition, but though his race to get there on time drives some of the action, the heart of the film is rooted within the family tensions as unspoken emotion ebbs and flows between them, while the malambo offers a pure outlet for the youngster's energy. Castro brings his usual finely calibrated performance to El Corto, as he finds himself embroiled in criminality at the same time as he is trying to extract his son from the same world. By paying attention to family detail early on, Félix's move to thriller territory is underpinned by the relationships he has carefully developed before. The director paints a world that is tricky for youngsters to navigate safely, but ensures that his protagonist keeps his head held high to the last.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2020
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A teenage malambo dancer finds his life complicated by the arrival of his long-incarcerated dad.

Director: Juan Pablo Félix

Writer: Juan Pablo Félix

Starring: Alfredo Castro, Diego Cremonesi, Mónica Lairana, Martin Lopez Lacci, Alfredo Castro, Diego Cremonesi, Mónica Lairana, Martin Lopez Lacci

Year: 2020

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Norway

Festivals:

Black Nights 2020

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