Un Varon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Un Varon
"Director Fabian Hernández, making his feature début, demonstrates a fondness for close-ups and keeps the narrative close to Carlos as well." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

As a rule, December sees three kinds of film hitting the market: blockbusters, awards contender and Christmas films. Un Varón is Colobmia’s official submission to the 2024 Oscars, but it also falls into the latter category. That is, its young protagonist places a great deal of value on Christmas Day because that’s the one day of the year, when, over the phone, he gets to talk to his mother.

We never learn exactly when his mother went to jail, but it was far too early for Carlos (Dilan Felipe Ramírez Espitia). He’s only 16 now, still a child in many ways, with only his older sister, Nicole (Juanita Corrillo Ortiz) to look after him. Nicole can’t be there all the time because she’s busy with sex work, trying to support them both. Staying in a city homeless shelter, Carlos is surrounded by violence. The only way for him to stay safe is to be part of a gang, and that requires him to present himself in what the gangs consider to be an appropriately masculine way, regardless of his age or personality.

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Director Fabian Hernández, making his feature début, demonstrates a fondness for close-ups and keeps the narrative close to Carlos as well, showing us the world very much as he encounters it, leaving us to figure out the rest. An opening scene in which men discuss what it takes to survive as a man in Colombia sets the stage, and everything else spirals from there. There is no real sense of mystery, no complex plot twists. Character is everything. Espitia is a non-professional who has never acted before, but he delivers a searingly emotional performance which is quite sufficient to hold audience attention.

There are some truly chilling scenes. Abandoned by his gang at a critical moment, Carlos, who routinely worries about his sister’s safety, finds himself in the hands of traffickers who don’t view him very differently from her. Later, it is made clear that he won’t be welcomed back into the gang unless he repairs this perceived stain on its honour by getting revenge. This supposed demonstration of power is, of course, wholly rooted in powerlessness. “I’d rather not exist,” he tells his mother when they finally speak, and she tells him to look after his sister.

Only in a mirror does he find a sympathetic glance. An experiment with lipstick lets him briefly, privately explore a differently gendered space, but is it about a desire to be feminine or simply a desire to escape, even briefly, from the crushing experience of being male? All the same, we see him learning the ropes. We see him acquiring the skills which might one day make him feared – and with them the perpetuation of a brutal cycle. Yet within the rituals of youthful rebellion, he might find a way to assert himself for real.

Complicating Hernández’s film is the inescapable awareness that every other male character we meet has been through something similar. There is a sense of tragedy about even the most monstrous of them. We are allowed no relief. The grey walls of the city close around us everywhere. grey clouds hang overhead. Even the ground is concrete and dust, with barely so much as a weed growing. The result could easily have been a lifeless film, but the director knows exactly what he’s doing, and Espitia gives it soul.

Reviewed on: 05 Dec 2023
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Un Varon packshot
Carlos lives in a youth shelter in Bogota. Its Christmas and Carlos longs to spend the day with his mother and sister, who are lost in the spiral of urban violence. As he leaves the shelter, Carlos is confronted with the rigor of the streets in his neighborhood, where the law of the strongest, the alpha 'macho', rules. As he seeks for a family reunion, Carlos must show he can be one of them.

Director: Fabian Hernández

Writer: Fabian Hernández

Year: 2022

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: Colombia


Cannes 2022
SSFF 2022

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