The AFI theater here in the DC area is running its 21st annual Latin American Film Festival this month and I’m el Gruñon de Oro en la escena.

Why? Partly because all of the news out of Venice, Toronto, and Telluride has me film fest-happy and a Toronto trip aborted at the last minute left a hole in my heart. Partly because some of these films will have Oscar aspirations in the Foreign Language category. But also because these little film festivals pull some obscure titles. When I sit down with a film festival catalogue I find guidance on what films are worthwhile from some far-flung internet sites. Hopefully I can turn some random Googlers onto a hidden gem, or steer them away from an elusive stinker.

Optical Illusions (Ilusiones ópticas), Chile, dir: Cristián Jiménez

In a southern Chilean city, six people look for meaning in their lives through science, consumerism, and capitalism. One struggles when he loses his job. Another wants to save up for breast enhancement surgery. A third chases a married woman he catches shoplifting at his job as a mall security job. Another formerly-blind man has his sight restored with a new surgical procedure only to discover he might have preferred staying blind.

It’s meant to be a humorous, wry look at modern life. I didn’t really think it went anywhere. Everyone’s lives intersect, but not in interesting ways. Each character’s story is superficially interesting. A man navigating the ridiculousness of his company’s outplacement phase where he sits in a room all day until he can find a new job is an interesting situation. It just doesn’t really develop. There’s not much in the way of conflict or characters that learn or change. By the time several of the characters end up in the hospital I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to come away with.

It also feels very, very long for its 105 minute run time. Unfortunately, this is one to skip.

The Widows of Thursdays (Las viudas de los jueves), Argentina, dir: Marcelo Piñeiro

I’ll often call something “melodramatic” and mean it pejoratively. But here is a film that’s melodramatic and delightfully so. It’s not overly dramatic, but it revels in its domestic drama without turning over-the-top.

The setting is an upscale gated community near Buenos Aires in the lead up to Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse. The four main families have the full-range of suburban problems: job insecurity, marital strife, unruly children, not to mention some darker troubles. But they also exhibit a lot of love and self-confidence (and self-awareness) so they are not caricatures or soap opera characters.

Three of the men are found dead in a swimming pool and the film uses flashbacks to tell of the time leading up to their demise. I found it very effective as the film is not about how they die but why. It’s an engrossing look at a certain type of community at a certain point in time. The ending didn’t do much for me, but the journey is terribly entertaining and enjoyably – yes – melodramatic that I didn’t mind.

Note: the AFI has it translated as The Widows of Thursdays but the film itself translates the title as The Thursday Widows, which makes more sense and just plain sounds better. Maybe the latter title will be used in the future. Or, Thursday Night Widows, as per some sources. Or Thursday’s Widows.

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