The blog has been ignored for the last month as most of us traipsed around Europe. But now we’re back and we’re kicking off with some film festival coverage! No, not Telluride or Toronto or New York or Venice, but…

Just like last year, I’m on the scene for the 22nd annual AFI Latin American Film Festival at the AFI Silver theater here in the DC area. These little local festivals are great for sampling some new films outside the usual ones that get commercial releases in the US. My choices don’t always work out, but I’ve found some terrific films over the years.

Many of these films you’ll never hear from again. But some will receive US releases and others may well factor in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race. I’ve also visited some dark corners of the internet looking for guidance when picking what I want to see out of a film festival catalog. Perhaps I can steer a random Googler with a catalog to her own hometown festival to some winners (or warn her away from the losers).

The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Mexico/Spain, dir: Trisha Ziff

This documentary featured as the opening night selection for the festival. In 2007, a box of negatives from photos taken during the Spanish Civil War was unearthed in Mexico. The film dives into their progeny, leading to discussions of the war, the photographers, and the nature of photography as art and journalism.

The box contains work from Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and Gerda Taro, three photographers who lived among the Republican soldiers and helped pioneer modern war photography. All three eventually lost their lives in war zones. Several very famous photos from the Spanish Civil War came from them.

It turns out the negatives made their way to Mexico on the same route many of the war’s losers did: they crossed into France, where former Republican soldiers waited in concentration camps before a sympathetic Mexican government granted them asylum. The negatives ended up with a Republican general and then buried in his daughter’s closet.

The film switches among several threads. A story of the late stages of the war and the years after it forms a narrative backbone with discussions of the photographs filling in much of the content. While I was watching I couldn’t help but think that the filmmakers were tackling too much. There is the discussion of the photographers’ innovations, their relationships with each other, and the way their work has been viewed as a one block of work instead of by three distinct journalists. There is also the discussion of the discovery: who found the negatives, their journey to exhibition, and whether their appropriate home is in Mexico. And there’s all the coverage of the war in general.

This broad range of topics is necessary because no part on its own is enough for a feature length film. But at least they flow into each other nicely. I do think an interest in the Spanish Civil War or photography would be necessary to enjoy the film. I am interested in the former so I found it sufficiently interesting, though a few of the more technical photographic discussions tried my patience. B.

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora É Outro), Brazil, dir: José Padilha

The first Elite Squad played the DC Film Fest in 2008. I was on a favela – Brazilian slum – film kick at the time after seeing and loving City of God. Not that the kick has necessarily waned since as it’s still strong enough that I went to see the sequel even though I didn’t care for the first. The original followed the travails of a paramilitary branch of the police department that took on tough assignments in Rio’s dangerous slums. The officers find their convictions tested by corrupt cops and moral quandaries. It was meant to be one of those tales where we wonder if the ends justify the police’s ends, but I thought it was too much flash over substance.

The sequel takes several of the original’s main characters and does so much more with them.

Nacimiento, the commander from the first film, has moved up in the world. Now he wears a suit, in charge of part of the state’s security apparatus. He has terrific success pushing the gangs out of many of the city’s favelas. Unfortunately they are replaced by corrupt cops and organized crime. This thrusts us into a world where politicians, cops, and criminals combine to form a pervasive and corrupt system. When Nacimiento realizes what has happened, and its violence hits too close to home, he fights back.

What makes Elite Squad 2 so good is that it starts with terrific action sequences and makes them mean something through its well-developed characters and social conscience. It feels like an intense exposé in the guise of an action film (but don’t worry, I wouldn’t say it ever gets preachy). It’s absolutely engrossing and tugs on the emotions. I left the theater thrilled.

Elite Squad 2 is Brazil’s Best Foreign Language submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. I wonder if sequel aversion will hurt it in this category even though it’s a terrific film, upstages its predecessor, and isn’t reliant on viewers having seen the first. I would be quite excited to see it nominated. It will also receive a US commercial release in November. A.

Of Love and Other Demons (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), Colombia/Cost Rica, dir: Hilda Hidalgo

I probably should have known better on this one. Gabriel García Márquez is a writer I think I enjoy more in concept than in practice. His languid pace projected on a silver screen is a killer.

When Sierva, a teenager in colonial Colombia, is bit by a mad dog, she is sent to a convent to be exorcised, as it was believed at the time that rabid dogs transmitted demonic possession. The young priest assigned to her case begins to think there’s nothing wrong with her, though the long periods of isolation seem to be making her a bit mad. They begin a tentative, very slow, very uninteresting courtship.

Some reviews I read said the slow pace works because there’s so much beautiful imagery on screen. I respectfully beg to differ. The camera finds plenty of little moments to linger over, but they are not beautiful nor interesting enough to make up for the plot. This movie pretty much sapped me of energy for the rest of the day so potent was its lethargy. It doesn’t get much worse than that. D-.