“GATOS VIEJOS” AND “MISS BALA” – Two Spanish-language films you should take note of

In “Gatos Viejos” (“Old Cats”) Isidora (Bélgica Castro) lives out her retirement days with her compagnon Enrique and the two cats of the film’s title. Their tidy world is devastated when Isadora’s daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón) shows up. The young woman is an abrasive jumble of contradictions who’s been dragging resentments around awhile. She brought back a sack filled with homemade, organic soaps (a favorite paraphernalia among goddamned hippies) hoping to attract parental subsidies to open a boutique and sell the stuff.

Bélgica Castro, who’s the grande dame of Chilean theatre actors (and who at 90 should probably not be acting anymore) has appeared in several movies by Raul Ruiz, taught theatre history at university and recently was awarded the best actor award at Montreal’s Latin-American film festival. Her performance of a character who slides into disease-induced oblivion carries “Cats” by itself.

Pedro Peirano (his “The Maid” was well received when it came out a couple years ago), as tribute to Castro, came up with a script that’s close to the reality of her life. “Cats” was filmed in Castro’s actual apartment, located in the center of Santiago and the man playing her compagnon (Alejandro Sieveking) plays that role in real life, too.

Their apartment is just like what you would imagine the home of old people who’ve seen the world to be: neat, with shelves groaning under the weight of books.There’s a figurine collection, and a handsome wooden horse that could’ve been taken out of a antique merry-go-round. A daily ritual of medication-taking—lots of it—stressing the evils of too much rich Chilean cuisine, perhaps? Or other annoyances like a cantankerous daughter?

But bigger issues are at stake beside Rosario’s posturing. Isadora is affected by dementia: it’s a recent development. Every once in a while she “checks out,” only to gain her wits back and find that the sink she was washing her clothes in is overflowing or that she’s entered a public fountain and is drenched in water. Peirano builds up a kind of hair-raising suspense by playing a rising rumble whenever Isadora switches off. It sounds like an airplane doing a fly-by in slow-motion and is very effective in conveying the terror she experiences as she loses control.

The old woman has a bad hip, too, and when the elevator breaks down she’s unable to go down the eight floors or so that separate her from the outside world. Her own world just got smaller. When you retire, a few salient things are taken away from you: a sense of purpose, self-worth. But when you’re reduced to fifty squared feet of living space, that’s devastating.

Claudia Celedón and Catalina Saavedra (she plays Rosario’s butch girlfriend) both appeared in Peirano’s previous film “The Maid.” The complicity between actors and filmmaker and a narrative which holds both drama and–as you’ll find out–hope make “Old Cats” incredibly compelling. In fact, this is one of the most rewarding films I’ve seen all year.

Bélgica Castro and Claudia Celedón

Isadora (Bélgica Castro) and her daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón)

“Miss Bala” will surprise you. You’ve been hearing about Mexico’s druglords on the 10 o’clock news, with your imagination doing the rest: cowboy boots-wearing honchos riding their Humvees from castle to mansion in Mexico’s lowland, ducking a bullet here, officiating a beheading there, living off the fat of the land. As we discover in “Miss Bala,” which is based on a true story, the part about boots and beheadings are true; the rest is glorification.

Once Laura and her friend Uzu decide to participate in the Miss Baja California (the Mexican state whose capital city is Tijuana) beauty pageant, they decide to use Uzu’s connections to gangs to increase their chances of getting selected. They meet up with the “narcotrafficantes” (who are mingling with D.E.A. agents) in a nightclub’s V.I.P. lounge when gunfire suddenly breaks out. Laura sees—and is seen by—the rival gang as they execute everyone and then load bodies in the back of a pickup. She manages to escape, but, being without news from her friend, she enlists a police officer who—as a telling illustration of how police is in cahoots with drug lords in Mexico—takes her right to the gang’s leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez). Abusing Laura’s desire to get into the Miss Baja California contest, he plies her with money to pay for a dress and the promise of a pageant win in exchange for a variety of errands, principally to procure his gang valuable ammunition.

Ammunition is Lino’s currency of choice: running out of, and then procuring, bullets from across the border visibly a priority item on a Mexican druglord’s daily shopping list (because ain’t no ammunition shops to be found locally in Mexico). The most important errand Laura will handle for Lino, in fact, will be to purchase bullets (thus the film’s title, “Miss Bala,” which means “Miss Bullet” in Spanish)–it will probably cause you some irony to find out that Laura drives to the U.S. to purchase the ammo.

As she is now ducking bullets and running interference, Laura tries to stay alive long enough to absolve herself from any further responsibility to the gang. But all through her ordeal Laura always remains passive, which can be frustrating to watch. In an interview Naranjo said he wanted her passiveness to illustrate Mexican society at large, its apathy in the face of violence.

Naranjo has crafted an elegant and suspenseful thriller which bears the same kind of gravitas as you’d find in an award-winning documentary: it will grip you as much as it will make you shudder. But “Miss Bala” is entirely devoid of hope, so be prepared. As Naranjo would have us believe, there are no good guys in the war on drugs in Mexico. Everyone is bad, everyone is corrupt. And I’m yay closer to believing he’s right.

Screen Shot 2012-05-06 at 2.38.37 PM

Laura (Stephanie Sigman) and Lino (Noe Hernandez)

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