Madrigal v. Quilligan was, from its outset, the kind of striking David-versus-Goliath story that Hollywood and history books usually love — Erin Brockovich with an East L.A. twist. Yet when Virginia Espino began researching the case in 1994, almost all its details had been lost and forgotten.
In Hollywood and at New York University’s film school, people had told David Riker that no one would want to see a movie shot in Spanish without a single professional actor. But his film of real immigrants dramatizing their stories in their native language — the sweatshop on the silver screen — sold out show after show, prompting the Quad to extend La Ciudad’s run from one week to three months. So many immigrants arrived with their entire families that the theater waived its policy of refusing admittance to children under 10.
It’s no secret that Lisandro Alonso is emerging as one of Latin America’s great directors, but it wasn’t until the Harvard Film Archives hosted a screening of his films this weekend that I got a chance to learn what the fuss is about. Let me begin by saying: Lisandro Alonso deserves all the praise he gets.
I hope to write more about him and his work once my Nieman fellowship ends in May, so I won’t say too much now. But for those who haven’t yet seen his films, or who are wondering what he said in the post-film Q&As, I thought I’d share a few details.
Tonight, the Archives screened Alonso’s first feature film, “La Libertad,” which debuted in 2001. (Note to film scholars: The Archives just bought a print of it for their collection.) Blending documentary and narrative elements, “La Libertad” follows a fictional day in the life of a real woodcutter (Misael Saavedra) in the Argentine Pampas. Misreal works alone, and most of the scenes consist of him simply chopping wood, driving, or eating. There is no major drama, no overt conflict, and almost no dialog.
So why is the film so compelling? I think that Haden Guest, the director of the Archives, came close to answer when he observed that though Alonso has often been called a minimalist, his “camera work is anything but minimal.” To which, Alonso replied, with characteristic self-deprecation, that he decided to keep the camera moving almost constantly in order to keep his stripped down story from getting “boring.”
In contrast, in Alonso’s latest film “Liverpool,” the camera barely moves during most scenes. Instead each perfectly-composed shot is held so long that you have time to observe all the minutia of each room the characters inhabit. And that’s the point.
“The environment creates the personality of the character,” Alonso remarked after Saturday’s screening. And in a film that resists psychological interpretations, studying the rooms is as close as we can get to divining the main character’s soul. About him (the main character), I will only say: 1) he works in a cargo ship, 2) he likes Stoli vodka, and 3) when he gets leave to visit his mother, the action is not like anything Hollywood films have led us to expect.
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This month, Alonso will be traveling to New York City, Seattle, and Madrid to attend screenings of “Liverpool.” If you live anywhere near these places, try to check it out. Without a doubt, it’s the most striking piece of film I’ve seen all year.