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CANNES – It sometimes feels like Latin American cinema has monopolized dramas about social and economic injustice for decades, right back to the so-called pornomiseria (“misery porn”) boom of the 1970s. Showing in the Critics Week section in Cannes, the French-Colombian drama Gente de Bien is the latest addition to this evergreen subgenre. The title has a double meaning, loosely translated both as “good people” and “rich people.”
Though born in Colombia, the young writer-director Franco Lolli studied film-making in Paris. After screening his short Rodri at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2012, he developed Gente de Bien with support from French producers and a Cannes writing residency. The end result is a quietly absorbing and well-observed debut feature, tailor-made for festivals and South American screen specialists, but lacking the thematic originality or knockout narrative punch needed to secure a big theatrical breakout.
The story’s emotional center is Eric (Bryan Santamaria), a 10-year-old boy sent to live with his impoverished handyman father (Carlos Fernando Perez) in a grungy quarter of downtown Bogota. One of his more well-heeled clients is Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero), a kindly matriarch who takes pity on both Eric and his father, inviting them to stay at her family’s luxurious country villa over the Christmas holiday when they would otherwise face eviction. But tensions soon begin to crackle between the rich owners and their poor guests, exposing the gap between festive pieties about Christian charity and the starker realities of the class structure.
Santamaria is Lolli’s secret weapon, giving a superbly naturalistic performance as an innocent young soul slowly waking up to social and economic injustice. His emoting never feels forced or studied, while his conversations with the other child actors have the freewheeling, random texture of observational documentary. The brief scene in which he rides into town on horseback, set to a flamenco arrangement of My Way, evokes some of the magical, infinite optimism of childhood. A few more such uplifting touches would have been welcome.
Of course, Gente de Bien is hardly breaking new ground in its neo-realist depiction of poverty and hardship: Eric and his father have countless cinematic ancestors, most obviously the protagonists in De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. But Lolli’s debut is still an engrossing, sensitive and admirably nuanced social drama.
Aside from a heavy-handed subplot about a terminally ill dog, Lolli thankfully keeps preachy melodrama to a minimum. Crucially, he also displays a commendable reluctance to caricature his protagonists as one-dimensional victims or villains. Eric’s father is socially marginalized, yet also proud and moody. Maria Isabel is privileged and entitled, but unfailingly generous. Both ultimately discover the harsh truth of Oscar Wilde‘s dictum that no good deed goes unpunished.
Production companies: Geko Films, Evidencia Films
Cast: Brayan Santamaria, Carlos Fernando Perez, Alejandra Borrero
Director: Franco Lolli
Screenwriters: Franco Lolli, Catherine Paillé
Producer: Gregoire Debailly
Cinematographer: Oscar Duran
Editors: Nicolas Desmaison, Julie Duclaux
Sales company: Versatile, Paris
No rating, 86 minutes
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