'Alias Maria': Cannes Review

A pregnant guerrilla goes through the motions

The second feature from Colombian director Jose Luis Rugeles stars Karen Torres as a pregnant, 13-year-old guerrilla who needs to look after someone else's baby in the jungle

It’s hard out there for a pregnant guerrilla fighter, let alone one that’s just 13 years old, like the protagonist -- heroine doesn't seem quite the right word -- of Alias Maria. This second feature from Colombian director Jose Luis Rugeles (Garcia) bows in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival and its unusual angle on the ongoing war in Colombia is certainly worthy of attention. But the filmmaker’s tendency to pare back his narrative to its barest essentials makes it very hard to identify with anyone, with all of the characters despondent archetypes rather than real people. Other festivals will want to take a look though it’s unlikely this’ll have much of a theatrical career beyond Spanish-speaking territories.

Maria (Karen Torres) is part of a small guerrilla unit moving through the Colombian forests. She’s given the mission to bring the secret newborn from one of the commanders out of their potential war-zone and into safety. What the higher-ups don’t know is that Maria is some four months pregnant herself from her sort-of boyfriend and fellow soldier, Mauricio (Carlos Clavijo), the kind of macho who’s nice to his girl as long as she puts out.

Also accompanying her on the perilous trek through the dense forest besides Mauricio are young but already very experienced Afro-Colombian fighter Byron (Anderson Gomez) and preteen boy Yuldor (Erik Ruiz), who’s expected to participate in combat just like everyone else though he’s barely half the height of an adult. When Mauricio notices it’s hard for Maria to handle both her enormous backpack and the baby at the same time -- which needs careful looking after because if it cries, it might give away the soldiers’ position -- he simply adds her backpack to Yuldor’s already enormous load. The message is clear: Either you're a soldier, or you're not, a lesson that the young boy will have to be harshly reminded of again and again.

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Sergio Ivan Castano’s mobile camera sticks very closely to Maria from the start, searching her innocent face for indications of what she might be thinking, since she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. But since Torres, like all the others a non-professional actress, simply looks listless and miserable for most of the time, this isn’t of much help. Clearly, Maria is indeed having a miserable experience, but it’s hard to stick with a character that remains such a cipher, with no backstory or apparent feelings beyond what can be inferred from her actions. It isn’t even clear what she really thinks of having to care for a baby in an extremely hostile environment -- does she have a maternal or simply a survival instinct? -- and that's without taking into account that she's trying to hide from everyone that she’s pregnant herself (so she can avoid the obligatory abortion), one of the few things in Diego Vivanco’s screenplay that feels at least somewhat original.

In general, Rugeles and Vivanco’s m.o. comes down to removing practically all references to not only personal lives -- which these extremely young guerrillas don’t really have anyway, the occasional bout of sex between fighters notwithstanding -- but also private thoughts or emotions. The “cause” does indeed seem to be their only raison d’etre, which might be lifelike but doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. Only the horrendous outside circumstances are documented, though often in throwaway moments, such as when a doctor looking after women uses the idea that “we can’t fill the jungle with babies” as a justification for forced abortions.    

Shot in washed out greens and browns, Rugeles at least manages to suggest that Colombia’s rainforest isn’t a lush tropical paradise but instead a monotonous and often harsh environment, especially for children -- which all these soldiers are -- and babies. A brief shot of the kind of carnage paramilitary forces are up to goes a long way to explain why these soldiers might have signed up early, though here too, there’s no way of telling whether they were born or forced into it or joined off their own accord.

Though Camilo Sanabria’s score is heterogeneous, starting off with strings and percussion and ending with a flurry of piano melodies, with a lot of drone-like humming in between, it doesn’t really suggest much about the evolving inner lives of the characters either.

Production companies: Rhayuela Cine, Sudestada Cine, Axxon Films

Cast: Karen Torres, Erik Ruiz, Anderson Gomez, Carlos Clavijo, Lola Lagos

Director: Jose Luis Rugeles

Screenplay: Diego Vivanco

Producer: Federico Duran

Director of photography: Sergio Ivan Castano

Production designer: Oscar Navarro

Editor: Delfina Castignino

Music: Camilo Sanabria

Sales: Urban Distribution

No rating, 92 minutes