‘Cristo Rey’: Film Review

Courtesy of Les Films de L’Astre
Well-intentioned but deja vu drama that sits uneasily between several genres

This foreign-language Oscar entry is a Caribbean tale of racism and romance

Ambition outweighs execution in Cristo Rey, a Santo Domingo-set racism drama that starts out with real punch and drive before settling down into cliche. Teeming with good intentions and shot through with a freshness which goes some way towards redeeming its flaws, Leticia Tonos’ follow-up to the superior The Natural Daughter, the first Dominican film to be directed by a woman alone, does well to portray the racial tensions of life in this Santo Domingo slum. But despite the heavy intentions promised by its opening, Cristo Rey is only intermittently more than a standard street romance, like a clunky Caribbean version of an early Springsteen song.

Janvier (James Saintil) is one of many Haitian immigrants living illegally in Cristo Rey, a poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo: the film’s analysis of the explicit racism suffered by Haitians at the hands of Dominicans on the island the two countries share is one of the subtler things about it, a racism embodied in the figure of nasty local cop, Mantilla (Jaisen Santana). Janvier’s mother is back in Haiti and as a virtuous son, Janvier’s looking to raise cash to get back to see her. So when local drugs lord El Baca (the physically mighty Leonardo Vasquez) hires him to be a bodyguard for his sister Jocelyn (Akari Endo), Janvier’s all too happy.

Joceyln’s ex Rudy (Yasser Michelen) is naturally not happy about this. And it’s here that the telenovela structure beneath the surface of Cristo Rey starts to become clear. Because Janvier and Rudy, for example, are half-brothers, the sons of Mon (the powerfully charismatic Arturo Lopez) by different women. As the film goes on, it’s the cliches of melodrama which come to the fore, undoing a lot of good work earlier on. Also, it’s not clear why Janvier and Rudy are half brothers, unless the script wants to point out that blood should be thicker than water: something that really doesn’t need to be pointed out.

The characters are often wonderful, but less so the performances from a largely newcomer cast, and Janvier is rather dull. The visuals are vibrant, colorful and rarely suggestive of anything resembling authentic poverty. The excessive use of rap music sounds more like a stylistic visiting card rather than emerging naturally.

Tonally, Cristo Rey fails to cohere, as the script feels more in thrall to teen rebellion movies than it does to the specific details of life.

The opening sequence seems to come from a vibrant, Stamp-style musical, as neighborhood folks pick up anything lying to hand and beat out rhythms. (It is neatly echoed at the end by something far more melancholy.) There’s social realism in some of the sequences shot in these tumbledown, poverty-ridden streets, with the script making at least some effort to tackle issues of anti-Haitian sexism and racism, as in one scene in which Jocelyn thoughtlessly washes a glass from which Janvier has drunk. And there are thriller elements too, as the gorgeously overweight and immobile El Baca issues instructions to his sidekick Pedro Lee (the again very watchable Moises Trinidad.)

But predominant, at least through the film’s second half, is that 50s teen romance element, and it’s this which hobbles the film. Surely there can be no going back for Cristo Rey after Jocelyn has deathlessly whispered to Janvier to “take her with him to the end of the world”.

Production company: Les Films de l’astre, LInea Espiral, Fastforward
Cast: James Saintil, Akari Endo, Yasser Michelen, Arturo Lopez, Leonardo Vasquez, Jaisen Santana, Salvador Perez Martinez, Frank Perozo, Moises Trinidad
Director: Leticia Tonos Paniagua
Screenwriters: Leticia Tonos, Alejandro Andujar
Producer: Sergio Gobbi
Executive producers: Leo Proano, Elisabeth Bocquet
Director of photography: Kika Ungaro
Production designer: Giselle Madera
Costume designer: Ferdinando Erbetti
Editor: Angelica Salvador
Composer: Mayreni Morel
Sales: Les Films de l’astre

No rating, 96 minutes