‘El Amparo’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

San Sebastian Film Festival
Grim and gritty.

A tragic 1988 event on the Venezuela-Colombia border is the focus of Rober Calzadilla’s drama, which plays in San Sebastian and opened the AFI Latin Film Festival.

“Everything that starts well here always ends badly,” complains one character in El Amparo, and that pretty much nails it. An earthily told tale of injustice about a 30-year old tragedy that decimated a Venezuelan pueblo, Roberto Calzadilla’s debut feature, clearly the product of years of reflection on the subject, is a taut drama that smartly and wisely sidesteps the potential pitfalls of historical recreation. In short, it feels compellingly true. But that authenticity comes at the cost of certain literalness of approach. Further festival appearances look likely, but it’s questionable whether El Amparo is adding enough to the David vs Goliath myth to generate interest beyond Spanish-speaking territories.

The film is based on a play by Calzadilla and scriptwriter Karin Valecillos. One morning in October, 1988 a group of fourteen fishermen leave the titular village of El Amparo (ironically, the word means ‘shelter in Spanish’), on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, to go fishing. The early scenes set efficiently set this up, focusing on henpecked Pinilla (Vicente Quintero) and rum-loving Chumba (Giovanny Garcia) and their respective partners Rubita (Rosanna Fernandez) and Yajaira (Samantha Castillo) whilst sketching out, in one of the film’s triumphs, a wonderful portrait of this vibrant, impoverished riverside community, one in which the men eke out a precarious living between visits to the bar, and where it’s the efforts of the women which basically keep things running.

Early the next morning, local police chief Mendieta (Vicente Pena) receives a visit telling him there has been a shooting. Chumba and Pinilla return to El Amparo, but the other twelve fishermen are dead: their version (and the script fully subscribes to it, as, years later, did the Venezuelan authorities) is that they were attacked by the Venezuelan military. It transpires that the men have been assumed to be guerrillas, intending to carry out an attack on an oil refinery.

The unforgettable scenes in which it becomes clear to the women of El Amparo that their husbands, sons and brothers have been massacred have a real emotional potency as D.P. Michell Rivas walks among them, recording their grief in documentary close-up. After that, the film becomes a careful record of the face-off between the town and the authorities, as the emotionally shattered Chumba and Pinilla, together with the surprisingly moral Mendieta (a rare example of a positive portrayal of a lawmaker in Latin American film) are visited by various military and political deal-makers, offering them false confessions and money. Inevitably, the press. Effectively, the authorities start to divide the pueblo against itself, and families against themselves. El Amparo is broken.

The big question, handled by scriptwriter Karin Valecillos and Calzedilla with admirable even-handedness, is the old one of who controls the truth, and the confused and frightened Arias and Pinilla, locked up for most of the duration in a prison cell, have to face the fact that poor fishermen never will. (In real life, the two men, entirely innocent, had to spent time in exile in Mexico and are still fighting to have their case heard in the civil courts in Venezuela -- which ain’t going to happen any time soon.)

The film’s biggest scene -- the massacre itself -- is there only as a big, looming ellipsis. Not a single shot is fired in the movie, and nobody is seen to die. Though the temptation to pop in a couple of slow-motion flashbacks must have been strong, that was the right artistic choice, suggesting as it does that the truth is often just a big hole which powerful people can fill with whatever they want.

Also on the plus side, this is the kind of story of injustice that always needs telling and which can easily be made to stand for similar tales of injustice elsewhere. Calzedilla has eked fine performances from his leading actors, while the script shirks the easy divisions between good and bad, refusing for example to make heroes out of anyone.

But this faithfulness to the historical events also makes El Amparo dramatically a little flat: there’s a certain deja vu inevitability about how events unfold, and although there are several scenes of quiet tension -- the one, for example, in which Arias and Pinilla refuse to sign what would have been tantamount to a confession -- the feeling remains that there is a simmering dramatic potential in this particular story which has remained untapped.

Production companies: Tumbarrancho Films, Peliculas Prescindibles, Caja Negra
Cast: Vicente Quintero, Giovanny García, Vicente Peña, Samantha Castillo, Rossana Hernandez, Tatiana Mabo
Director: Rober Calzadilla
Screenwriter: Karin Valecillos
Producers: Marianela Illas
Executive producers: Ruben Sierra Salles, Alejandro Prieto
Director of photography: Michell Rivas
Production designer: Matias Tikas
Costume designer: Marisela Marin
Editors: Gustavo Rondón Cordova, Mariana Rodríguez
Composer: Andres Level
Casting: TR Casting
Sales: FiGa Films
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Latin Horizons)

No rating, 99 minutes