'Imprisoned' ('Presos'): Film Review

Courtesy of Cinetel
Punchy and energetic.

Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission is a taut drama about a young woman who finds that the world outside her comfort zone is a dangerous place to be.

Metaphors which in other cultures have become threadbare through overuse are sometimes granted an unexpected afterlife in some Latin American cinema, and so it is with Imprisoned, a film about -- yes -- a young woman who is incarcerated within her own existence. But luckily. the complaints pretty much stop at the title: this is a taut, well-played thriller with a hefty social critique component that has its flaws but whose energy and performances help make up for its thematic obviousness.

This represents a second stab at Oscar glory for director Esteban Ramirez, Costa Rica’s highest-profile director, after 2004’s overblown Caribe. The much scaled-back Imprisoned is superior, and last weekend the film picked up the Public Prize at the Trieste Festival of Latin American cinema, suggesting crowd-pleasing abilities that could see it find its freedom at further festivals.

Soon to be married to Emmanuel (Daniel Marin), Victoria (Natalia Arias, reprising with Ramirez after 2009’s teen pregnancy drama Gestation, and doing fine work as the gutsy but vulnerable heroine here) teems with cumbia and of dreams which her journey through the film will pretty much extinguish. After her freshness and charm scores her a job at the security firm -- a front, perhaps -- owned by the slickly professional but somewhat dodgy John Jairo (Colombian Freddy Alexander Aguilar) -- Victoria embarks on a telephone relationship with John Jairo’s inmate friend Jason (Leynar Gomez). Jason and John Jairo are buddies, working class and street smart, though Jason has been driven rather pathetically to running credit card scams from jail. His explanation that he’s in there because he ran a light and killed someone is fooling no one except Victoria.

Emmanuel is middle class, and would prefer for Victoria not to work. Victoria is bored by Emmanuel, and by her family -- sis Priscila (Jennifer Sanchez) with whom she argues continually, weak father Joaquin (Fernando Vinocour), and mother Ana (Ligia Sanarria); and Jason’s voice is stirring new feelings inside her. After some serious self-doubt, Victoria heads out with Jason’s Down Syndrome brother Roger (Luis Fernando Alvarez, working hard to escape the feeling that he’s been shoehorned in to bring a little tenderness to proceedings) to see Jason, and an uneasy relationship starts between them in which Jason seems to be using Victoria as a runner, for example to deliver money to his wife and child.

The plot itself is nothing too special, though there’s pleasure in the way the scenes quickly and skillfully pile up as the action shuttles essentially between home and jail. The script’s real skill is in the way it dramatically exploits the dynamics between the members of the household and of the jail, pointing up the multiple parallels which exist between the two closed-off worlds.

The final magnificent shot is the film’s longest, and given it’s very, very bleak. the camera pans slowly across the sneering, desperate and unreservedly macho faces of the prisoners trapped behind the wire, and for a moment they stand, for Victoria and for the viewer, for all men, everywhere. Technically, hand-held camera dominates for that gritty, authentic feel, and it works well at highlighting the claustrophobia of both Victoria’s overcrowded home and the overcrowded jail (Imprisoned was filmed using using a real prison location and real inmates).

This is a pacily-told tale which doesn’t, however, skimp on the details. Time is found also for a little street poetry: the opening shot of a single light on a hillside, slowly panning round to an aerial view of the city, is striking, as is a brief image of prisoners’ drying clothing, hanging out in the wind to dry.

At moments like this Ramirez is showing the documentarian’s eye for detail. And he was inspired to make Imprisoned by The Inmates, a classic of Costa Rican documentary shiot by his his father Victor in 1973. Clips of it run over the final credits and their raw power and depth works somewhat against what we have just seen: nothing here can match the seen-it-all complaint of the inmate in the documentary who brilliantly nails it by badly stating “I am locked up in a school of delinquency”. It’s the kind of complex life lesson which Imprisoned, with its too-often-preached messages that women are prisoners, and that prisoners are human beings, finally fails to deliver.

Production company: Cinetel, Proyeccion Films
Cast: Natalia Arias, Leynar Gomez, Daniel Marin, Fredy Alexander Aguilar, Jennifer Sanchez, Fernando Vinocour, Ligia Sanarria, Grettel Cedeno
Director: Esteban Ramirez
Screenwriters: Esteban Ramirez, Walter Fernandez
Producers: Esteban Ramirez, Amaya Izquierdo, Juan Pablo Solano Vergara, Simon Beltran Echeverri, Diego F. Bustamante
Director of photography: Paulo Soto
Production designer: Carolina Lett
Editor: Alberto Ponce
Composer: Bernal Villegas
Casting Director: Laura Montero
Sales: Cinetel

No rating, 97 minutes