‘Such Is Life in the Tropics’: Film Review

Such Is Life in the Tropics Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Carnaval Cine
Nuanced and lacerating.

Ecuador’s submission to the foreign-language Oscar race is a dark drama that pits landowners against the dispossessed.

Going straight to the paradoxical heart of the matter, Sebastian Cordero’s assured sixth feature opens with serene imagery of pristine nature. Then a shot rings out. The movie is a saga of dirty intrigue involving a disputed piece of land. Accidental deaths and murderous machinations both figure in the gripping chain of events in Such Is Life in the Tropics, whose original Spanish title, Sin muertos no hay carnaval, is taken from a revealing line of dialogue, spoken by one of the haves regarding the expendable have-nots: “You need some death to celebrate a carnival.”

The multistrand story, smartly scripted and well crafted, revolves around desperate squatters, ruthless property owners and the social-climbing manipulator who plays both sides against the middle. The result is a searing portrait of economic disparity in general and Ecuadorean society in particular.

Cordero (CronicasEuropa Report) and his co-writer, Andres Crespo Arosemena, set their exploration of money and injustice in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. On the rural outskirts, the squatters’ settlement Talia occupies land that Emilio Baquerizo (Daniel Adum Gilbert, aptly inscrutable) has inherited and is eager to sell. Promising to help him clear the way for the sale by ridding the land of its hundreds of shanty-dwelling residents is Lisandro Teran (a superb Andres Crespo Arosemena), the squatters’ self-appointed representative. He’s a middle-class attorney with political aspirations — and henchmen.

Teran collects dues from the squatters, making a show of providing lights for their unpaved streets and promising to defend their interests. But he has every intention of selling them down the Guayas River; for the hefty fee on his deal with Emilio, he factors in the cost of payouts for anticipated casualties during the eviction. A growing number of Talia residents, led by the gutsy, impolitic Lucho (Henry Layana), question his authority and integrity, and one of them, Celio Montero (Diego Catano Elizondo), happens to be the boyfriend of Teran’s stepdaughter, Samanta (Antonella Valeriano). After confronting the double-dealer publicly, Celio is targeted for brutal retribution and forced into hiding.

Cordero deftly choreographs the blurred degrees of separation, the notes of deception and injustice rising with Emilio’s trial for the death of a German boy. Part of a bird-watching group of tourists, the child was felled by a stray bullet when Emilio was hunting with his powerful benefactor/in-law/boss, soccer impresario Don Gustavo Miranda (Erando Gonzalez, excellent), and the man’s callow son (Víctor Arauz), a recovering addict. Don Gustavo, who lives to wield his wealth and status, hires Teran as Emilio’s defense attorney despite disdaining him as a crook.

The accused quickly overcomes his discomfort at seeing a woman from the prosecutor’s office (Maya Zapata) socializing with his lawyer. Like all the story’s good team players, she knows the value of silence after Gustavo Jr. falls off the wagon and divulges a detail or two about the hunting incident. It’s evident to everyone, not least the dead boy’s father (Christoph Baumann), that Emilio is taking the fall for one of his hunting buddies. Cordero lets the mystery play out as to which man fired the deadly shot, while with one observer’s simple, unanswered question — Why didn’t the men help the wounded boy? — he quietly underscores a potent theme of the film: the way self-interest is used to justify willful, harmful neglect.

From its industrial edges to its verdant wilds, its high-rise apartments to its makeshift shacks, the city is fully alive in Tonatiuh Martínez’s widescreen cinematography and the production design by Barbara Enríquez. The smooth, pulse-point editing by the director and Jorge Garcia intertwines the alliances and conflicts in a way that’s less concerned with building superficial suspense than with revealing dark doings. It’s a classic setup of predators and their prey, finding expression not just in physical violence but in such transparently poison-tipped come-ons as “Here, buy yourself something pretty.”

Production companies: Carnaval Cine, Salamandra Producciones, Aktis Film Production
Cast: Daniel Adum Gilbert, Víctor Arauz, Diego Cataño Elizondo, Andrés Crespo Arosemena, Erando Gonzalez, Antonella Valeriano, María Josefina Viteri, Maya Zapata, Christoph Baumann, Maria Mercedes Pacheco, Henry Layana, Andrea Casierra, Raquel Rodriguez
Director: Sebastian Cordero
Screenwriters: Andres Crespo Arosemena, Sebastian Cordero
Producers: Sebastian Cordero, Bertha Navarro, Arturo Yepez Z.
Executive producers: Johnny Czarninski, Patricio Rodríguez, Torsten Boennhoff
Director of photography: Tonatiuh Martínez
Production designer: Barbara Enríquez
Costume designer: Mayra Juárez
Editors: Jorge García, Sebastian Cordero
Composers: Tono Cepeda, Andres Sánchez Maher, Leonardo Heiblum
Casting: Priscilla Aguirre, Andres Crespo Arosemena

Not rated, 100 minutes