Karen Cries on the Bus: Berlin Review

Drab, by-the-numbers tale of a middle-class Colombian housewife’s belated quest for independence.

Gabriel Rojas Vera offers little freshness as a director, but whenever María Angélica Sánchez appears onscreen, the film picks up.

BERLIN -- His heroine may be reading A Doll’s House, but that’s about as close as Colombian writer/director Gabriel Rojas Vera will ever get to Ibsen if his feature debut Karen Cries on the Bus is any guide. A predictable journey-of-discovery for a middle-class Bogota woman in her 30s, who experiences the tougher side of life after walking out on her loveless marriage, it might pad out less-discerning festivals or those highlighting feminist issues. Spanish-language TV channels could perhaps take a look, but commercial prospects are as dim as Manuel Castañeda’s cinematography — which makes even sunny Bogota exterior feel off-puttingly dingy.

This is likely a deliberate ploy intended to transport us into the glum world view of Karen (Ángela Carrizosa Aparicio), whom we first encounter — as the title so unappetizingly promises — sobbing on public transport. She’s ditched her slimy but evidently quite well-off husband Mario, deciding (quite reasonably) that she no longer needs a man in her life. “I need to be alone — I need to be my own person,” she wails. Mario’s blunt response: “You can do absolutely nothing.”
Unfortunately, much of what follows bears out Mario’s cruel condemnation, as Karen proves near-incapable of fending for herself in the big bad city. In double-quick time she’s reduced to snatching apples from fruit-stalls, begging for change at bus-stations (latest in the seemingly endless cinematic line of bogus pan-handlers), shoplifting (ineptly) and relying on the kindness of strangers. The biggest help comes from her goodtime girl neighbor, hairdresser Patricia (María Angélica Sánchez), who takes the older woman in hand (”don’t be afraid of living life and taking risks, like I do”) and even gives her a make-over and more flattering coiffure.
Whenever Patricia appears, Karen Cries on the Bus (Karen llora en un bus, sometimes translated as Karen Cries in a Bus) picks up a gear. Indeed, she proves a much more engaging, empathetic and interesting character — her brassy exterior hides a tender secret or two — than the self-centered, mousy Karen, and it’s no reflection on the actresses concerned that Rojas Vera should perhaps have considered giving the pair more equal prominence, or even relegating Karen to a secondary role.
As that heavy-handed Ibsen reference suggests, she does manage to get back on track — kind-hearted fate presenting her with the tricky (but cozy) dilemma of taking an ideal first job in a bookstore, or running off to Argentina with a sensitive, handsome and wealthy playwright. But even then, as a thuddingly ironic coda indicates, she’s barely less selfish than she was before. Content to retread very familiar turf with his screenplay, Rojas Vera offers even less freshness or surprises as a director, dressing up third-rate material with modish but superfluous grittiness courtesy of hand-held digital cameras. His sole flash of genuine inspiration comes when Karen goes on a date to a guitar bar, where the strumming singer’s romantic lamentations are amusingly “interpreted” by a scene-stealing paper animal-puppet.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Caja Negra, Schweizen Media Group
Cast: Ángela Carrizosa Aparicio, María Angélica Sánchez, Juan Manuel Díaz
Director: Gabriel Rojas Vera
Screenwriter: Gabriel Rojas Vera
Producer: Alejandro Prieto
Director of photography: Manuel Castañeda 
Production designer: Ramses Benjumea
Music: Rafael Escandón
Costume designer: Barbara Barbosa Sanchez
Editor: Carlos Fernando Cordero
Sales: m-appeal, Berlin
No rating, 98 minutes
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