'La familia': Film Review | Cannes 2017

La Familia - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Lean and mean.

Gustavo Rondon Cordova's debut feature is reportedly the first film from Venezuela to ever be part of the Cannes Critics' Week competition.

A father and his 12-year-old kid from the outskirts of Caracas have to run after the son knifes down a peer from a potentially vengeful family in the slums in La familia, a lean and mean debut from Venezuelan writer-director Gustavo Rondon Cordova that clocks in at a fleet 82 minutes. Over the course of just a couple of days, Cordova follows the child protagonist as he’s introduced to the life of his single father, who is trying to hold down several jobs and doing a little illegal hustle on the side just so he can put food on the table for his kid.

Though neither is really the talkative type, Cordova and his leads manage to convey a wealth of information between the lines as the wayward son gets his first real peek at some of the responsibilities that come with adult life. Often quick on its feet and energetic rather than melodramatic or inward-looking, this is a promising debut that not only suggests Cordova is a name to watch but that also, after Venezuela’s Golden Lion win for Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar, the country could be breeding a filmmaking generation that finds inspiration in the tough everyday lives of the masses.

In the opening moments of La familia, Pedro (intense newcomer Reggie Reyes), is but one of a group of loud 12-year-olds that are into roughhousing, calling each other names, talking about drugs and sex as if they were experts — and maybe some of them are — and wielding weapons, or at least toy versions of the same made out of wood and then covered in black paint. Cordova doesn’t comment on the behavior of the kids or their environment but his strictly observational approach speaks volumes nonetheless. These are children from rough neighborhoods, whose circumstances are forcing them to grow up fast and who try to copy what they see as adult behavior in the hope of being taken as seriously as they are. Being kids, however, there’s a certain naiveté to their worldview and a level of petulance and stubbornness in how they try to negotiate and engage with adults that betrays that they do not yet fully understand the complexity of the world of grown-ups and how it operates.

Normally, children slowly grow into a better, more mature understanding of the world as they grow from adolescence into adulthood. But this is not the case for Pedro, who stabs a boy after a brawl about a mobile phone that will probably leave the child dead or at least severely injured. Pedro’s father, Andres (Giovanni Garcia), in his mid-thirties, understands the gravity of the situation and realizes that the family and friends of the boy, from a shantytown, will almost certainly want to vindicate the boy’s injuries or death, so he tells Pedro to quickly pack a few things and they immediately leave for downtown, where Andres works renovating a bourgeois home during the day.

In scene after scene, Cordova and cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga, shooting in loose, hand-held smears, simply observe the characters’ behavior and faces. Pedro initially tells his dad he lets people walk all over him, but he then doesn’t really notice how his old man negotiates a pay raise when his tasks and the deadline are redefined. But over the course of the days spent together, they get to know each other better as they are now forced to spend all their time together, with Pedro accompanying his father in the evening to another job as a waiter at a fancy party. Like in the new home they are renovating, there’s no direct evidence that Pedro has never moved in these circles or been in these areas of the city but there are smaller details that help suggest he’s a fish out of water, both fascinated by his new surroundings and with an ever-increasing desire to go home to what he knows.

The director, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everything resolutely in the present, which gives La familia its sense of urgency, but which also means there’s practically no backstory for the characters. As a single father, Andres has probably left Pedro to his own devices a lot while he was out earning money or looking for jobs, and there’s a sense Pedro often stayed at a friend’s house in the ‘hood. Though the film’s relatively light on plot, this seemingly innocent scrap of information will play a key role later on, with Cordova orchestrating Pedro’s final fall from innocence with a narrative simplicity that belies its emotional impact on the viewer.

This kind of film wouldn’t stand a chance if the actors weren’t believable but Garcia (who starred in El Amparo, which Cordova edited) and non-professional Reyes are both understated but utterly authentic. Reyes displays the kind of cockiness and attitude that mask an inner vulnerability that a hard life has taught him to hide, while Garcia is a kind-hearted but also very realistic man who knows that life in Caracas isn’t easy for someone like him and his son. Their growing complicity and comprehension is beautiful to behold, with a silent moment after an unexpected dip in a swimming pool especially impressive. Cordova’s film is filled with small snippets like that, in which the oft-pedestrian dialogue takes a backseat to the reality of the moment.

Production companies: La Pandilla, Cine Cercano, Factor RH, Avila Films, DHF
Cast: Giovanny Garcia, Reggie Reyes
Writer-Director: Gustavo Rondon Cordova
Producers: Natalia Machado Fuenmayor, Marianela Illas, Ruben Sierra Salles, Rodolfo Cova, Gustavo Rondon Cordova
Director of photography: Luis Armando Arteaga
Production designer: Matias Tikas
Editors: Andrea Chignoli, Cristina Carrasco, Gustavo Rondon Cordova
Music: Alejandro Zavala
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

In Spanish
No rating, 82 minutes