'Los Conductos': Film Review

Courtesy of The PR Factory
A challenging look at social disintegration gets under the skin.

Winner of best first feature honors in Berlin, Camilo Restrepo’s experimental portrait of a young man on the run from a dangerous cult is set in Medellin, Colombia.

Showing how much punch can be put in an unconventional indie, Los Conductos by Colombian director, writer and editor Camilo Restrepo strings together simple visuals to follow a runaway from a religious cult of “the chosen.” Hiding out in empty warehouses, the young man reviews the events that led up to his life in a group from which there is no escape, and his disillusionment with its charismatic but criminal leader. Set in a nocturnal dreamland that is minimalist but expressive, it should attract younger audiences willing to forgo narrative certainty, because never can the viewer be sure what is really going on onscreen. The France-Colombia-Brazil co-prod won best first feature honors in Berlin.

The pic is, above all, a challenge to decipher. Restrepo comes to his first long feature with many award-winning short films under his belt, including La bouche, Cilaos and La impresion de una guerra, and a self-confident aesthetic that jettisons realism in favor of free experimentation with narrative and visual design. The  jumpy, pared-down narrative feels more like theater than conventional storytelling, while the emphasis on pop art-inspired visuals further distances the film from its audience. 

There is also a hidden strain of psychodrama in the movie. It helps to know that actor Luis Felipe Lozano, in the central role of Pinky, is re-enacting scenes from his own life, which may account for his bemused air. He stares into the camera with his bushy hair and black beard, challenging the viewer to guess who he is. Then he roars through the night on his motorbike in the hills above Medellin, down surreally deserted highways and tunnels. The only sure thing is that he’s got a gun.

Restrepo is stingy doling out the facts. We see Pinky snorting coke and heating a small pipe with another substance. In a flashback, he's fired from his job in a T-shirt printing factory for being an addict. Lozano's face and body language, however, win him some empathy as a nice guy, a perception that hardly jibes with his vengeful desire to kill the cult leader.  

Some clarity arrives when his calm, meditative voice explains how he got entangled with a group of lonely souls united in their hatred towards society. While they sheltered in their herd, a leader they called “Father” emerged and taught them to steal, kill and dominate. By chance, Pinky witnesses Father doing something that shocks him so profoundly he vows to leave. What it is, Restrepo merely suggests, in a shot of clowns giving balloons to children. One balloon rises in the air until it gets stuck, the famous motif of child murder in Fritz Lang's M.

More information is given via metaphors. Pinky’s daring exit from the group, for example, is represented by a military marching band, where young boys are regimented in a frightening way. A costumed mascot (Pinky) marches with them, then cunningly falls behind and makes a dash for freedom while they walk on like robots.

A glimpse into Pinky's mind is furnished in a hair-raising story he tells about a family of comics on TV: the father Bolt and his two young sons, Nut and Baby. Nut, who has been addicted since he was 7, is kicked out of the house by his heartless father and ends up living on the streets as the city’s most famous beggar. This, presumably, is an oblique reference to Pinky, who like Nut can never forgive father’s cruelty.

Later, Pinky is joined in his escape through the forest by a man called both Baby and Revenge (Fernando Usuga Higuita, voiced by Restrepo). Together they play at who will kill whom with the gun. On one level, they seem to represent Pinky and Father in their final bloody confrontation; on another level, they are the boys on TV who discovered that deep under the potholes in the roads lies another city, and in one heady scene they joyride together in a toy car on underground roads. Melting into a cascade of symbols and parables, the last part of the film is hardly intelligible. The enigmatic ending quotes poet Gonzalo Arango on the moral disintegration of society, offering a key to interpretation: “When will Colombia stop killing her sons and make their lives meaningful again?”

Daring tech credits include Guillaume Mazloum’s black-on-black lighting, in which people and objects emerge from darkness as if in a dream, and Arthur B. Gillette’s often-startling music score. 

Production companies: 5 a 7 films, Mutokino, Montanero Cine, If You Hold a Stone
Cast: Luis Felipe Lozano, Fernando Usuga Higuita
Director-screenwriter-editor: Camilo Restrepo
Producers: Helen Olive, Martin Bertier, Felipe Guerrero
Co-producers: Simon Velez, Gustavo Beck, Andre Mielnik
Director of photography: Guillaume Mazloum
Music: Arthur B. Gillette
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Encounters)
World sales: Best Friend Forever

74 minutes