Manos sucias: Cartagena Review

Manos Sucias Still - H 2014
Heart-Headed Productions
A tale of an against-all-odds boat journey which excitingly but unsubtly fuses the hard-hitting, the compassionate and the thought-provoking.

US-Colombia co-produced action drama about life at the bottom end of the narco trafficking chain. Spike Lee exec produces.

For many, life in Buenaventura in western Colombia is shot through with violence, and it's that violence which is the focus of Manos sucias, a punchy, atmospheric drama about a river trip by two young men carrying a dangerous cargo, which is a rare combination of straight-up action and moral sensitivity. Though not always successfully, Polish-American director Josef Kubota Wladyka bravely seeks to circumvent the cliches beloved of narco movies in favour of a nuanced character-based approach, giving Manos a dual part-actioner, part-social crit appeal that could lead to pickups in Latin American territories and on the festival circuit. Manos played well in Cartagena and will be in Tribeca.

Brooding, unsmiling Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) is a 30-something fisherman from Buenaventura whose life has been marked by tragedy: abandoned by his wife, his young son has been killed by the paramilitaries. Jacobo is saving for an escape to Bogota to start a new life. 19 year-old Delio (Cristian Advincula) is cheerfulness personified. Married with a baby son, a big payday would make his winsome, permanent smile even wider.

The pair come together via a job offer -- transporting a narco torpedo by boat on Colombia's Pacific coastline to Panama. (A "narco torpedo" is a torpedo-shaped container, full of drugs, designed to stay underwater as it's being pulled along by boat.) They are accompanied at first by the unpleasant, racist Miguel (Hadder Blandon): his racism is clear from the fact that he can't bear that Delio's fave soccer player of all time is the black Braziian Pele (soccer conversations are much to the fore) rather than the white Zico.

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But when some local kids locate the torpedo after a night on land and Miguel shoots one of them dead, Jacobo in turn shoots Miguel -- luckily, he's not a great loss to anyone, not even, apparently, his boss -- meaning that Jacobo and Delio must continue the job alone.

One of the script's neater twists has Jacobo's killing of Miguel echoed later, under far more explosive circumstances, in a superbly played moment which focuses most of the film's moral themes into a few seconds of memorable close-up.

There are multiple dangers on such a trip, among them the ever-threatening paramiltiaries and people from other villages -- people indeed much like Jacobo and Delio -- stealing the precious cargo. In between the moments of tension, Jacobo and Delio get to know one another better, slipping into a somewhat schematic father/son relationship  which is however neatly upended when Jacobo breaks down at the memory of his dead son, for whom Delio has become a surrogate through the journey.

As Jacobo, Martinez drips charisma -- a strong, silent type, old before his time, whose inner life is nonetheless churning. Delio is everything that Jacobo is not - open, and spontaneously joyous, he is ideally positioned to learn some tough life lessons, and it's when the darkness is starting to show that the debutante Advincula really gets the chance to show his acting chops. Both roles, incidentally, are extremely demanding on the physical side.

Much of the value of Manos sucias is in its authenticity. The language , for example, is authentic Buenaventura dialect, painstakingly transcribed from Spanish via a first version in English, and could be baffling even to Spanish speakers. And if the narco torpedo comes across as an unlikely method of transportation, then the motorcyle-powered train carts that run up and down the abandoned railway lines between villages are even more surreal: they'd be comically absurd if the circumstances were not so tragic.

On-location shooting by a primarily Colombian crew was no doubt complex, but worth it for the feel for the real that the film is always aiming at, as revealed in the textures, colors and general atmospherics of impoverished lives on Colombia's Pacific coastline. D.p. (and co-writer) Alan Blanco generally shun beauty-for-its own sake shots, preferring an unfussily direct approach. The same is true of Scott Thorough's understated score.

At a deeper level, the film's main concern is to overturn good guy/bad guy stereotypes in narco movies, blurring such easy distinctions and showing that circumstance more than character is what makes the difference. The script ensures that while the viewer is indeed rooting for this young men who are unwittingly contributing to a huge international problem, our sympathies lie with who they are, not what they're doing: if indeed they do have dirty hands -- manos sucias -- it's through no fault of their own.

A bigger problem is that such broadly depicted good intentions have themselves become something of a cliche of the genre. Also on the downside, the need to keep things moving quickly after an out-of-the blocks start means that too much information is sometimes squeezed too hastily into the on-board conversations. Likewise, unnecessary sentimentality sometimes breaks through the generally taut surface: over the final twenty minutes, is an ailing grandmother (Cirila Sinisterra) really necessary?

Production: Heart-Headed Productions, Tenacious Production, Kubota Films Production, El Colectivo Grupo Creativo

Cast: Cristian James Advincula, Jarlin Martinez, Hadder Blandon, Manuel David Riascos

Director: Josef Kubota Wladyka

Screenwriters: Alan Blanco, Wladyka

Producers: Elena Greenlee, Marcia Nunes, Mirlanda Torres Zapata, Carolina Caicedo

Executive producers: Mary Regency Boies, Kate Cohen, Marisa Polvino, Spike Lee

Director of photography: Alan Blanco

Production designer: Sofia Guzman

Editor: Kristan Sprague

Music: Scott Thorough

Sales: WME  Entertainment

No rating, 84 minutes