Mateo: Cartagena Review

Though lacking in depth, this feel-good, social-issues piece does have the considerable virtue of being true to the reality of its characters.

A troubled teen from an impoverished neighborhood learns valuable life lessons from joining a theater group in a film which picked up awards at the recent Miami and Cartagena fests.

With Mariana Rondon's Bad Hair currently wowing the Latin American festival circuit following its surprise "Best Film" award at San Sebastian 2013, another Maria has made a film in much the same healthily defiant spirit of social concern. Featuring a sizable cast of mostly non pros from the troubled Colombian region of Medio Magdalena, Mateo is one of those simple films, sometimes bordering on simplistic, which oozes a freshness and directness that makes up for its failures in polish and technique. Its time-honored message that a united community can beat the bad elements within it is delivered with a warmth and care that could see it reaping rewards in Spanish-speaking territories.

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The film opens with Mateo (Carlos Hernandez) and his gang picking up extortion payments from local store owners for loan shark Walter (Samuel Lazcano), Mateo's uncle, a nasty piece of work with a deceptively charming smile. To the exasperation of his mother Made (Myriam Gutierrez), Mateo lives under the permanent threat of expulsion from school, but doesn't seem to care: Made's friends, meanwhile, criticize her for taking her son's money when it comes from such a dodgy source. Mateo is punished by being told to join a theater group run by a priest (Felipe Botero) who has recently arrived in the neighborhood. Unhappy at the raw emotions on display in the group, and in particular by its challenges to machista culture ("only girls and faggots sing", Walter has sternly reminded him), Mateo walks out of the first meeting, only returning when Walter, concerned that the group represents a threat to his control over the area, tells Mateo to inform on the activities of the group members. But Mateo falls for group member Ana (Leidy Nino) and will spend the rest of the movie with his loyalties awkwardly divided. 

Mateo is not deep, but at least has the virtue of having been built from its characters up -- its with its sizeable cast of characters that it starts and ends. The script keeps a careful eye on life rather than on the movies: when Walter presents Mateo with a  gun, all sorts of fears are raised about not only Mateo's safety, but also that of a script which might be about to shoot itself in the foot. Luckily that doesn't happen, and the gun is used simply as a catalyst to bring on the denouement.

The best scenes have the improvised air of conversations overheard, as when Made and the other women of the neighborhood work together to think of ways of raising extra money: "there's always an option to stealing", Made reminds Mateo. Another standout scene has the group member hilariously reciting poetry to one another; but what they're really doing, significantly for the film, is bonding through catharsis.

Gamboa has done well to elicit solid performances from a freshman cast, though Hernandez as Mateo, a young man with heart throb appeal aplenty, sometimes struggles with the weight of his dramatic burden. Interestingly, the only pro is Botero, as the caring, sharing and irritatingly upbeat priest, and he stands out like a sore thumb; perhaps Gamboa felt uncertain about handing over the key role of Mateo's moral teacher to an amateur.

Production: Dia Fragma Fabrica de Peliculas LTDA

Cast: Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano, Myriam Gutierrez, Leidy Nino

Director: María Gamboa

Screenwriters: Adriana Arjona, Gamboa

Producer: Daniel Garcia, Maria Fernanda Barrientos

Director of photography: Diego Jimenez 

Editor: Gustav Vasco, Jacques Comets

Music: Marc Huri

Sales: Alpha Violet

No rating, 85 minutes