'Pacifico': Rotterdam Review

Pacifico Still - H 2016
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
An art-film bonbon dusted with sea salt.

Multihyphenate newcomer Fernanda Romandia's peek into childhood in a coastal Mexican village premiered in a sidebar of the Dutch festival.

Small is beautiful in Fernanda Romandia's docu-fiction hybrid Pacifico, which uses the world's largest geographical feature as backdrop for a delicate wisp of a sun-kissed, seaside tale. Low-key and lo-fi in every important respect, it's a quiet and modest charmer whose occasional rough edges are generally more endearing than distracting. Tailor-made for festival play, this latest outing from Mexico's art-film powerhouse Mantarraya (Amat Escalante's Heli; Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux) seeks to follow in the gentle footsteps of their 2009 quasi-doc success To the Sea (Alamar) — whose multihyphenate auteur Pedro Gonzalez Rubio shares cinematography duties here.

To the Sea, a multigenerational story set in a Caribbean fishing village on the Yucatan peninsula, nabbed a Tiger Award for Gonzalez Rubio when premiering in Rotterdam's main competition seven years ago. Pacifico might well have contended for similar honors this time, if the festival hadn't halved the number of competition slots to eight — but further similar berths are nevertheless likely, including perhaps in fests geared mainly to nonfiction fare.

Initially announced as a documentary, Pacifico mostly unfolds in and around a beach at Puerto Escondido, where a couple of dozen men are employed on the construction of a low-rise modern building. This is 'Casa Wabi,' an angularly subtle "house and art center" designed as residence/atelier/display space for the prominent Mexican artist Bosco Sodi. The architect is Japanese living legend Tadao Ando, whose futuristic minimalism is more extravagantly showcased in the upcoming Kristen Stewart sci-fier Equals.

Sodi, meanwhile, is known for the thickly encrusted surfaces of his paintings, which are often of one vibrantly intense hue. Feature-debutante Romandia and her collaborators obliquely channel elements of both Ando and Sodi's esthetic into Pacifico, which is structured with spare simplicity but enlivened with the vivid daytime colors of the Mexican littoral.

The ongoing construction work is a pretext to enter the private world of 7-year-old Coral (Coral Flores), who wanders happily around the site oblivious to the intrinsic hazards of such workplaces. The laborers likewise take a blithely laissez-faire attitude to the kid's perambulations — the chatty moppet visits her bricklayer godfather Diego (Diego Flores) after school every day, striking up a friendship with carpenter Oriente (Ricardo Cruz Velazquez).

The latter is a boozy, dreamy oddball, an aspiring poet who uses Cervantes' Don Quixote as a kind of personal I Ching. Oriente avidly mines the classic text for his mantras — "Everyone is the architect of his own fortune," he repeatedly muses/mumbles. All of the 'cast' appear to be non-pros, "playing" themselves, displaying varying degrees of on-camera discomfort, but little Flores, crucially, is a beguiling natural.

Not a great deal happens. Indeed, the less that happens the better, as Romandia and co-writer Daniela Schneider's more obviously fictionalized interpolations — such as Oriente's ill-starred, booze-fueled, skirt-chasing excursion to a noisy resort just after the halfway mark — see the picture veer away from its intimate focus and distinctive, sweet flavors. Loose, casual, observational sequences prove much more illuminating — privileged glimpses into ordinary folks' daily lives as they unfold amid a truly extraordinary geographical setting.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future Main Program)
Production company: Mantarraya
Cast: Coral Flores, Ricardo Cruz Velazquez, Irma Cruz, Diego Flores, Paulina Torres, Severino Rios
Director-editor: Fernanda Romandia
Screenwriters: Fernanda Romandia, Daniela Schneider
Producer: Jaime Romandia
Cinematographers: Fernanda Romandia, Pedro Gonzalez Rubio
Production designer: Daniela Schneider
Composer: Martin Delgado
Sales: Mantarraya Producciones, Mexico City

Not rated, 72 minutes