The Porcelain Horse: Film Review

Punky social realism from first-time feature director.

Ecuador eyes the Academy Awards with this powerful debut feature about drug addiction and family friction.

Ecuador's submission for the best foreign language Oscar, The Porcelain Horse, is a torrid family saga of sex, drugs, punk rock and expensive ceramic ornaments. Shot in a freewheeling, semi-documentary style, it centers on two loose-cannon brothers from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. The older Paco (Francisco Savinovich) is a full-time playboy slacker who narrates the story in laconic voiceover, the younger Luis (Victor Arauz) a hot-tempered singer with an amateurish rock band. Both have prodigious drug habits, a routine early warning of impending tragedy in social-realist dramas. This one is no exception, but first-time feature director Javier Andrade is smart enough to spice up a familiar downward narrative spiral with black comedy, sexual intrigue and joyfully rowdy music.

The horse of the title is a valuable family statuette which Luis steals from home to give his drug dealer as a security against debts, then later tries to buy back, a minor event which later triggers a bloody cycle of revenge. But the film's original Spanish title Mejor No Hablar de Ciertas Cosas ("better not to speak of certain things") more closely captures the sardonic, bittersweet tone of Andrade's screenplay. This is a dark story in places, but also funny, lusty and full of left-field twists.

When Paco runs off with his married secret lover Lucia (Leovanna Orlandini), her husband Rodrigo (Alejandro Fajardo) reacts with surprising restraint, shrugging off the loss before striking a deal with Paco's brother Luis to help launch his band, for motives which turn out to run deeper than business. Shady smuggling operations and family frictions hover in the background, but otherwise early tensions initially seem to resolve themselves amicably. Luis and his band even become semi-successful rock stars, headlining a free outdoor show on New Year's Eve.

Harmony can not last, of course. Paco and Lucia descend into druggy bickering, while Luis only becomes more recklessly self-destructive with growing fame. The final act belatedly adds an explicitly political dimension to the story when private vendettas escalate into a full-scale paramilitary bloodbath. Sitting uneasily with all that has passed before, the closing sermon on class war and high-society corruption feels heavy-handed and rushed.

Minor clumsy lapses aside, The Porcelain Horse sustains interest as an intelligent and edgy thriller with a universal resonance. Savinovich and Arauz both give solid performances, sharing a plausibly volatile fraternal chemistry on screen. Former documentary maker Andrade and his cinematographer Chris Teague mostly favor long shots and wide lenses, framing scenes in a single take if possible. Jittery close-ups and kinetic traveling shots heighten the loose, punky aesthetic. The scenes featuring live rock music, notoriously difficult to capture well on screen, also have an authentically grungy texture. Given that Ecuador has almost zero movie industry infrastructure, this is an impressively strong and mature piece of work.

Production company: Punk S.A.

Producer: María Ángeles Palacios

Starring: Francisco Savinovich, Victor Arauz, Leovanna Orlandini, Alejandro Fajardo
Director: Javier Andrade
Writer: Javier Andrade
Cinematographer: Chis Teague
Editor: Javier Andrade
Music: Sebastian Game
Sales company: Figa Films
Unrated, 100 minutes
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