‘Port Father’ (‘Puerto Padre’): Huelva Review

Puerto Padre Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Centrosur Producciones

Puerto Padre Still - H 2014

A persuasive but flawed portrayal of an environment where moral rules no longer apply

A Costa Rican boy in search of his godfather uncovers secrets among the squalor

Port Father is the sort of gritty social realist drama that leaves viewers feeling that they need a shower afterwards -- and that’s meant in a good way, so grim is its evocation of the physical and moral cesspool that can result from social abandonment. Gustavo Fallas’ debut is a clear eyed depiction of life at the margins, where the standard family and working ties are very fragile indeed. Its refusal to play the easy strings may inspire admiration rather than love, but this has not prevented Port Father from enjoying a lively and continuing festival existence.

At the start of the film, Daniel (Jason Perez) is living in the poverty-stricken Costa Rican Gulf of Nicoya with his grandmother, who tells him to head for the city to find his godfather, who may be able to help him find work.

With only an old postcard to guide him, Daniel ends up at an abandoned hotel in the port town of Puntarenas where his mother once worked: here he encounters an unusual domestic setup which consists of, in top-down order of likability, 17 year-old Soledad (Adriana Alvarez, terrific), her baby, an old dog, and the frankly foul hotel administrator, Chico (Mexican Gabriel Retes, better-known for his directing than for his acting, but fine here). According to Chico Daniel's godfather is long dead, one of a series of misfortunes which Daniel will receive with a passivity unnatural in one so young. Slowly he pieces together the unhappy story of how this parody of a nuclear family came into being.

A tyrannical alcoholic with no redeeming qualities whatever -- indeed, tyranny and alcoholism are just the beginning -- Chico sets Daniel to work for his board. But Daniel proves useless, and Chico packs him off to work at the shipyard, where he befriends the upbeat Elias (Leynar Gomez) and finds himself a little closer to his dream of working on the cruise liners that work the gulf and represent the chance of escape. Every time the flame of hope starts to rise in Daniel, Chico is waiting, ready to extinguish it again. But he’s Daniel’s surrogate father, and as such Daniel finds it hard to break free.

The script, it is clear, is really interested in these characters, although Chico’s malevolence is overcooked. What the viewer takes away at the end of Port Father is Soledad’s unquenchable thirst for life, despite the horrors being inflicted on her. “This is real life,” she patiently explains to a horrified Daniel. “Men come here and pay to screw.” Perez is unable to match her, his passivity too often coming over as merely flat: a little more rebellious spark would have gone a very long way in a character who, after all, is the film’s heart.

The settings, particularly the hotel, with its tumbledown spaces and empty swimming pool, linger in the memory. You can virtually taste the atmosphere - it’s a fine cinematic location, and Fallas, photographer Fernando Kate Montero and art director Olga Madrigal do it full justice

Fallas has a first-timer wobbliness about pacing and a tendency to lay it on thick when it comes to the symbolism. That flapping bird in a cage, for example, may only make a brief appearance, but by rights it shouldn’t be there at all. Also on the downside, the film lacks forward narrative thrust, and sometimes struggles to keep the interest alive in its weird central trio, to the extent that it comes as a relief every time the swaggering, cocky Elias appears onscreen, the big brother that Daniel has never had.

Some moments of gentle piano tinkling apart, Bernardo Quesada’s score -- including requiste plucked bass string notes which loudly say “ominous” -- is a distraction from the carefully worked, down and dirty atmospherics which are Puerto Padre’s real calling card.

Production company: Centrosur Producciones, Reeliz Films, Positivo Films, Imago Cine
Cast: Jason Perez, Gabriel Retes, Adriana Alvarez, Leynar Gomez, Bernal Garcia
Director, screenwriter, producer: Gustavo Fallas
Director of photography: Fernando Kate Montero
Production designer: Olga Madrigal
Editor: Alberto Amieva
Composer: Bernardo Quesada
Sales: Centrosur Producciones

No rating, 86 minutes