'Retablo': Film Review

Retablo Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of DAFO
A poignant, strongly acted debut with a solid sense of place.

Alvaro Delgado Aparicio's drama is Peru's submission for this year's international-feature Oscar.

The story of a young teenager whose admiration for his father turns suddenly to shame, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio's Retablo uses the eponymous folk-art form to mirror a rural community still rife with violent homophobia. An affecting feature debut whose young star gives an adult-size performance, the Peruvian import has won several fest awards on the way to becoming that country's submission for this year's international-feature Oscar.

Junior Bejar plays Segundo, whose father Noe (Amiel Cayo) is widely respected for his artistry: He spends his days sculpting tiny people out of potato dough, posing them in festive scenarios and housing the tableaux in brightly painted wooden cabinets. He makes small, generic ones to sell in tourist markets, but derives the most pride from multi-tiered, four-foot high commissions — family portraits, or objects for religious contemplation. Opening scenes find Noe beaming at his son's observational skills and, with some anxiety, helping him start learning to translate what he sees into sculpture. The family is very poor, but locals call Noe "maestro"; he is, as his wife Anatolia (Magaly Solier) points out, "an artisan, not a peasant."

The relationship between father and son is tender, with both focused on the legacy being handed down. But on a trip to deliver a large piece of work, Segundo catches a glimpse of Noe in a sex act with a man. Shame hits him like an illness — tentative at first, then impossible for his parents not to see. While the film treats us to scenes of colorful celebrations, with masks and fireworks echoing the events Noe's work sometimes depicts, Anatolia and Noe fret over their son's unexplained sullenness. Soon, they'll have bigger problems.

Bejar subtly communicates many stages of acting out, from stunned disillusionment to violent disgust. Aparicio and Hector Galvez's lean screenplay never needs to make the child say what he's feeling; instead, it points him toward possible ways out of his now-unbearable domestic situation, some of which are frightening. Essentially an innocent, despite being able to hear his parents' intimacy clearly in their tiny home, Segundo gets much of his information about love from the lewd boasting of his older friend Mardonio (Mauro Chuchon); processing this new information on his own isn't going to work, but he can't tell anyone, either.

As it wonders what will become of Segundo, the film asks the same of Noe, who is drinking too much at parties where his work is celebrated and coming home in tears. Aparicio leaves Noe's interior world to the man himself, observing only the outside. As we'll soon see, this is a community so homophobic that it may not even be possible for Noe to imagine another way of life. Regardless of what he might hope for, his sloppy partying is about to leave him with few options.

Before it turns intense, the film gently captures the flavor of life in a place where locals play a part in their own law enforcement and it takes a bit of walking even to get to a road and hitchhike. It takes local scenery for granted to some extent, though DP Mario Bassino does justice to what vistas we do see, and it doesn't overexploit the charm of the dioramas Noe makes. These moments of frozen-in-time happiness are little worlds unto themselves, cute to foreign eyes but not saccharine. It's a long time before the movie acknowledges they can sometimes tell unpleasant stories as well, and can have a deeply personal significance for both maker and recipient.

Production company: Siri Producciones
Distributor: Wolfe Releasing
Cast: Junior Bejar, Amiel Cayo, Magaly Solier, Mauro Chuchon, Claudia Solis
Director: Alvaro Delgado Aparicio
Screenwriters: Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, Hector Galvez
Producers: Enid Campos, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio
Executive producers: Manno Doering, Lasse Scharpen
Director of photography: Mario Bassino
Editor: Eric Williams
Composer: Harry Escott

In Quechua
102 minutes