‘Salsipuedes’: Panama Review

SALSIPUEDES Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Panama International Film Festival
A diamond in the rough.

The boy comes back to the barrio in this pacy social drama, which premiered at the Panama festival.

"You can take the boy out of the barrio, but you can’t take the barrio out of the boy" might be the strapline of the winsome Salsipuedes, a movie whose energy, innocence and wish to please make it the cinematic embodiment of the Panamanian film industry itself, one which is showing promise but still is at the teething stage.

Wrapping up themes which are close to the Panamanian heart in an unevenly told tale that makes up for its lack of sophistication with its verve and good heart, Salsipuedes is guaranteed to appeal to locals with its feel-good (if politically very questionable) message that life in a run-down barrio of Panama City, despite its multiple dangers, is still better than life anywhere else -- because yes, it’s home. It’s a message which should bring it festival play in other Latin American territories and at Hispanic-themed fest elsewhere.

As a child, Andres (Samir Flores) has been sent away to the U.S. from the poor barrio where he grew up after his father, The Cat (Jaime Newball), a one-time champion boxer (presumably hence the name) who’s fallen off the rails, is jailed. Years later Andres (Elmis Castillo), now a tight-jawed university student in Washington, returns for his grandfather’s (Lucho Gotti) funeral, where The Cat, allowed out for the day, is able -- to the evident joy of the mourners -- to make his escape.

Briefly imprisoned pending the release of his father, Andres decides to go back to the States. He then U-turns and takes an airport decision to stay -- a decision in part driven by his affection for his childhood sweetheart Nati (Katia Semacaritt) -- though without telling his mother that he’s there. Andres’s childhood friends, and probably most of the audience too, urge him to go -- “sadness is bad, but it doesn’t kill you” -- but Andres chooses not to and will soon be drawn into ever more dangerous events.

Salsipuedes was originally designed as a TV series inspired by the work of the great Panamanian singer Ruben Blades, and there is indeed sufficient material in there for a series. Conflicting radio voices throughout effectively tell us one the one hand that Panama’s in bad shape, and indeed the establishment -- mainly in the form of the police -- come in for some serious if heavy-handed criticism. But another report tells us that Panamanians are in the top ten list of happiest people in the world.  So there's a confusion there which the script makes no serious effort to resolve.

The background to the events is thus made up of time-honored themes of Panamanian -- and Latin American -- life and culture: exile, the uneasy relationship with the US, political corruption and violence, of which at one point Andres himself, more or less needlessly in terms of the story, becomes a victim. Likewise several scenes featuring the picturesque preparations for congo carnival dance scenes have been squeezed in, effective enough as standalones, but diluting the dramatic focus.

As social drama, the film is most interesting in its treatment of Latin America's ongoing machista culture, shown via Andres’ mother Eloisa (Maritza Vernaza), who despite effectively seeing her family destroyed by El Gato, is still drawn to him through the years of Andres’ absence.

Salsipuedes was shot in various run-down, sun-beaten locations in Panama City, primarily the El Chorrillo neighborhood, which suggest that the proceeds from Panama’s much-vaunted economic recovery are not trickling down to the streets. It’s the images of inhabited buildings and barracas teetering on the edge of collapse which represent the film’s most direct political criticism, rather than, as you’d have hoped, in the character drama. (It seems odd, for example, that Eloisa has family with the means to pay for a US college education for Andres.) Carlos Arango de Montis’s busy camerawork captures the feel and texture of this composite barrio created for the film.

It’s fast-paced story which is seeking to keep viewers happy with its mix of thriller and romance. But it’s at its strongest and most viewer-pleasing when two groups of non-pro kids -- one in the flashbacks to happier childhood times for Andres and one playing a marching band in the present -- generate most of the film’s laughs and most of its tenderness too.

Music is key, over-used, and variable, with the best saved for the credits sequence in the form of Latina Fresh’s ‘Maestra Vida’. The title, which gives its name to the fictional neighborhood of the film, aptly translates as ‘get out if you can’. The late Cuban actress Alina Rodriguez, most recently revered for her role in Ernesto Daranas’ Behavior, lends a touch of distinction as the family friend Dona Raquel, and the film is dedicated to her.

Production company: Viceversa Producciones
Cast: Elmis Castillo, Maritza Vernaza, Lucho Gotti, Katia Semacaritt, Samir Flores
Directors: Ricardo Aguilar Navarro, Manolito Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Manolito Rodriguez
Producers: Ricardo Aguilar Navarro, Sixta Diaz C
Director of photography: Carlos Arango de Montis
Editor: Manolito Rodriguez
Sales: Viceversa Producciones

No rating, 95 minutes