‘Sealed Cargo’ (‘Carga Sellada’): Film Review

Courtesy of Imagina Films
On message, off the wall.

This valiant stab at a social drama from the highlands of Bolivia may lack artistry, but its green message about the global waste crisis make it worth the watch.

Toxic cargo is transported by rail to quietly subversive dramatic and comic effect in Bolivian director Julia Vargas-Weise’s fest-feted third feature Sealed Cargo, one of those gently surreal true-life tales that Latin American cinema occasionally brings to life. Lacking in finesse though boundlessly energetic, Cargo is worth the ride more for its early-on humor than for its later-on drama, and often seems uncertainly poised between the two: but then again the Latin American world of corrupt cops and and revolutionary local politics is a world in which farce and reality are uncomfortably close anyway.

Viewers will take away the film’s bouncy, scattergun criticism of the global waste trade, in a culture in which third-world countries are willing to be paid to be the dumping grounds for first world trash, however toxic it may be. Cargo deserves to be delivered to festivals with an eye on the ecological.

In the Bolivian Andes in 1995, crates containing a mysterious and possibly toxic mineral are discovered. Cop and petty tyrant Mariscal (Mexican actor Gustavo Sanchez Parra), on the verge of being transferred to Washington as the fulfillment of a dream for his ambitious, glamorous wife Nena (Prakriti Maduro) is charged with the job of getting the waste materials out of the country to Chile — probably the result of money changing hands. This means bringing an old steam train back into commission, along with its laconic driver Klinger (the always watchable Luis Bredow), an unlit cigarette forever drooping from his lips, who despite misgivings about the cargo having no waybill, signs up for the pleasure of driving the train, whose name is Federica. Mariscal’s team also includes the religious Sergeant Mendieta, and Urdimala (Fernando Arce), who’ll fall for Tania (Daniela Lema), a local girl who boards the train in an attempt to reach the capital, La Paz, and a better life.

As soon as hits the first pueblo, the trouble starts as the townspeople, knowing about the cargo, refuse to let the train through. It’s just the first of many mishaps the train will encounter, including dynamited line blockages and the shooting of an indigenous woman, after which the film’s tone darkens: The story gets out onto the news channels, Federica is re-baptized “The Death Train," and Mariscal’s mind starts to unravel as the full, surreal horror of the situation starts to make the fragility of his absurd life apparent to him. Moving aimlessly through the desert with a train full of toxic minerals, shuttled from one semi-abandoned town to another, is surely a potent metaphor for something or other, and indeed Mariscal and his companions have become the true sealed cargo of the title. To this extent, the film could have gone a lot darker and deeper than it chooses to.

"I can do whatever I want, I’m a policeman," Mariscal shouts at one point, which tells you all you need to know about the film’s attitude to that particular Bolivian institution, and indeed the film takes aim at a range of targets aside from the corruption and farcical, chaotic organization of the Bolivian police and the government's indifference to the welfare of the indigenous section of their population. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting theme for foreign auds is the way the film plays off indigenous and non-indigenous Bolivians against one another in the form of the regular challenges to authority in the godforsaken towns the train drives through.

Sealed Cargo was shot in the scarily austere but stunning 12,000 feet-high ochre expanses of the Bolivian altiplano, which looks pretty much like cowboy country, and indeed it nods to that genre in the cool manner of Bredow and in a couple of gunfights. But it also nods to other genres, perhaps too many, including the occasional nod to sci-fi — this landscape is not only Sergio Leone territory, but it can be Mars as well — and a rather too-large dose of that is at least carefully grounded and non-sentimental. Tania is picked up because she wants to escape from her pueblo, but once she’s done so, the script positions here as little more than romantic interest, and the interest fades from her, meaning that this particular plotline shoots itself in the foot.

There is a striking and terrible irony in seeing Federica belching out foul black smoke even as she seeks to get rid of her toxic cargo, polluting the pure Andean air in what is the film’s most memorable, iconic shot.

Production companies: Imagina Films, Cieca, Arte Mecanica, Lavega Producciones

Cast: Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Luis Bredow, Fernando Arze, Daniela Lema, Marcelo Quna, Prakriti Maduro

Director: Julia Vargas-Weise

Screenwriters: Claudio Lechin, Julia Vargas-Weise

Producers: Pilar Valverde, Luis Giron, Ozcar Ramirez Gonzalez, Julia Vargas-Weise

Director of photography: Milton Guzman Gironda

Production designer:Serapio Tola

Editors: Miguel Perez, Daniel Prync

Composers: Natalia Fajardo, Diego Fletcher

Sales: Quechua Films

No rating, 99 minutes