The English-speaking world remains largely unaware of the low-key, yet highly flavorful humanist filmmaking that’s been flourishing in Uruguay for the past decade or so. This may be because—unlike the cinemas of Romania and South Korea, which have received far more attention in the English-language film world since 2000—Uruguay has yet to produce an internationally celebrated auteur on the level of Cristian Mungiu or Chan-wook Park. (The only real contenders are the team of Pablo Stoll and the late Juan Pablo Rebella, whose Whisky won a prize at Cannes in 2004, and Federico Veiroj, whose A Useful Life was a modest hit on the festival circuit three years back). Yet the national cinema has developed a distinctive sensibility, one that only continues to deepen as more filmmakers contribute to it.
Taken on a film-by-film basis, the new Uruguayan films might seem sentimental or inconsequential. Their tone is uniformly gentle, regardless of whether the stories are comedic or dramatic in nature. The characters are almost always polite with one another, and society—whether urban or rural, blue-collar or white-collar—always appears to be running smoothly. The stakes are low in these stories, focusing on not-insurmountable problems in professional and domestic life. And yet throughout these winning portraits of mundanity (which would also include The Pope’s Toilet, Gigante, Norberto’s Deadline, The Delay, and Tanta Agua) is the view that life is defined by constant disappointment and compromise. There’s an underlying sense of melancholy to the films that stands in conflict with their surface optimism.
In the past, I’ve likened the humanist Uruguayan cinema to the bittersweet comedies of the Czech New Wave, specifically Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde and Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighting. But there are other precedents, specifically the Japanese films known as Shomin-geki (“common people genre”), everyday stories about working-class or lower-middle-class characters that were especially popular between the 1930s and the 1950s. Perhaps the most significant trait of the recent Uruguayan films is a deep-rooted knowledge of what it’s like to work for a living. Though the people in these movies tend to behave in a direct, guileless manner reminiscent of characters in folk tales, they never seem like abstractions, since the films always establish a vivid sense of their work. We come to understand intimately their responsibilities, the knowledge they bring to their jobs, and the way their professional routines shape their lives on the whole. I often leave these films with the sense that I have made a genuine connection with another human being.
This year the Chicago Latino Film Festival is presenting two new Uruguayan features in the low-key humanist mode, Daniela Speranza’s Rambleras (screening tomorrow at 8:30 PM and Saturday at 3:30 PM) and Guillermo Rocamora’s Solo (screening Wednesday 4/9 and Friday 4/11 at 6 PM). The latter is about a lifelong musician in the Uruguayan Air Force band; the former centers on the young employee of a neighborhood bakery and her elderly roommate. Both films devote so much attention to the characters’ work routines (or in the case of the elderly woman of Rambleras, her daily habit of walking around the neighborhood) that disruptions to these routines register as serious developments and professional satisfactions register as major victories. And both present the impact of these successes and failures on the communities the characters inhabit—typical of the recent Uruguayan cinema, they communicate a healthy balance between individual and society.
That’s especially true of Solo, as the soft-spoken, middle-aged hero feels most at home within an ensemble. Yet Nelson—like the thwarted protagonists of Gigante (a security guard), Norberto’s Deadline (an unsuccessful real estate agent), and Useful Life (the manager of a poorly attended cinematheque)—dreams of breaking out of his shell. For years he’s been writing his own songs, and the movie centers on his effort to enter one of them in a national songwriting contest. The contest keeps him buoyant even after his wife walks out on him and his mother’s health declines, giving him (like the camaraderie of the air force band) a larger sense of purpose in his lonely life. At the same time, his disappointments loom large over the plot, and the movie takes seriously his struggle to reconcile personal desire with communal responsibility.
In his introversion and quiet dignity, Nelson often suggests the heroes of silent comedies and Aki Kaurismaki films. And like other Uruguayan directors, Rocamora encourages those comparisons with his frontwards, presentational images and drawn-out comic timing. In a typical scene, Rocamora holds a single medium shot of Nelson walking to his band’s tour bus. One of his colleagues, standing several yards from the camera, is haphazardly throwing drums into the baggage compartment of the bus. Nelson stops by and asks him to be a little more delicate with the instruments. The colleague acknowledges him, waits for Nelson to board the bus, and continues tossing in the drums in the exact same manner. A routine is broken by a moment of gentle consideration, then snaps back into shape. Such is life.
Rambleras also concerns the disruption of routine, though its social implications reach far wider than those of Solo. The plot kicks into gear when pastry chef Patricia, constantly short on money, gets kicked out of her Montevideo apartment. Her landlady takes sympathy on her, however, and moves her across the hall with Ofelia, an old spinster who’s been living alone since her sister died. You can probably guess where the story goes from here: Patricia is first annoyed by the old lady’s eccentricities, but comes to befriend her. And while that’s indeed what happens, Speranza presents this development in harmony with several others, suggesting they’re part of a larger social transformation. In one subplot, Patricia’s boss at the bakery is gradually persuaded to make his wife as an official business partner, overcoming his chauvinistic reluctance to do so. In another, Patricia becomes disillusioned with her ongoing romance with a man who’s two-timing his girlfriend to be with her.
The theme of female empowerment isn’t overstated, in part because Speranza doesn’t present the male characters as one-dimensional villains. They’re not unsympathetic to women—they’re just too accustomed to their male privilege, much like Patricia is too accustomed to her reckless lifestyle to better herself (this being a Uruguayan film, we understand right away how they can feel bound by what they’re familiar with). All the characters come to solve their problems through a combination of self-respect and heightened empathy. The movie ends on a note of utopian good feeling that’s all the more satisfying for being wholly plausible.
Speranza inspires good cheer through her visuals as well as her gentle humor. Rambleras is a vibrantly stylized movie, though the style is so fluidly integrated with the storytelling that I didn’t realize how beautiful it was until I watched it a second time. Every shot features the harmonious interaction of bright colors and a pleasing sense of symmetry. Some viewers might be reminded of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking, though Speranza’s approach is nowhere near as obsessive or obvious. The colorful costumes and backdrops seem like natural parts of the characters’ world, and the symmetries have an organic quality as well (at one point, Patricia hangs a curtain in the middle of her room to get some space from Ofelia, effectively bisecting the room). Speranza often stages her scenes, which can contain up to several divisive actions, in just one or two shots. Yet the strategy never comes off as show-offy, since the actors seem so relaxed that it feels as though Speranza simply wanted to preserve the flow of their behavior.
Rambleras‘ plainspoken harmony between stylization and everyday reality marks one of the greatest achievements I’ve yet encountered in 21st-century Uruguayan cinema. I feel happy just thinking about it.