Monday, April 23, 2007

Film Review #97: Lola
1989 (DVD 2007)
Director: María Novaro
Cast: Leticia Huijara, Alexandra Vargas, Roberto Sosa

It’s early in the day, and the Mexican beach is still uncrowded. As the old man plunges into the waves, three older women up on the beach smile behind their hands and roll their eyes. Each time he stands up in the crashing surf, open-mouthed with surprise and staggering, his shorts are around his knees. One pudgy woman touches a teen-ager on the shoulder and says, “Go help your grandfather tie up his shorts.” But the old man is embarrassed when the girl approaches and turns away. Soon his wife trudges out to him and they walk back up the beach, her arm around him.

Watching this scene of deep family affection is pretty young Lola (Leticia Huijara in her first film lead). Somber and terrifically hung over, Lola’s waiting for friends who left her when they took a man to the doctor during last night’s bonfire party after Lola broke a tequila bottle over his nose. We understand perfectly that now Lola is stung with sharp regret and misses her own little girl, Ana (Alexandra Vargas).

Frustrated with the cops’ constant harassment of herself and other street vendors, depressed because her rock guitarist husband Omar has left for Los Angeles, Lola asked her own mother to take Ana for a while. We know it’s herself that’s the problem, since Lola loves the little girl tenderly. And we know that, after watching this old couple at the beach, Lola will go retrieve five-year-old Ana.

It’s a truism that film acting is different from stage acting because the audience, immersed in the medium of the huge screen, does more of the work – we attribute much of the interior life to characters from what’s come before and what characters are responding to, even when their faces are still and there’s far less dialogue and explanation than we’d get from live drama.

In her first feature film – made in 1989 after a string of shorts and some workshopping at the Sundance Institute – the Mexican director María Novaro already enters confidently into this deep collaboration with her audience. Although they have not said much by the film’s end, these are undeniably complex and very human beings and we’ve met them intimately.

Watching Lola is a good way to start to see how this is done and how other parts of a film act in its support. For example, except for two beach trips, Lola is set in Mexico City after the great earthquake of 1985. Novaro uses its vast rubble piles and graffiti proclaiming, “Mexico is still standing!” as images for Lola’s experience that her own life has crumbled. Then, ever-yearning pop radio lyrics suffuse much of the film, except during Lola’s long walk through night streets carrying her sleeping child to her mother. Here, Novaro uses Vivaldi’s version of the haunting “Stabat Mater” as background, elevating this journey to a one with life-changing consequences.

Now in her mid-50s, Novaro is one of a generation of women writers and directors who have worked collaboratively and came into their own since the early 90s, after the Mexican Film Institute began encouraging indie film production. Lola has been out on DVD only since late March and this excellent edition features interviews with Novaro, lead actress Huijara and a now grown-up Ana, plus production notes by Romy Sutherland, who has written more extensively about Novaro for the online Australian film journal Senses of Cinema. Since Novaro continues serious work in short-form cinema, maybe those eleven films can now find their way onto a DVD collection too.

Meanwhile Novaro’s other three features – all road trips, as Lola really is – are worth seeking out. In Danzón (1991) a mousey woman’s sole outlet is a weekly formal dance. When her regular dance partner goes missing, she seeks him out in Vera Cruz, befriending Suzy the queen and taking a younger lover. Garden of Eden (1994) weaves several stories together of characters who gather in Tijuana, all imagining that life on the other side of the border will improve. In Without a Trace (2000), two very different women, both at the ends of their rope and both fugitives, forge an unlikely friendship.

Novaro has a past local connection through the Syracuse International Film Festival (SIFF). All set to visit here previously for one of SIFF’s filmmaker forums, she had to cancel that trip because of sudden health issues. Let’s hope we’ll see her here in the future.

Not to be confused with a raft of films of the same title by Fassbinder, Jacques Demy, Max Ophuls, Tom Tykwer & others, María Novaro’s Lola is available at Emerald City Video, 3208 Erie Blvd. East, whose owner Jim Loperfido sits on SIFF’s board. SIFF has begun to issue a line of DVDs of selected SIFF films, which Emerald City stocks. This review appeared in the 4/19/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent films that did not have a regular theatrical run in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.