Friday, May 02, 2008

Puerto Rican comedy hit worth staying up for
Maldeamores a late film fest entry on Friday night
(Syracuse City Eagle weekly, 5/1/2008)

Tere Paniagua, who manages Point of Contact Gallery and many of the details that make the Syracuse International Film Festival hum, said she and her sister, Rita, who directs the West Side’s La Liga, were “rolling on the floor.”

This was just a week ago, right after Puerto Rico’s official 2008 Oscar entry for best foreign language film, Maldeamores, skidded into town. The ensemble comedy, executive-produced by Benicio del Toro and featuring the great character actor Luis Guzman, wasn’t even on SIFF’s screening schedule. But a handful of festival folk plus one sister made room to watch the 85-minute screener in the hurried days just before Friday’s opening and – along with repeated outbursts of, “You gotta see this movie!” – quickly shoe-horned Maldeamores into a midnight screening slot Friday night at the Syracuse Center 4 the Arts on East Genesee Street, just a short walk across Foreman Park from the Renaissance Hotel, which lodges many filmmakers and other festival visitors.

Maldeamores is beautifully shot and edited, uniformly well-acted, and has a smart, witty, large-spirited script that turns on a dime. Like the Cuban cinema its makers admire, it combines tragedy and laughter in ways seemingly lost on Hollywood. It’s the first feature film from San Juan’s Pajaritos Peñaos Films, the indie production company of husband and wife team Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz and Mariem Pérez Riera. A four-year project shot in May 2006, it’s among early beneficiaries of Puerto Rico’s 2001 legislation to encourage the island’s film industry via tax credits, interest-free loans and other services to filmmakers. That environment plus the hands-on support of Puerto Rican native del Toro got Maldeamores made.

The film shuttles gracefully among three parallel stories about love’s troubles, framed by a hilarious young couple bickering in a car – uncredited and de-glamorized, these two suspiciously resemble Ruiz and Pérez – whose brief story runs before opening titles and again after closing credits. First, young Ismaelito (Fernando Tarrazo) is stuck tearfully in a car with his parents Lourdes (Teresa Hernandez) and Ismael (Luis Guzman), forced to leave what looked like the baseball championships by his great-grandmother’s sudden death. Although he gets his first kiss after the wake, his father’s dalliance with Lourdes’ cousin Tati (Eduali Figueroa) comes explosively to light. Meanwhile, forlorn Miguel (Luis Gonzaga), who’s been stalking bus-driver Marta (Dolores Pedro), proposes marriage and takes the bus hostage to provide incentive. Also meanwhile, 72-year-old Flora (Silvia Brito, who will be at Saturday’s screening) is already housing one ex-husband, Cirilo (Chavito Marrero), when she reluctantly takes in wayward first spouse Pellín (Miguel Alvarez) after 30 years’ absence. A rum-soaked birthday party, a rooster’s attack in the shower, and a big-hearted accommodation ensue.

Maldeamores premiered last April at Tribeca – all screenings sold out – and had a short San Juan theatrical release in September to qualify for the Oscars – also sold out. Limited theatrical release here in the States followed in March along with the festival circuit, where Brito has taken honors for her Flora and the film has been an audience favorite. Although there’s no US distributor yet for a wide release, the sound track is on CD and DVD follows in September.

Carlitos Ruiz spent last Friday at bread-and-butter work – shooting a commercial – but Saturday afternoon he spoke by phone from San Juan. Here’s part of our conversation:

How did you come to make this film?
Well Mariem, my wife, made the story. There is no film school here in Puerto Rico, though our parents are actors and musicians. I was raised in a theater and raised on Latin American film. The first time I saw Cuban films, I said, that’s what I want to do. Mariem studied film in Cuba and New York City and me, in Chicago. We realized we liked the same films. We had not known each other during film school, only afterward. We wanted to make a film about real love, about the claustrophobic journey. We Latin Americans enjoy suffering more than love itself! Actually we wrote the script with friends – the actor Israel Lugo and the writer Jorge Gonzalez – over four months together. We wanted several stories only united by the theme of love. Two weeks into the project, we weren’t finding the right stories, so we asked each other, how was your first kiss? We told each other stories. The grandmother with two lovers, the first kiss – these became stories about every stage of life. They were simple and tender and showed that even with the bad aspects of love, it doesn’t matter how hard it is to get there. We’re all film freaks and what we get the most satisfaction from is how audiences have connected with the film. We’ve just been invited to Bosnia. And it’s shown in many festivals since Tribeca – in Argentina, Spain, the US, Cairo, Israel, Italy, France.

The film had a limited theatrical release earlier this year too?
Yes. In Puerto Rico it’s broken all the records. It’s still in theaters here after two and a half months. Also it’s been in New York and Orlando. We opened last fall for one week in San Juan in time to qualify for Oscar entry and people stood in line for six hours.

Can you talk about Benicio del Toro's involvement?
Actually he commissioned the film. He’d seen my film school thesis – a short that played in a theater here. Then we developed a professional relationship. We developed a workshop on film for kids here and after two years he said, “You have to make your own film.” He was really the godfather – his name, he helped with casting, he and Mariem edited the film. At first we had three chronological stories – he suggested parallel stories. We didn’t want to be compared to Alejandro González Iñárritu [whose 2006 film Babel with Brad Pitt chopped up both chronology and multiple plots], but he said, “Hey, it’s your first feature! If you are compared to Iñárritu, that’s not so bad.” When Mariem started adapting the stories that way, the film started talking back to us. And I love the editing – it’s like a symphony the way it moves among the stories.

The cast are local actors?
Puerto Rican actors and two Cubans – one was Silvia Brito. Benicio found her in New York City. A lot of the actresses said no to that role – at her age, living with two men – because they were too conservative. The other Cuban actress plays the bus driver. We have great actors here, but one of the weaknesses of Puerto Rican films is sometimes the acting because of weak dialogue in our scripts. We wanted real acting. We did a lot of work-shopping and rehearsing. It’s not an improvised film – 95 % of the film is scripted. Then we shot the three stories separately over a total of 18 days.

Can you talk about the scene on the bus where Miguel takes Marta and the riders hostage? When I was watching the film I was immediately struck by how difficult that scene would be to shoot and how very well it flowed.
It’s a very claustrophobic scene. I believe the camera works for the actors, the actors don’t work for the camera. We shot that scene with a very small camera – a 16mm A-minima – so it’s not that intrusive. The whole film was story-boarded. Another thing, the actors in each story didn’t know the other stories – I only gave them their part of the script. So the first story – the kid’s story – is very laid back. When we had the wrap they all caught up on each other’s parts and they were amazed. I wanted the actors to feel closed in for eight hours. And we told the hostages in the bus scene not to talk to the main actor in that scene between takes.

Are you working on a next project?
Yes, we’ve started a comedy, set in America. In fact we have three projects in development. We are making the films we want to make. We’re here to make films. We are storytellers. It’s hard to distribute Spanish language films in the States, but we’re moving on. You know, the name of our company – Pajaritos Peñaos Films – in English that’s “pregnant birds,” and we have a saying that it stands for possibilities.