Film Movement DVD Review: La Familia (2017)

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Ideally suited to play opposite Italian filmmaker Jonas Carpignano's A Ciambra as part of a double feature on modern approaches to neorealism, Venezuelan writer/director Gustavo Rondón Córdova's thematically similar debut feature traps viewers right in the heart of the slums of Caracas from the very first frame.

Wandering the streets armed with rocks and without supervision, twelve-year-old Pedro (Reggie Reyes) and his friends are growing up way too fast in an environment that could easily bring them down.

And sure enough, it only takes a minute of screen time to see how quickly things could go wrong before they inevitably do later on in the first act when, cornered alongside his best friend, Pedro accidentally kills a young mugger.

Pushed by a fight into flight, Pedro's hardworking, quick-thinking father, Andrés (Giovanni Garcia) wastes no time packing up as much stuff as they can carry without looking conspicuous and forces his reluctant son to flee as far away from the only home he's ever known in order to save their lives from the thugs who would hunt them down without a second thought.

A study in masculine contrasts, while the thoroughly unlikable Pedro acts first and doesn't think later like the same macho toughs who would just as soon end his life, he looks down on what he assumes is his cowardly father's way of life – working back-breaking construction and odd jobs just to keep a roof over his son's head and food on the table.

Clocking in at a mere eighty-two minutes, Córdova waits a little too long to actually "start" the film with its official inciting incident. Killing too much time killing time with Pedro and his aimless friends before the killing that sets things in motion, although impatient viewers are sure to tune out, the further away we get from the slums, the more full of life the film gets. And while that indeed might be by design, it's also slightly indulgent and risks alienating a large percentage of its audience.

Although it must've been hard for former editor turned writer/director as well as La Familia's editor Gustavo Rondón Córdova to cut his first feature, looking past its laborious opener – which makes its point fairly quickly – the film has a lot on its mind.  

An existential thriller more than a literal one, the longer they try to avoid peril, the more Pedro gets to know the father who's so often forced to be away.

Talking a good game about why he thinks they should just go confront those back in their neighborhood, Andrés gives him a vital reality check, telling his son, "your tough man bullshit put us in this mess," before putting his son to work alongside him for a real taste of what growing up has in store for the boy.

The latest variation in the genre of the road movie, which (with noteworthy exceptions of course) Latin American countries do perhaps better than anyone else, while this succinct cross between cinema vérité and neorealism might've been even stronger if it had been edited down even more, we can't help but feel drawn into the story since it transports us so easily.

Reminiscent of a documentary in spirit, which says a lot for not only for Córdova and the film's talented cast but its cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga as well, obviously the main focus of La Familia is on the family onscreen.

However, by putting the men in motion and moving them in and around the streets of Caracas like Roberto Rossellini did in his neorealist Rome, Open City (and War Trilogy), from the threat of violence to the socioeconomic concerns, the story of not only the city but the country itself is never far from mind.

Though initially underwhelming, similar to Pedro's relationship with his father, Venezuela's official submission for Best Foreign Film (as well as the country's first film to play at Cannes Critics’ Week), only gets stronger with time.

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