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‘Great moment’ for Latin American film

"Cronicas" is among a new wave of independent Latin American films gaining new appeal with North American audiences. The stories are usually powerful and gritty; a neo-realistic form of story telling. NBC News Leonor Ayala reports from New York.
/ Source: NBC News

In a poor, remote village in Ecuador children are turning up dead almost on a daily basis. Parents are on edge.

The tension builds and erupts into chaos when a poor traveling salesman named Vinicio accidentally runs over and kills a child. Residents angrily attack and attempt to torch him.

The scene is from "Cronicas" or “Reports,” a new Spanish-language film by Ecuadorian writer and director Sebastian Cordero starring John Leguizamo. It is inspired by true events in Latin America in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Cordero's story is based on the case of Luis Alfredo Garavito. In 1999, Garavito admitted to killing 140 children over a five-year period in Colombia. Similar to the real story, in the movie Vinicio lures children to their death by befriending them and offering them food and drink.

In the film, as the town struggles to come to grips with the killings — an ambitious tabloid TV reporter from Miami, Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo), sets out to try and unmask the killer — all as part of an attempt to advance his career. But Manolo gets in over his head when he finds it difficult to decipher what is the truth.

"Cronicas" is among a new wave of independent Latin American films gaining appeal with North American audiences. The stories are usually powerful and gritty; a neo-realistic form of story telling. Gritty storytelling
“These [characters] are people with flaws and blemishes and this is how you experience life," explained Leguizamo. “The reason he [Garavito] got away with it is because it was happening in a very poor barrio of Latin America. Police don't really protect the poor — they protect the rich."

“Cronicas” is Leguizamo's first Spanish-language film. He explained the appeal is not only in the complexity of the characters but also in the form of storytelling — what he described as a "guerrilla-style of filmmaking" because these films are often made on much smaller budgets than your average Hollywood film. The film’s production company, Palm Pictures, would not release the exact the budget for the film.

Leguizamo maintains Hollywood's approach to the subject matter in this film would have been formulaic. The manner in which “Cronicas” plays out on screen is “more like a mental chess game,” he explained. “This wouldn't be allowed in Hollywood.”

The complexity of the characters is what drew director Cordero to the story.

“I was fascinated by the stereotype of a serial killer and they are always depicted in film as superhuman,” explained Cordero. “What fascinated me about this case is his [Garavito's] wife [is quoted as saying] he was a 'good man.’”

Cordero says the duality — that unknown side of someone's personality — is what he found most intriguing about the story.

‘Great moment’ for Latin American film
“Cronicas” is one of many recent projects that are helping to popularize Latin American film in the U.S. “There seemed to be a fear of foreign film [in North America] that seems to have dissipated,” explained Cordero. “Latin American cinema is going through a great moment — it has a strong social content.”

Indeed, the wave of successful films released before “Cronicas” includes Alfonso Cuaron's coming of age story “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Amores Perros.” Other recent stories focusing on the Latin American reality include “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” — just their name recognition alone are a testament to wider-audience reach in North America well beyond your typical art house crowd.

In August, Miramax is set to release “Secuestro Express” based on the wave of kidnappings in Venezuela in particular — and in Latin America in general. 

Paramount also recently green-lighted “Babel,” a film by Iñárritu, that is set to star Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Gael Garcia Bernal. The film is based on four stories in Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico and Japan and begins with a tragedy that strikes a married couple on vacation.

Latin American filmmakers “are doing films that deal with a social reality,” said Luis Reyes, co-author of “Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television”. “They come from a different point of view, but the subject matter is definitely universal.”

Dark-side of humanity
InCronicas,” Cordero successfully captures the dark-side of humanity through the characters of Vinicio and Manolo. Through much of the film the character of Vinicio seems like the victim of circumstance; jailed unjustly after accidentally striking a boy with his car. Vinicio is a meek prisoner in a jail teeming with violence.

The climax of the film is the test of wills between Vinicio and Manolo. Vinicio promises to give Manolo exclusive information about the killer in exchange for a sympathetic story pleading his case. Manolo, intrigued by what Vinicio knows, agrees. But, Vinicio proves to be more clever.

Manolo produces a sympathetic story that is released just as he realizes that Vinicio is indeed the serial killer who has stalked the small town of Babahoyo for the last two years. Manolo's report manages to sway public opinion, setting off a chain of events that will lead to Vinicio's freedom.

Cordero added that the power of the media to change public opinion is another theme he wanted to explore in the film saying, “I think people should always question what they watch ... be much more conscious of what you are seeing.”

“Cronicas” is set for release in New York and Los Angeles on July 8. It is in Spanish with English subtitles.