Fifteen Favorite Ibero-American Films of 2023
By Sandra M Ríos U
In the vibrant Ibero-American film landscape of 2023, several films stood out that explored themes of memory (both individual and collective) and the necessity of not forgetting and telling them as they are. Others challenged conventions and offered unique, terrifying, or touching visions that far exceeded the entertainment typically provided by Hollywood cinema.
While there is a wealth of genres, approaches, blends, and diversity, this selection demonstrates that Ibero-American cinema is moving away from imitating hegemony and pursuing its own identity with stories told in its own rhythms, narrative styles, aesthetics, forms, and peculiarities.
Here is a selection of 15 Favorite Ibero-American Films of 2023:
1. 'The Eternal Memory'
Linking two types of memory, collective and individual, in a deep and highly moving story is a patient exercise that Chilean director Maite Alberdi skillfully accomplishes in 'The Eternal Memory.' Questioning who we are based on what remains in our memories challenges even a disease like Alzheimer's, highlighting the indelible imprint left by aspects such as violence and war, but also love. Alberdi's documentary is, above all, a love story, portraying the true love of a couple facing illness ingeniously and admirably, without hiding from the world, in a long farewell that is both emotional and touching. Available on Netflix. (Read interview. Read review).
2. 'Trenque Lauquen Parts 1 and 2'
One of the most fascinating mysteries of the year, a true novel in images. It is one of the best films in Latin American cinema of all time. Argentine director Laura Citarella creates a 250-minute story (divided into two parts, with an interval. This was seen at BIFF) that is difficult to guess, with meticulous attention to detail and surprising puzzle pieces. Like a detective story, narrated in 12 chapters starting from the end and told in a fragmented way, we know that a woman has disappeared from the remote town that gives the film its title, and two men (a boyfriend and a lover) are searching for her, trying to understand what made her flee without a trace. The place they arrive to search hides secrets and mysteries that give room to the fantastic but also evoke authors like García Márquez and Borges.
3. 'The Delinquents'
Argentine director Rodrigo Moreno said, more or less, that we are a society dependent on an economic system that suffocates us and leads us to lead lives we don't want, making us addicted to things like technology. His film is a kind of catharsis that begins with the robbery of a bank employee who decides to steal the exact amount of money needed to live with the essentials for the rest of his life and dedicate himself to leisure, contemplation, and enjoyment of life with a strategically calculated plan. It is impossible not to identify with this character and be carried away by an idyllic story that fundamentally aims for justice. (Read review)
4. 'Pictures of Ghosts'
How can one resist the personal and universal journey through the history of neighborhood cinemas in the hometown of the great Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho in 'Pictures of Ghosts,' serving as a record of the origin, rise, and disappearance of majestic movie theaters? How can one resist his sincere and melancholic voice narrating his own beginnings as a filmmaker, starting from childhood, passing through his influences and true cinephilia, revealing that his cinema has been directly linked to his life and spaces? 'Pictures of Ghosts' is a love letter to the city where he has stayed, to the house he has not abandoned since childhood, to the cinema that has become an extension of his life, and to the passage of time that turns into ghosts inhabiting places, materialized in this film with a splendid ending. (Read review).
5. 'When Evil Lurks'
The best horror film of the year is not from Hollywood; it's Latin American. 'When Evil Lurks' is a film about possession and rural folklore, with all the recognizable ingredients but taken to a more realistic and original terrain, where the countryside and the collective escalate paranoia, degradation, and brutality. It all starts when two brothers detect that a man is infected by a supernatural force they recognize and know they cannot afford to let it spread, or they risk losing everything. The problem is that it's already too late, and they must act promptly and extremely to try, at least, to save themselves. Argentine director Demián Rugna constructs an unrelenting and disturbing delight full of formal and aesthetic resources that ultimately bear a chilling parallelism with our times and humanity.
6. 'The Count'
'The Count' is one of the underrated films of 2023 and one of the most original. A brilliant and bold political allegory by Pablo Larraín, bringing the infamous and decadent dictator Augusto Pinochet to life, but portraying him as a vampire, a man whose trail of blood and death will be eternal in Chilean history, and one they seem unprepared to discuss through disruptive narratives. Politically incorrect, there is no way to resist its twisted black humor and excellent performances.
It's been a while since I liked a Rodrigo García film so much, which curiously is his first shot in Spanish and in Mexico. The premise is simple, but its depth is immense. A widowed father gathers his daughters, granddaughters, sons-in-law, partners, and girlfriend for lunch at his beautiful olive hacienda and family home. Amid conventional conversations and laughter, he reveals the offer to sell the property, triggering various and heated reactions to the possibility of losing a place that ties them to their childhood, the figure of their missing mother, and has filled them with memories. As the day progresses, we witness the sweet, warm, and varied range of emotions, feelings, and thoughts (past, present, and future) of each member of this family, while the crisis of an elderly father is revealed, and his figure is exalted. Every word written in this script exudes beauty and an honesty that moves. 'Family' is a wonderful, realistic, and mature portrait of parenthood and family. Each character is captivating.
8. 'The Punishment'
Coral Cruz has written one of the best scripts of the year with 'The Punishment,' and Matias Bize's audacity to shoot it in real-time, in a single 86-minute long take, is remarkable. A married couple travels with their son to meet the mother's parents and stops the car to let the restless child stand by for a few minutes. Upon their return, they terrifyingly discover that the child is no longer on the road. Apparently, he has ventured into the forest. Unbelieving, thinking it's another tantrum or an act of manipulation, they begin a search without telling anyone, generating the first tensions and guilt between the couple. The futile search leads them to call the police. The tension surrounding the strange disappearance gradually reveals the crisis of a mother. 'The Punishment' is a thriller that shows, with a high level of complexity and coldness, the incompatibility between being a woman and a mother, which in some cases seems irreconcilable. The performances of Antonia Zeigers, Néstor Cantillana, and Catalia Saavedra are superb. (Read review)
9. 'Society of the Snow'
J.A. Bayona is a great storyteller of those kinds of stories where human nature is tested and must bring out the best of itself when literally it has nothing left. Stories where nature challenges it physically and mentally. With his version of the famous and shocking accident of the Uruguayan rugby team in the seventies, he does justice to the "Miracle in the Andes" with a survival film in all its glory; emotional and visceral.
10. 'The Settlers'
If I were to summarize this story about ruthless colonization with a line from this film, it would be (now) "have some tea." Just as Scorsese decided to bring to the screen a nearly hidden story of the Osage Indians in the United States to take their wealth, Chilean director Felipe Galves, in an impeccable western style, revives the brutal hunting of the Ona Indians, natives of Tierra del Fuego. Galves' narrative becomes chilling and rises by focusing not only on the white settlers' miserable greed to conquer and dominate at any cost but also by highlighting the contradictions and complicit silence of a young mestizo, showing how the narrative of history has been shaped and erased. (Read review)
Dealing with a loved one's illness is always difficult, especially if it's one of the parents and even more so if you're a child or teenager. The protagonist of this story is seven years old, and we experience with her the preparations for a surprise birthday party for her dad, an event that also translates into a farewell due to his terminal illness. Amid chaos, economic problems, and the frictions and emotions produced by such a situation, Sol continues with her innocent, vibrant, and happy essence. Mexican director Lila Avilés creates a portrait, with touches of humor, that is touching, delicate, and luminous about family and mourning. (Read review)
12. '20,000 Species of Bees'
I don't know how aware child actors are of the performances they sometimes achieve, leaving a mark on history for their naturalness. Naturalness that many adult actors never manage to achieve in their entire careers. The protagonist of '20,000 Species of Bees' is an eight-year-old carrying the weight of a story about the acceptance of identity. He (Aitor) / She (Coco) arrives with his mother to spend a few summer days with his aunts and grandmother, who end up being a balm to finally accept his condition as a trans girl who wants to be called Lucía and ask to be accepted as she wishes. What sets the film apart from others on the subject is that it focuses on tolerance through the family. Lucía is clear about her transition, so the process of change and acceptance is in those around her and the rest of society. Estibaliz avoids drama due to this dissonance with identity and emphasizes the journey toward harmony with the self.
What a great directorial debut by Argentine actress Dolores Fonzi! 'Blondi' is a fresh, enjoyable, and well-told film about a mother who becomes equals with her son, a friend more than a mother, literally dressing like a young girl, playing video games, going out partying with the same friends, liking the same movies, and even sharing the same joint. Fonzi delivers an endearing film that pays tribute to motherhood. While she is an unconventional mother, she is fundamentally a woman who loves her son with all her being and endures the long journey of raising him and letting him go to carve out his own future.
14. 'Winter Howl'
This is in some ways an extension of 'A Place Called Dignity,' two films with which Chilean director Matías Rojas has brought to the screen the infamous story of Colonia Dignidad, a sect created by German Paul Schäfer during Pinochet's dictatorship where harassment, sexual abuse, slavery, kidnappings, and other human rights violations were committed with the complicity of the State for over four decades. 'Winter Howl' is a two-part hybrid that explores the theme of memory (like several in this 2023 selection). The first part follows the codes of non-fiction cinema to present a couple (Ingrid and Franz) who experienced and escaped torture in this community and now live isolated in the Chilean Patagonia, praying that the story is never forgotten to prevent it from happening again. The second part is fiction, following a woman (Paulina García) who desperately seeks to uncover a buried secret in the forest, paving the way for a form of forgiveness before losing her memory and freeing herself from the weight of guilt she has carried. At some point, these two stories intertwine. With a series of formal decisions like color and format that elevate the discourse, Matias embraces the idea of how love triumphs over traumas and challenges individual memory while urging the importance of keeping the collective history alive. The two outsider characters are fascinating and enigmatic.
There are undeniable realities, and the one lived by hundreds of Venezuelans forced to emigrate remains latent after more than two decades of the installation of chavismo and madurismo in the country. The story of 'Simon,' directed by Diego Vicentini, is a kind of homage to these citizens who have had to flee, separate from their families and friends, leave their roots, and endure being stigmatized while trying to continue helping their people. The protagonist of this story is a student leader who represents those trying to carve out a new future and live in the dilemma and guilt of practicing activism from a distance. Vicentini's film has the virtue of reminding and not hiding the reality of an authoritarian government and creating a well-told, convincing, and emotional story.
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