Director Victor Gaviria transports the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” to the bruising streets of Colombia in “The Rose Seller.” A shapeless slice of neo-realist drama dealing with and played by a band of runaway urchins in a tough world of drugs, theft, violence and precocious sexuality, the film musters some potency in its closing act, but is far too rambling and unfocused in getting there. Lacking the narrative muscle of other Latin American street-kid sagas like Hector Babenco’s “Pixote,” it looks unlikely to bloom commercially beyond the fest trail.
Gaviria (“Rodrigo D, No Futuro”) substitutes flowers for matches in his dreamy reworking of the melancholy fable, centering the drama on 13-year-old Monica (Leidy Tabares). One of a group of kids out on the Medellin streets mainly to avoid the constrictions and harsh discipline of their poor, dysfunctional families, she sells roses to couples in local nightspots, hangs out with other waifs and, with her faithless dealer boyfriend, smokes grass, sniffs glue and hallucinates about her dead grandmother.
The story also develops a strong secondary character — perhaps its only one — in 10-year-old Andrea (Mileider Gil), who runs out on her mother after a beating, later stealing her kid sister’s Rollerblades to sell for some quick cash. She comes to represent the hope of escape from the down cycle after rejecting street life to return home and literally demand affection.
The nocturnal wanderings of the girls and their acquaintances initially are interesting enough, with their prematurely hardened street savviness curiously contrasted by the strict limits they place on sexual advances. But the spell is weakened each time the field widens beyond the handful of central female characters to take in their thuggish male cohorts, whose casual brutality and increasing lack of control make them the catalysts for tragedy.
Gaviria’s direction of the non-pro cast is inconsistent, and while Tabares’ sad, haunted expression and Gil’s vulnerability make their characters memorable, many of the key male figures are crippled by clumsy, unmodulated thesping. With not nearly enough character definition, incident or outside perspective to sustain such a lengthy chronicle, the film becomes tediously one-note until its final punches are thrown.
Shot with a cruisy, hand-held camera, the long night-time sequences in which a brightly lit Madonna stands sentinel and garish Christmas decorations illuminate streets full of poverty and squalor supply some visual poetry that should earn the long-in-the-making Colombian production admirers. But further editing of 20 minutes or more could hone the film into a more road-worthy fest vehicle than the one competing in Cannes.