Strikes a solid blow in favor of the Latin American realist tradition.
Four young people headed in different life directions survive as best they can in a sprawling barrio in Hector Galvez’s rigorously social-realist drama “Paradise.” From the title and opening shot (reprised exactly an hour later) of a single tree somehow growing in a harsh climate, the film’s message and intent are clear enough — perhaps too much so. Still, Galvez’s debut, which has enjoyed a good if not smashing festival tour since its Venice Horizon preem, strikes a solid blow in favor of the Latin American realist tradition, even if it does little to advance it.
Buddies Joaquin (Joaquin Ventura) and Mario (Jose Luis Garcia) live precariously in the Ayacucho zone outside Lima — an area transformed 15 years earlier by an influx of refugees during Peru’s war with the insurgent Shining Path guerrillas. Joaquin doesn’t do well with a job in which he’s supposed to dance around in a chicken suit outside a fast-food joint, but at least he and his family have a roof over their heads; Mario is kicked out of home by his (unseen) belligerent father, but holds down a job at a recycling factory.
Much of what happens onscreen reps what the teen characters do to get through another day: Mario’s g.f. Sara has reluctantly stayed out of school to help her emotionally frazzled mom (Antonieta Pari) at home; Joaquin’s sort-of g.f. Antuanet (Yiliana Chong) is diligent about her studies; and fellow friend Lalo (William Gomez) struggles in class — but at least stays there, unlike Joaquin and Mario.
Pic suggests that while the young women in the Ayacucho are serious about trying to make something of themselves, the guys are flakier, or prone to escapism. Fed up with his miserable recycling gig (just a few minutes of screen time at the work site is enough for anyone to sympathize), Mario is ready to join the army. Lalo cheats in class, and gets burned for it. When a circus titled “Paradise” rolls into town, Joaquin is desperate enough to join, learning the trapeze in the process.
Ghosts of the Shining Path past infiltrate the present, as do past grievances of gang warfare, but the film is assured enough to tilt the emotional weight of such scenes away from melodrama. While the barrio life is universal enough for “Paradise” to play well with audiences open to serious film depictions of this social milieu, it’s also likely to seem somewhat familiar to that crowd. Still, the film’s understanding of the personal costs paid by the residents, particularly as expressed by Pari as Sara’s mother, makes the film worth the sit.
Non-pro cast is committed to the project, but the star may be cinematographer Mario Bassino, who accomplishes every difficult lighting task — from extremely bright days to sepulchral nights — that Galvez lays out for him.