The impossible dreams of immigrants and the criminals who live off them become a full-blown nightmare in “America,” Portuguese helmer Joao Nuno Pinto’s compelling and bleakly hilarious debut. Pic works just fine as a noirish study of a strange community of ne’er-do-wells living on the literal and moral edge, but it’s the helmer’s skill at turning ideas into images that transforms this into a bitter and thoroughly contempo vision of European multiculturalism’s downside. Pic reps an impressive calling card for Pinto and deserves to find a welcome at offshore fests.
Story unfolds entirely on the edge of Europe in Cova do Vapor, western Portugal, an entry point for would-be immigrants. Lisa (Chulpan Khamatova) is a Russian living with cocky philanderer Victor (Fernando Luis), the head of a gang that falsifies passports for illegals. Their son Mauro (Manuel Custodia) has not spoken for a week, and nobody gets that it may be because this is no place for a child.
Other members of the motley crew include Paulo (Dinarte Branco), who dreams of a better life; his elderly uncle, Melo (Raul Solnado), who expertly crafts the fake documents; untrustworthy Tolentino (Francisco Maestre), who brings the immigrants in; and Victor’s brash Spanish ex-wife, Fernanda (Maria Barranco), who set up the whole operation.
Seeking documentation, three Russian orthopedic surgeons turn up, led by Andrei (Mikhail Evlanov). Sharing his language, Lisa falls for him, and the promise of escape beckons. But elsewhere, cracks are opening up in this microcosm where common morality cannot prevail.
Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and African characters are all tightly wound into a story that never moves beyond a clutch of barrio houses but nevertheless feels universal. Lenser Carlos Lopes works wonders, imbuing this Portuguese coastal slum with an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world feel. Thunderous skies that unleash a continuous downpour and dank, labyrinthine streets lined with buildings on the brink of collapse combine to create a general air of impending doom, though one laid on too thickly; auds won’t need the thousandth shot of falling rain to get the point.
In one magical-realist scene, a fishing boat is blown onto the roof of the gang’s house and left to sit there, a potent symbol of the impact of immigration on Europe. Elsewhere, a darkly comic dinnertime sequence, heavy with the weight of the unspoken, shows how this supposed community is held together only by fear.
Script does a good job of individualizing the members of pic’s sizable cast, with Barranco (generally seen in comic roles dating back to Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) going plausibly and powerfully over the top as the twisted mother figure struggling to hold things together. Solnado is also tops as the quiet, aging Melo, who can’t quite understand how he wound up where he is.
Moments of quiet voiceover from Lisa discreetly express her frustration at living a life whose strings are being pulled from afar. The title reps a nod to the way the American dream is far from becoming a European reality. Sadly, pic marks the final film appearances of Solnado and Maestre.