Two impoverished fishermen from Colombia’s Pacific coast transport drugs for cash in “Manos sucias,” a rocky feature debut from New York-based helmer Josef Wladyka, here working with a non-pro cast that evinces more enthusiasm than finesse. Although it sports a few fresh moments, the tonally all-over-the-place drama is hampered by script and assembly problems that make it unlikely to find traction in the American market, despite Wladyka’s NYU professor Spike Lee having thrown his weight behind the pic. The U.S.-Colombia co-production debuted in competition at the Cartagena Film Festival and will screen in Tribeca’s Spotlight section next month.
The action takes place in Buenaventura, Colombia’s biggest Pacific port, and a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. After the confusing introductions of some characters that never appear again, the protagonists turn out to be two Afro-Colombian brothers who, unbelievably, haven’t seen each other for years, despite living in the same neighborhood.
Stern, competent elder brother Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez), who characterizes himself as the “the devil,” wants to put together enough money to move to Bogota. His wife has long since left him, and his beloved young son was killed when he mouthed off to a paramilitary gang. Meanwhile, Delio (Cristian James Abvincula), a wannabe rapper with an infant son of his own, aspires to the flash and cash of a gangster lifestyle, although he doesn’t display an aptitude for the “dirty hands” (the literal translation of the Spanish title) it requires.
Accompanied by a standard-issue snarling baddie (Hadder Blandon) from a drug-trafficking gang, the brothers use a small fishing boat to tow a narco-torpedo filled with millions of dollars of cocaine from the gang’s hideout in the north, toward Panama. But before they can deliver their clandestine cargo, they must contend with the suspicious coast guard, an enterprising thief and local paramilitaries.
Wladyka seems most comfortable working in thriller mode; his best sequence is an exciting chase that takes place between scooter-powered sidecars that speed along a railroad track in the coastal forest. However, the helmer proves less proficient with moments of stillness — of which, unfortunately, there are many, as the brothers while away time on their battered boat until they can complete the delivery. Here the tone becomes unconvincingly lighter, as the characters catch up with each other’s lives and sing the songs of their youth.
Although the screenplay, by Wladyka and Alan Blanco (who also lensed the film), leaves a lot to be desired in terms of motivation, character development and context, its main selling point — to a Colombian audience accustomed to other sorts of films about the drug trade — will be the depiction of these under-represented Afro-Colombian youth, capturing their lifestyle, aspirations, frustrations and humor. One of the best elements is the use of local music, from the hip-hop and rap favored by the youngsters in the clubs, to the rapturous, swelling tones of funeral choirs at key moments in the plot.
The assembly is perhaps the pic’s weakest aspect, after the script. The structure often makes no sense, and characters appear and disappear without explanation.
Wladyka was one of four American citizens with a film in Cartagena’s Colombian competition this year. The others included the fest’s big winner Mark Grieco with docu “Marmato”; Chris Gude with “Mambo Cool”; and Patrick Alexander with “Parador Hungaro.”