Antonio Andres Pajares
Dori Maria Barranco
Ombasi Emilio Buale
With: Alejandro Martinez, Andrea Granero, Miguel del Arco, Patricia Lopez, Paul Berrondo, Cesar Vea, Jose Quero, Rafael Yuste, Santiago Nang.
Asking an audience to go with a film that addresses a subject as serious as xenophobia by starting out as broad comedy and gradually morphing into confrontational drama requires much more sophisticated mechanisms than the ones employed in “Bwana.” This initially amusing, visually handsome feature by Basque director Imanol Uribe was a hotly disputed main prizewinner at San Sebastian, and looks likely to land its best reception in the domestic commercial mainstream.
The story clocks 24 hours in the lives of a very average Spanish family headed by none-too-smart taxi driver Antonio (Andres Pajares) and his impatient wife, Dori (Maria Barranco). With their two kids, they take a weekend trip to a remote beach on Spain’s barren Almeria coast in the southeast. There, they encounter Ombasi (Emilio Buale), a black illegal immigrant who has made the crossing from Africa by raft with a friend who died during the journey.
Ombasi can’t speak Spanish, and his requests for help are misinterpreted by the couple, who brand him a threatening savage. Their attempts to remove the children to safety are thwarted when the car keys are mislaid. The family is forced to huddle nervously around Ombasi’s fire to keep warm during the night.
The couple’s uneasy proximity to Ombasi gives rise to genuinely funny situations, with ethnic stereotypes further explored when Dori dozes off and dreams of sex with the handsome, velvet-skinned stranger. But the sudden shift into more challenging territory, and the introduction of jarringly explicit violence with the arrival of a trio of neo-Nazis, creates problems, especially as the largely Teutonic skinheads (only one is Spanish) are as stereotypical as the noble, pure-of-soul savage.
Despite its obviousness, the film goes down easily thanks to two engaging lead actors. Popular comedy star Pajares, who branched into more upscale fare in 1990 with Carlos Saura’s “Ay, Carmela!,” plays Antonio as a man anxious to fulfill the role of the dependable family figurehead, but without the physical or mental resources to do so. Barranco (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) is delightful, starting out bossy and insensitive but steadily exposing the last shreds of a more intelligent nature. Buale brings intensity and dignity to the predictably written role of Ombasi.
While the single location and contained cast appear to reinforce the story’s legit origins, Javier Aguirresarobe broadens the scope with sharp, expansive lensing of the stark landscape.