Dilemmas suffered by Peruvian peasants trapped between government troops and guerrillas during the 1980s and 1990s are framed through the eyes of a boy in Fabrizio Aguilar’s debut feature, “Paper Dove.” A forceful ratcheting of the dramatic screws more than compensates for a conservative film style, leaving the impression that Aguilar is a writer-director who could grow with time. Peruvian Oscar entry is one of the biggest local hits in recent years, and might break into other Latin American markets traditionally impervious to the nation’s cinema.
Poetic tracking shot across a wall covered with photos of disappeared villagers gives way to a silent sequence showing a grown-up Juan being released from prison with others suspected but never proven to have collaborated with the Sendero Lumino (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. The bus ride back home in the Andes triggers his memories as an 11-year-old, and, for most of the opening reel, “Paper Dove” appears to be little more than a movie about happy farmers.
But this is Aguilar’s crafty way of establishing Juan’s secure world. Suspicions about Juan’s stepdad Fermin (Aristoteles Picho) surface when the mayor is found hanged in the town square, and before he realizes what’s happening, Juan is kidnapped by Sendero soldiers, led by Wilmer (Sergio Galliani).
An entirely different mood takes over, and Aguilar handles the transitionsmoothly. Juan tries to resist being dragooned into the guerrilla unit filled mostly with children like him yanked from their families, but through a process of military drills, chants, peer pressure and talks with Wilmer and older boy Modesto (Jesus Carbajal), Juan has a new home.
“Paper Dove” resists the temptation to stereotype factions. Instead, pic is about the terrible costs of civil war waged amid the poor, with the price paid by pre-teen guerrillas, Army officers on patrol and two-faced thugs like Fermin.
The film’s pulse rate really picks up when Juan escapes and finds himself pursued both by the guerrillas and local vigilantes. However, a contrived reconciliation as the adult Juan returns home is more of a salve to the audience than an effective closer.
Casting and production values in challenging Andean conditions are resourceful. Lab work by Havana-based Cinetel, though, is below average.