A cloud of despair hangs over Luis Alberto Restrepo’s “The First Night,” suggesting little escape for Colombia’s poor from the country’s ongoing, devastating civil war. Denying viewers information until its needed, pic — Colombia’s submission in the Oscar race — is critical of the nation’s social and political crises. Beyond borders, globally oriented fests appear to be pic’s best possibility, since commercial play will undoubtedly be strictly local.
A couple with two toddlers races through the jungle at night, finally stopping at a friend’s shack. Here, viewers discover they’ve been fleeing a massacre in their village — and that Tonio (Jhon Alex Toro) is wearing an army uniform. He appears to barely be on speaking terms with Paulina (Carolina Lizarazo), who insists on going on to Bogota on her own with the kids.
As Tonio spars with her while tagging along, flashbacks of their complex relationship are interspersed:Attracted to Paulina as she arrives in his village, Tonio is too slow to woo her, outdone by his more aggressive brother Wilson (Enrique Carriazo), whom he witnesses with her, in flagrante, in the jungle. Word of approaching anti-government guerillas gets to town, compelling the brothers to decide which side they’re on, with Wilson opting to join the rebels and Tonio playing it safe and signing up with the army.
Because Restrepo and his editors Victor Manuel Ruiz and Pierre Heron use a sharp cutting style that borders on jump-cuts, the constant shifts back and forth between present and past prove to be more dramatically effective than incessant flashbacking usually does.
Back in the present, Tonio and Paulina arrive in Bogota with nowhere to sleep, and pic becomes a three-hander for thesps Toro, Lizarazo and Hernan Mendez as a longtime homeless man who at first seems to be a Good Samaritan but later reveals darker motives.
Although pic’s final effect is unsatisfying in its abruptness, it conveys in brutal ways the full range of horrors experienced by the innocent poor caught between opposing social climes (jungle vs. city) and political forces (government vs. rebels). While the social construct is vividly staged, strengthened by an excellent cast largely unknown to even Latin American cinema mavens, pic suffers by offering no sense of the rebels other than as pillagers and murderers.
Technical package is fair, with its best work displayed in the somewhat theatrically realized but effective Bogota street scenes.