Artists have it tough everywhere, but maybe nowhere worse, suggests writer-director Julio Hernandez Cordon in his second feature, “Marimbas From Hell,” than his native Guatemala. A more realized film than his teenagers-in-trouble debut, “Gasolina,” this largely comic look at one determined marimba player’s struggles is a clear allegory on the dangers Guatemalan artists face when thinking outside the box. Pic can’t quite avoid the feeling of being an elaborate doodle, however, appealing to fests and audiences that have supported the director.
The opening few minutes are culled from raw documentary material Cordon shot during the making of “Gasolina,” when he encountered marimba player Alfonso Tunche. The musician speaks to the camera about his stressful dilemma, hiding alone in a small house from blackmailers who want to rob him of his beloved instrument, as intrinsic to Guatemalan musical culture as the bagpipes are to Scottish.
Exactly how and why Tunche found himself in this situation was left unexplained in that film, but Cordon was sufficiently impressed to cast the man essentially as himself in “Marimbas.” Though there are no blackmailers in sight, the musician is once again beleaguered at every turn. Few pay attention to his performing at a tourist hotel, so he’s let go. Then, his former band mates fight him for possession of the marimba (a variation on the xylophone), calling him selfish for going solo.
Tunche hides from them at the dank digs of godson Chiquilin (Victor Hugo Monterroso), a bit mentally slow since suffering an accident as a child, but hoping to sing with heavy metal rocker Blako (Roberto Gonzalez, in a highly amusing turn). In a move that turns the slowly paced, minimalist film into a momentary lark, Tunche collaborates with Blako in a new group dubbed “Marimbas From Hell.”
The idea of a marimba player in a heavy metal group is even more absurd in the listening, with Tunche’s comparatively tinny instrument struggling to be heard amid the wailing cacophony. A repeated visual joke (that runs thin quickly) shows Tunche laboriously dragging the heavy instrument around wherever he goes.
When Chiquilin nabs the marimba and hocks it for cash for his desperate, barely-seen g.f., “Marimbas From Hell” drifts into a type of low-key satire that’s more of a mild distraction.
Cordon directs Tunche to be himself, with the musician sometimes looking mildly confused in front of the camera. Gonzalez and Monterroso steal the show; Gonzalez’ bit as the “pastor” of a church devoted to Mosaic law, in which he speaks in phonetic Hebrew, recalls the earliest Woody Allen movies. Vid lensing, in a low-grade print, is barely sufficient for Cordon’s rather affected compositional fetishes.
Closing graphic states that “this is a tribute to the people I know who develop projects that are unthinkable in a country such as mine.”