An at-risk teen learns a lesson about values, the importance of community, and the liberating power of art in “Mateo,” a straightforward social-issues drama from Colombia-born, NYU- and La Femis-trained helmer Maria Gamboa. Told with passion and sincerity, this moral tale offers an audience-friendly blend of didacticism and naivete reminiscent of an Afterschool Special. Having nabbed awards for screenplay and first feature at the Miami Film Festival, plus two special jury mentions at Cartagena, the film should see extensive fest travel before seguing into niche theatrical play and broadcast exposure in Spanish-speaking markets.
Set in Barrancabermeja, a river port and the unofficial capital of Colombia’s violence-scarred Magdalena Medio Valley, the film centers on Mateo (Carlos Hernandez), a 16-year-old in danger of being kicked out of school and becoming ensnared in a criminal lifestyle. Mateo lives with his poor, hard-working single mother, Made (Miriam “Pesca” Gutierrez), but looks to his Uncle Walter (Samuel Lazcano), a local crime boss, as his role model. Although Made frowns on the lad’s interaction with her sinister brother, Mateo earns more than she does by collecting extortion money from local shopkeepers on his uncle’s behalf.
Mateo’s school threatens him with expulsion unless he enrolls in a theater program run by an unconventional priest, Father David (Felipe Botero). Made puts her foot down, saying he must attend or she will banish him from the house. At first, macho Mateo feels threatened by the group’s touchy-feely, trust-building exercises; he storms out of his first session, refusing to touch other boys or let them touch him (“It’s not my thing … it’s for faggots,” he tells his mother). But Walter secretly ups the ante for Mateo to participate, ordering him to spy on the padre and the group members, and promising him his own gun and a permanent place in his gang.
Eventually, the theater group’s activities and the camaraderie of the others spark something in Mateo, who begins to take pride in his new skills and feels liberated from his day-to-day pressures. Adding to his enjoyment is his interest in another attendee, the curvaceous Ana (Leldy Nino). But when his best friend, Carlos (Juan Orozco), goes missing after crossing Walter, Mateo starts to realize just how dangerous his uncle is, especially when his uncle starts pressuring him for dirt on his new friends.
The simple (and at times simplistic) script by helmer Gamboa and Adriana Arjona is clearly intended to instruct and inspire as it shows how cooperation and collective action empower people, enabling them to retain their dignity and resist pressure from forces outside the law. Gamboa demonstrates this not only via the activities of the theater group, but also through Made and other female members of the community as they collaborate to start a plant nursery and bakery.
Per press kit, Gamboa was directing a TV series, “Revelados,” about how to prevent adolescents from entering Colombia’s armed conflict, when she encountered several instances in which the lives of vulnerable teens had been changed through their contact with groups of artists. This provided the inspiration for “Mateo,” on which she collaborated with community-based peace activists and cultural groups. Apart from Botero, the thesps are local non-pros, mostly well cast if slightly stiff. The handsome Hernandez does a good job of portraying his character’s transition from swaggering gangster wannabe to someone starting to think about morals and ethics, while lively Nino nicely conveys the excitement and physicality of first love.
The modest but polished production package gives a naturalistic sense of the daily lives of the urban poor.