Billed as fact-based fiction, “Sealed Cargo” manages to eke an awful lot of fun and heart out of the unappetizing notion of police trying to sneak imported toxic sludge into a rural dump site. This buoyant seriocomedy from director/co-scenarist Julia Vargas-Weise juggles a lot of balls with seeming ease, from farcical elements and romance to political commentary. While the film has kept an oddly low profile in playing a long line of second-tier festivals over the past year, it’s selection as Bolivia’s Oscar submission might bring this international co-production some well-deserved interest from offshore distributors.
Whatever the bright green gunk leaking out of heavy-duty barrels is, and wherever it originally came from, it requires handling from workers in full hazmat suits. The film shows the carelessness with which this presumably First World poison is being unloaded on unsuspecting Third World nations when one worker simply pastes “America” over the second word of the barrel’s address: “South Africa.”
Not long after, Captain Hector Mariscal (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) is thrilled to get a promotion. He and trophy wife Nena (Prakriti Maduro) will soon be sent to work with the DEA in Washington D.C., a superior informs him. But there’s a catch: First, this humorlessly dutiful public servant must oversee the transport of some questionably legal cargo to a suitably off-grid location, where it will be disposed of as quietly as possible. For this purpose, he takes along three low-level officers — laid-back cynic Urdimala (Fernando Anze); eager young brown-noser Choque (Marcelo Nina); and older, devoutly Christian scold Mendieta (Gonzalo Cubero) — with a plan to travel high into the mountains on a long-decommissioned train specially dusted off for the occasion. The train is the pride and joy of drolly anti-authoritarian driver/engineer Agustin (Luis Bredow), who has likewise been brought out of retirement. But Agustin sees his loyalty lying with that storied locomotive rather than the officious cop now barking orders at him.
After a few hiccups, things seem to go well at enough. But all too soon it becomes apparent that news of the tainted cargo has been leaked to the media. Local protesters, led by an indigenous activist (Jorge Hidalgo), who frequently appears out of thin air like a Spaghetti Western hero, turn up nearly everywhere the alleged “Death Train” goes, aware of its potential to poison their rivers, soil, and lives. At one such harried stop, the men discover a stowaway in Tania (Daniela Lema), a young woman who claims she just wants a lift to the big city. Much bigger problems quickly arise, as citizen blockades force the train and its harried personnel to backtrack, change plans, and even exchange gunfire with the protesters.
Vargas-Weise and co-writer Juan Claudio Lechin have contrived a lovely expansiveness to the story, with room enough for slapstick, social satire, action, a love triangle, suspense, and some surprisingly touching late developments. All the principal characters are treated with both humor and affection, granted dramatic arcs that lend them pleasing depth. (Even Mariscal’s sexpot wife, trying to badger officials already abandoning ship during the escalating scandal, proves she has more mettle than first meets the eye.) The adventure’s principal note of rueful absurdism climaxes in a surreal set-piece involving a small army of men in eerie traditional costumes, complete with antlers.
Vargas-Weise has assembled a fine design and technical package to support the excellent cast and the clever, tonally unpredictable tale. Milton Guzman’s widescreen cinematography makes terrific use of some stark, impressive landscapes to create screen vistas worthy of Leone.