As the Venezuelan economic crisis intensifies to a point where no metaphor for hunger or mortal danger can sound hyperbolic, the country’s filmmakers are increasingly talking over their government’s troubling denial. Or, in the case of newcomer Gustavo Rondón Córdova, filling an empty silence with a loaded one: The characters don’t say much in “La Familia,” his rough-edged but finely scaled feature debut, but their lack of communication speaks to a larger lack of harmony and empathy in a population exhausted by poverty and ingrained brutality. An honest, urgent two-hander, tracking a struggling single father and his wayward son on the run from more than one undefined enemy, Córdova’s film brings little that’s new to its stylistic school of observational realism — but hits the Caracas sidewalks hard and purposefully enough to compensate.
Thanks to its combination of political currency and no-nonsense storytelling, “La Familia” has already racked up considerable festival mileage since its Cannes Critics’ Week debut. It remains a tough proposition, however, to theatrical distributors in a market heavy on comparably raw international fare — while its chase-movie trappings don’t quite carry the film into more marketable art-genre territory. Still, Córdova can expect higher-profile festival berths for his sophomore feature following this one’s healthy run.
There’s a lot that 30-something jack-of-all-trades Andres (Giovanny García) and his 12-year-old boy Pedro (Reggie Reyes, a scrappy newcomer) don’t talk about: They don’t dwell on the past, including the question of what happened to Pedro’s absent mother, and haven’t the luxury of considering a future much different from their current hand-to-mouth existence. They don’t share much partly because they don’t like each other much, but mostly because growing up poor on the fringes of the Venezuelan capital has taught Andres to keep his head down and focus on his own problems, while Pedro has followed suit.
That approach hasn’t taken them down quite the same path, though. While Andres pursues a humble living via a variety of round-the-clock menial jobs — from house-building to cater-waitering, often in the same day — Pedro has precociously been drawn into his community’s growing culture of street violence. Spending his days not-so-playfully brawling and bantering with a group of other young would-be toughs, the kid falls out of his depth during one particularly rough altercation over a cellphone — which ends with Pedro stabbing the other boy, perhaps fatally, in the neck. It’s an act of self-defense, though unlikely to be seen as such by the victim’s family and possible gang affiliates. Either way, Andres isn’t waiting to find out, as he and Pedro hastily go into hiding in the city.
As father and son, hitherto more related than acquainted, must suddenly spend every waking hour together, what ensues is a bonding story of sorts — though not one that proceeds along the sentimental lines you might expect. Unfamiliar proximity doesn’t reveal a wealth of common ground between Andres and Pedro, though it does beget a kind of grudging mutual understanding: Pedro, perhaps for the first time, sees how much sweat goes into his father’s drab livelihood, while Andres perceives the extent to which his cast-adrift son has been forced to improvise a survival strategy and moral code for himself.
The two stars — one professional, one a street-casting find — are alike in integrity, playing intuitively off each other’s edges and angles, and building to a precarious chemistry that feels appropriately hard-earned. Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga’s subtly on-the-fly camera rests frequently on their watchful faces as they silently consider and interpret each other, and the film in turn watches them with reserved, even-handed perspective. Blame is never cast in the direction of either character, but implicitly at an administration that affords many parents the bare minimum of time and resources to raise their children. At first glance, “La Familia” seems a generic title, though it turns out to be a pointedly ironic one: Andres and Pedro are a family in name only, only tentatively learning to live as one.