BOLIVIA (Adrián Caetano, 2001)

In grainy black and white, its style journalistic-cinéma-vérité, its length a trim, no-nonsenscial hour and a quarter, Bolivia is a small gem, sharply observant, finely expressive. It follows Freddy, a Bolivian husband and father of four, who has separated from his family in order to find work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he tries to alleviate his family’s poverty as a short order cook in a cheap restaurant. His pay is commensurate with the illegal status of his labor, and he must contend with the natives’ bigotry at a foreign interloper in their midst. With Argentina reeling from its own severe economic recession, Freddy is seen as one of the “niggers” who is taking jobs away from locals when, of course, what Freddy is also doing is keeping the prices on the menu affordable, however indigestible the sausage sandwiches he serves up appear to be. The establishment’s waitress, Rosa, is from Paraguay.

Context is everything. Freddy had had a job at home, as a field worker; but, in its war on drugs, the United States scorched Bolivia’s fields, casting adrift in even worse poverty the already impoverished. Freddy’s family, once hungry, is now starving. The film opens with a televised football—what we U.S. Americans call soccer—match in which the Argentinian team is trouncing the Bolivian team. Buenos Aires holds no great expectations for Freddy. At night, the police stop and harass him on the street, he is treated with contempt by everyone except Rosa and the frazzled restaurant owner, Enrique, who is, of course, exploiting him, and it is impossible to see how his meager pay and tips allow for anything at all to be sent home. Poverty isn’t sentimentalized here, nor is it outrageously ignored, in order to wax lyrical over the dignity to which the poor rise, as in the Brazilian film Me You Them (Eu Tu Eles, 2000), by Andrucha Waddington. Bolivia is the real deal, about an ordinary human being, whose dignity suffers a few lapses, who is trying hard to stay afloat.

The film reminded me of two others, one creditable and the other horrible. Recall Jan Schütte’s Dragon Chow (Drachenfutter, 1987), the West German gem, also in (although smooth and satiny) black and white, about an illegal Pakistani immigrant in Hamburg? The violent denouement that takes away Freddy’s life also brought to mind the combustible American film Do the Right Thing (1989). Whereas Bolivia is humane and analytical, though, Spike Lee’s piece of addled tripe is ersatz-stylish, with its hot and steamy colors, and belligerence. Restaurants provide the setting for films both good and bad.

Bolivia is a documentary-style nondocumentary, peopled (I presume) by nonprofessional actors, their first names matching those of the characters whom they portray. (One of these players is superb: Enrique Liporache, whom the Argentinian Film Critics Association named best supporting actor.) Epitomizing bigotry that targets the outsider in an environment of unemployment and frustration, one of the perpetual patrons of Enrique’s joint provides the vehemence and violence that slip this highly objective film into a subjective envelope. But the film slips right back out, with a terse Brechtian distancing device: Enrique’s new sign in the window, “Cook Wanted.”

The filmmaker is Adrián Caetano. His script, adjudged to be the year’s best by the Argentinian critics, proceeded from an original story by Romina Lafranchini. The title is sorely ironic. Freddy epitomizes the plight of his poor country as it is assaulted by globalization as well as by the war on drugs, but this plight also predicts, in this landscape, the fate of the marginally better-off Argentina. Caetano’s Bolivia can be seen as the companion-piece to an even more trenchant (and, again, black-and-white) examination of socioeconomic stress by another young Argentinian, Pablo Trapero’s 1999 Mundo grúa (Crane World).

Bolivia won the best Spanish-language film award at San Sebastián and critics’ awards at both Rotterdam and the London Film Festival. The citation for it at the latter read as follows: “For its direct, unsentimental treatment of one of the most important social questions facing urban societies everywhere.”

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