September 26, 2008

Wacky Road Humor, Bolivian-Style

By Michael Janusonis

If nothing else, Bolivian director Rodrigo Bellot's wacky road comedy Who Killed the White Llama?, being shown tomorrow as part of the Providence Latin American Film Festival, proves that Bolivia is almost as maniacally screwed up as the United States. (I might not have made that equation as recently as last week, but the current nutty events on Wall Street and Washington seem to have us pulling ahead of the Bolivians.)

At the very funny start of Bellot's film, a businessman (Guery Sandoval, who plays several characters) tells us in a happy-go- lucky way that in this "paradise of underdevelopment" there is "chaos and transgression like the daily bread. The rules are only respected by the closed-minded. The ones who steal govern the ones who don't," adding that "everyone wants to be divided, each with their own interests." Hmm. Hits kind of close to home, doesn't it?

Apparently it's not all doom and gloom in Bolivia, however. For he quickly points out that "We are in crisis, yet we party about anything and everything," as the camera cuts to various celebrations for the most outlandish things.

It's an exuberant introduction to the oddly titled Who Killed the White Llama?, a question that is eventually answered all too unhappily for the llama.

Yet although Bellot's film has offbeat moments that draw chuckles throughout, incidental characters who look directly into the camera to explain the motivations of the principals, and pop-up pronouncements that suddenly appear on screen to advance the action, the rest of the film doesn't live up to the lively anything-goes highly original mood of its first five minutes.

The film follows the journey of a pair of lower-class street hustlers, Jacinto (Miguel Valverde) and Domatila (Erika Andia), who are hired by a big-shot drug dealer (or so they are led to believe) to ferry 50 kilos of cocaine to Brazil, hidden in Domatila's fake- pregnant belly. Along the way, they are trailed by a pair of anti- drug agents, who have a large swastika hanging on their office wall and who seem to enjoy the product as much as stopping its transport. Truth to tell, once they're on the road with all those drugs, Jacinto and Domatila sample more than a little of the product on their own.

Bonnie and Clyde they're not, however, as along the way they meet up with Mr. Bolivia, who turns out to be a North American with a limited Spanish vocabulary; Hare Krishnas in a VW Beetle that keeps changing its colors; the drug agents; and that white llama, which creates an international incident. They also have sexual encounters with others that leave Jacinto and Domatila wondering whether they are meant for each other after all.

Some of this is amusing. Some of it runs on too long. The local references and situations would play better in a movie theater in La Paz, but some of the themes are universal.

Bellot tricks up his film with a lot of special effects, including overlaying a scene that's taking place at some distance with a close-up of that same scene in the foreground; multilens images, as though we were seeing a scene through a fly's eyes; and even follow-the-bouncing-ball on-screen lyrics.

An undercurrent theme is the struggle against the upper classes, which look down on the lower classes and use them for drudge work. But in Who Killed the White Llama? nothing is as it seems at first ... just like the fun-house mirror image of life in Bolivia.

Who Killed the White Llama? will be screened at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Brown University's Salomon Center, on the main campus green in Providence, with Bellot scheduled to lead a discussion following the showing.


Starring: Erika Andia, Miguel Valverde, Cacho Mendieta, Pablo Fernandez, Guery Sandoval. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated, contains violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes.

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Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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