Sunday, April 22, 2012

Under My Nails [2012]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Under my Nails (written and staring Kisha Burgos and directed by her husband Ari Maniel Cruz) is a movie filmed in Puerto Rico and New York, which played recently at the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival.

The film, a drama, is about a young and very lonely/isolated Puerto Rican woman named Solimar (played by Kisha Burgos) living alone in a spartan one bedroom flat somewhere in the Bronx.  Born in Puerto Rico, she had lost both her parents when she was only about 8-10 years old.  Her mother apparently abandoned her and her father.  Her father then committed suicide (by drowning) soon afterwards.   Apparently she was largely raised afterwards by a (presumably) gay uncle named Amalia (played by Antonio Pantojas) living in New York who remains pretty much her only family.  Indeed, aside from Rose (played by Maite Bonilla) a coworker at a neighborhood nail salon where Solimar works, Amalia is pretty much the only person that Solimar ever talks to or confides in.  Thus it's a pretty cold and lonely existence, heightened all in the film by the fact that the scenes shot in the Bronx were taken in the winter with the streets full of snow.

During the course of the film, a Dominican couple moves to the flat next to hers.  Actually the man, Roberto (played by Ivan Camilo) is Dominican.  His wife, Perpetue (played by Dolores Pedro) is Haitian.  Moving in / living with the two was also Roberto's mother Goya (played by Rosie Berrido).  It becomes rather obvious rather quickly that Roberto's mother Goya doesn't like or respect Perpetue and Perpetue doesn't like her mother-in-law either.  Solimar can hear the sounds of a lot of fighting from that neighboring flat.  She also comes to hear some rather noisy love making as well.

With her uncle having left for Puerto Rico for a number of weeks after his long-time companion dies at the end a long illness (AIDS?), Solimar's already small horizons become even smaller, now restricted to her largely empty one bedroom flat and her hours at the nail salon a short if cold distance away.  So she becomes increasingly focused on the noises, both angry and sensual, coming out the neighboring flat.  Much, often very sad/tormented ensues ...

I found the movie to be excellent if in its realism often very depressing.  As is often the case at film festivals, the director Ari Maniel Cruz was present after the film to take questions.  After fielding several questions from some of the viewers somewhat disappointed/irate at the film's portrayal of Solimar, with the director assuring them that this portrayal did not come from him but from his wife Kisha Burgos who wrote and starred in the film, I asked him a similar question:

Beginning by saying that I honestly thought that the film was excellent, and that it reminded me of works by, say, Italian American director Martin Scorsese (who incidentally was also from New York) whose similarly unflinching/graphic portrayals of gangsters and so forth actually angered a fair number of Italian Americans because his films actually ended up supporting a number of negative stereotypes of Italian Americans in society (that "Italian Americans have supposedly been 'largely gangsters' in this country), I asked the director here what he would say to those who would criticize him for doing something similar in this film.  After all, this film was about a young Puerto Rican woman living in the Bronx who was (1) poor, (2) obviously had "some issues" from a tormented childhood and (3) chose to enter into an abusive and rather degrading relationship with a man who wasn't her own.  One could therefore fear that a movie like this could actually support some unfair/negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans.

I thought that director Ari Maniel Cruz's answer was excellent.  First, he noted, that his and his wife's intention was not to produce "commercial cinema" but "real cinema," that is, that he didn't particularly care if non-Puerto Ricans seeing this film could perhaps use it to put-down Puerto Ricans (he intended the film for serious audiences, not mindless ones much less bigoted ones).  Second, he maintained that "real cinema" has to speak/confront the truth.  (Who cares what non-Puerto Ricans may think of this film? Traumatized and lonely characters like Solimar exist in this world, as do (Dominican) Robertos (who by being Dominican are often looked down-upon by Puerto Ricans) and even Perpetues (Haitian, who often are looked down-upon by both Puerto Ricans and Dominicans).  As such, the scenario may not be pretty, but it's real.  And the director insisted that real cinema from any country or culture would generally not be pretty either.  Yet such cinema speaks the truth, as any art that is true). 

So my hat off to Ari Maniel Cruz and Kisha Burgos.  This is a simple yet unflinching and powerful film.  Parents note that it is a film that if rated would certainly be rated R.  But I do believe that it tells a story that deserves to be told and from the perspective (largely from the perspective of the main character, Solimar's) that it is told here.  So once again, as has been the case of virtually everything that I've at the Chicago Latino Film Festival over the last 2 years, my congratulations to the film-makers and the cast for a very very good job!

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