Oscars International Race: 3 Revealing Latin American Films por Tu Consideración

Awards Wrap-Up: TheWrap film critic Carlos Aguilar on how submissions from Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama document a region in the midst of change

international film
"Clara Solo," "Plaza Catedral" and "Private Desert" (Habob; Apertura Films; Fado Filmes)

Scandinavia may well lead this year’s Best International Feature Film field at the Oscars, which begins shortlist voting on Friday, with a slate that includes favorites such as Denmark’s “Flee,” Finland’s “Compartment No. 6” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World.”

But Latin America has put up a surprisingly strong slate of submissions that haven’t garnered nearly enough attention, aside from perhaps Mexico’s well-received Netflix entry “Prayers for the Stolen.” One of the strongest contenders from the region yet to breakout into wide awareness is Brazil’s entry, “Private Desert,” from director Aly Muritiba. The handsomely realized romantic drama, which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, points a deft humanist lens at topical issues of identify.

Publicly embattled as a result on his violent impulses, Daniel (Antonio Saboia), a police officer and the son of a former sergeant, travels cross-country in search of the woman he loves. The trip serves both as a desperate escape route and path towards self-discovery.

Featuring characters longing to exist without pretenses, the story turns into a sensual and poignant exploration of unlikely connection. Saboia’s enraged performance, grounded on an internal battle against outdated conventions of masculinity and the language of brute force inherent to Daniel’s worldview, resonates intensely. To complement the charged lead performances, Muritiba deploys sultry cinematography and a famous Bonnie Tyler track with rousing potency. As the season unfolds, hopefully this noteworthy title secures U.S. distribution.

Following the success of Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona,” a Guatemalan political horror that made the Oscar shortlist last year and landed a historic Golden Globe nomination, Central American cinema returns this year with two top-notch works.

From Costa Rica, Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s bewitching debut “Clara Sola” mixes fablelike elements with a serious exploration of a women’s agency over her body. Born with a developmental disability and a divine gift to cure disease in others, the eponymous Clara (dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya) lives in a remote mountainous area.

Infantilized by those around her despite being 40, Clara’s sexual frustration mounts. Her rigid religious mother tries to suppress her desire with archaic practices. But when a young man arrives to work for a season, temptation intensifies. In a psychologically intricate part, Chinchilla Araya commands every scene with a deliberately erratic physicality.

Lush nature, captured as simultaneously idyllic and frightening, surrounds the character’s defiant pursuit for emancipation, and suffuses Álvarez Mesén’s film with a spellbinding atmosphere. A Swedish co-production, “Clara Sola” premiered Cannes Film Festival over the summer. Oscilloscope Laboratories has North American rights and will release the picture in early 2022.

Representing his native Panama at the Oscars for the third time, documentarian Abner Benaim leaps back into fiction filmmaking with the social realist film “Plaza Catedral.”

Award-winning Mexican actress Ilse Salas (“The Good Girls”) plays Alicia, a foreign employee of a developing firm settling into the Panamanian capital. Dealing with grief far from home, she befriends Chief (Fernando Xavier De Casta), a charmingly persistent street child forced into clandestine gigs by the country’s marked economic disparity.

Though her instinct is to try to protect him from harm, her privileged position prevents Alicia from understanding his reality until she digs deeper and puts herself on the line. Banter between Salas and first-time actor De Casta evolves organically devoid of sentimentality for a powerful two-hander.

In a terrible case of reality and fiction overlapping, the promising teenage star was killed earlier this year. The tragic event further underlines the importance of the topic at hand. No deals have been announced for a stateside release yet.