Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio wasn’t sure for a long time how the people of Peru would embrace his film, “Retablo,” which tells the story of a teenage boy in a small town who discovers that his beloved father is secretly gay. But to his very pleasant surprise, he found out that upon release it drew sellout crowds across the country.
“This is a tale about the conflict between tradition and modernity,” the director said at TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series. “If you go beyond the capital, you go to towns that are very cut off from the rest of the world and are very set in their ways. There are a lot of paradigm shifts that have to be shifted.”
“Retablo” has been shown around the world over the last couple of years, starting with a premiere at the 2017 Festival de Cine De Lima and later going on festival tour that included stops in Berlin and New York. Now, it is Peru’s pick for the 2020 Best International Film Oscar.
Peru is a country with no same-sex marriage laws, and outside of Lima, there’s almost no public discussion of homosexuality whatsoever. This led Aparicio to create a film that would tackle such taboos through the framing of a coming-of-age tale.
On top of the usual questions of identity that come with such a story, there is a unique cultural angle in that the boy, Segundo, is training to take his father’s job as a maker of retablos, which translates literally as “altar piece” but in Peruvian culture can be household or church miniature altars that honor God and/or family. Segundo’s family makes retablos of the household kind, placing delicately crafted figurines into colorful boxes.
“If you want to become a retablo maker, you have to have it handed down from your family,” Aparicio said. “The transmission of art through family legacy was something that I found so beautiful.”
Aparicio wrote the script of the film through the Sundance Film Lab and then went out into the Andes for a year to prep and shoot the film. One of the biggest tasks, of course, was to find the boy who would play Segundo. After searching in dozens of schools and hundreds of kids, he found his star in Junior Bejar Roca, who impressed Aparicio with his discipline.
But when he read through the “Retablo” script with Roca’s parents, they were shocked to see how the film discussed homosexuality so openly. Despite this, they told Aparicio that they would leave it up to their son to decide if he wanted to take part in the movie.
“He told me, ‘You need to help me, I’ve never acted in my life…but I want to do it,” Aparicio said. “I think this is a really important character and it could help a lot of people in our country.”
Though it first began its festival run two years ago, “Retablo” wasn’t selected as an Oscar hopeful until this year because it only got a theatrical release in Peru this past May. Aparicio said that many cinemas weren’t initially interested in the film because it wasn’t commercial enough, especially since it is filmed in the indigenous language Quechua rather than Spanish.
“The forecast was that we were only going to be in cinemas for three days since no one would go…but then something magical happened,” he said. “It ended up selling out for nine weeks. Not just in Lima but everywhere.”
“To me, it was a sign that something is happening. We have received letters from parents talking about how they are trying to understand their kids in a different way. Families are seeing this film together. It shows to me that with love, anything is possible.”