Rodrigo D: No Future

08/08/2010

Colombia / 1990 / Spanish

Directed by Victor Gaviria

With Ramiro Meneses, Carlos Mario Restrepo, Jackson Idrian Gallego

Still from 'Rodrigo D: No Future'Victor Gaviria’s Rodrigo D: No Future is a startling and abrasive film telling a story of young men growing up amid violence, poverty, and cynicism in the Colombia of the late 1980’s. At the time Medellín, where it takes place, was considered the most dangerous city in the world, as it became a focal point of international drug trade, and the government was ill-equipped  for controlling it. Confrontingly real, tied to its urban location, and without a saccharine sheen to render its content palatable, the film is brought to life by a sterling cast of young, nonprofessional actors from the area, four of whom lost their lives to violence even before its release.

The title character, Rodrigo, is a frustrated, surly, sometimes shirtless young man who forever carries around his drum sticks, hoping to start a punk band once he has the drums to do so. Through all of his reticent nihilism, he manages to be magnetic and wistful, and one begins to hope that he will somehow find the means to escape his environment. There is also Adolfo, a mustached romantic who is dating Rodrigo’s sister; and the unpredictable Ramon, whose passions include drug deals and heists. While the boys are inhibited by the economics of the place (Rodrigo picks up odd jobs to make some money, but few of his friends seem to work) they are quite free in general, as there is little surrounding infrastructure to guide their behavior. They commit crimes partly for some excitement and release, in addition to gaining material wealth. The only danger is in getting recognized by the police, which for them means being “disappeared” and turning up as a corpse. This happens to one character in the movie, John, who borrows Adolfo’s gun and apparently gets in a shootout with the police, killing one of them. He lies low, but not low enough, as he is later found in a field, bruised and dead.

The film was shot in the vast suburbs that are splayed out on the sides of the mountains surrounding the city. Many of the scenes take place at night, lending them a certain blankness, and rendering the streets an undifferentiated maze as the people trudge, weary-looking, through their absurdly precipitous neighborhood. So much is abandoned, so many half shells of buildings clutter the view in overgrown architectural nonsense. It is all like a great playground for the teenagers who carry guns and play at knife fights and squat in cellars. At times it seems like they are interpreting the anarchism of the punk bands whom they venerate, but with a new-world density and distressing physicality. Unlike actual street children though, the boys all have loving families, whom we see in glimpses, but the outside tensions are too great, the lure of destruction too appealing. There are no jobs and no schools for them – they are in a wasteland of sorts.

Rodrigo is a loner among malcontents, spending much of the film stalking around the city by himself, looking for a drum kit through which he can realize his dreams. He doesn’t involve himself in the cycles of violence in which the other boys are ensconced, preferring instead to practice his primitive rhythmic skills and attend rooftop concerts. Ramon finds himself pursued by the police after he and two other boys pull off a successful carjacking. He comes to his friends for help, but Adolfo, already on edge following John’s murder, casts Ramon out and tells him to leave town for good.

Still from 'Rodrigo D: No Future'The streets are mean, not the people, and there is a definite sense of community among the decay and listlessness. Characters help each other, but are at a loss for how to help themselves. One of the film’s most compelling assets is its interest, albeit mercurial, in the many personalities that make up the landscape: an evangelist, an elderly drunkard, a rather incredible solo drummer and vocalist named Cipriano, longhaired twin sisters who play heavy metal, etc. – all people who are from the place, more or less playing themselves. There is a specificity to the time and locale that, for one who had not lived there at that time, rings incoherent, but is nonetheless captured in a way that is both involving and translucently casual.

Immediate comparisons that spring to mind are the Brazilian film City of God (2002) and its predecessor, Pixote (1981), both about the short and brutal lives of street children in slums. But Rodrigo D lacks the escapism, the equal measures of glorification and heavy-handedness that pervade both of those films. Everything in it is ugly, shambolic and without hope, with an industrial dream lying somewhere nestled in the far off skyscrapers below. Unsentimental and unaccommodating, it feels as though it were a film made by its protagonists, all males under twenty years old, or someone severely partial to their sensibilities. As the title suggests, its most accurate and comprehensive lineage stems from Italian Neorealism (named so because calling any film movement “Realism” is too presumptuous and, in this case, not true). Gaviria powerfully recalls Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) for the way he portrays the daily lives its characters in a manner that is both harsh and intimate, and how he allows them, to a degree, to speak for themselves without imposing a lot of commentary.

Gaviria and his crew use elaborate tracking shots and tableau-like compositions that lend grace, if not beauty, to the devastating scenes unfolding onscreen. The soundtrack, made up of local Medellín punk and black metal bands, comes in at scene transitions or artlessly swoops in during the middle of things. These stylistic moves, their slight degree of affectation and clumsy sincerity, make the whole statement all the more authentic for not trying to present something strictly real. And there is not much in the way of formulated plot; the storyline is picaresque, events connected somewhat loosely as the boys wander from scene to scene, and knock aimlessly about in search of thrills.

Still from 'Rodrigo D: No Future'While set in a city bedeviled by murders, kidnappings, and the ascendance of drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, the film is not about those large social problems. Indeed, drugs barely make an appearance at all. What it does address is much closer to the ground, not so much epidemic as endemic, related to the general sense of hopelessness and abandonment, no doubt felt by much of the country at the time, that here is given a human pallor. The film manages to be moving but not beseeching, depicting heedlessness without falling into it. It exhilarates without roughly wrenching the emotions. And it resists the unhelpful tag of “poverty porn,” largely because there is no sensibility to which it possibly could pander, so apparent is its seriousness, so closely and indelicately related are its art and its content. Gaviria has said that he and his colleagues initially became interested in Medellín’s suburbs, seeing them as an accumulation of frustration and violence, after reading in the newspaper about one boy, on whom he would model the character of Rodrigo. This was the catalyst for him making a film examining the sadness and desperation of his own city, the people behind the articles, what their dreams and issues are.

The first and last time that we see Rodrigo, he is in an empty building downtown, searching for and perhaps identifying what he really needs. For him this is both a welcome solitude from the stress of his home life and a glimpse inside the dazzling protrusions of civilization, even though they are places that look on the verge of condemnation and bulldozing. The buildings have, like him, no hope and no future, only mortality, urgency, and yearning.

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