Wednesday, September 1, 2010

La Yuma ***

Director: Florence Jaugey
Cast: Alma Blanco, Gabriel Benavides, Rigoberto Mayorga
María Esther López, Juan Carlos García, Eliézer Traña
Guillermo Martínez, Salvador Espinoza, Sobeyda Téllez

On the surface and narrowed down to its most basic elements, La Yuma is a film about sports, growing up and fate. Spelled out like that it sounds like something you've seen a million times before, and perhaps you have, but to deny it a chance because of that would be to miss out on a refreshing, utterly exciting experience.
Set in Managua, Nicaragua and directed by French expatriate Florence Jaguey, the film centers on the life of Yuma (Blanco), a young woman living in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
At home she has to endure her mother's (Téllez) indifference, her stepfather's abuse and has to look out after her two younger siblings.
She's mascot of sorts to a gang because their leader, the vicious Culebra (Mayorga), is in love with her and her closest confidante is a transvestite prostitute called La Cubana (García).
Yuma's escape from all this is boxing. She trains at a humble gym where she slowly begins to rise but the film isn't entirely about her sporting life.
It's more of a complex character study that just happens to have elements that might sound familiar, yet structurally and in execution the film is more akin to Neorrealism than Rocky.
Driven by a phenomenal performance by Blanco (making her screen debut) the film develops at a pace that's neither rushed nor languorous.
The director chooses well by having Yuma in almost every scene-it is her story after all-because she is such a rich character that you just want to learn more about her.
Foul mouthed, aggressive yet warm and seducing, her performance is a thing of naturalistic wonder. Yuma could've been in peril of becoming a caricature or a selfconscious archetype in the hands of a lesser actress but Blanco inhabits her like a professional. Watching her move with such assured grace and confidence gives the film a realistic quality that make the characters all the more compelling.
It's interesting to see how the filmmakers worked on the screenplay so that it becomes a very personal story that also encompasses a larger truth. The main focus might be on Yuma but accompanying her on her daily life we get glimpses of the reality in Managua; one that might've been too cruel or too raw if done in nonfiction but here works because the rich details compliment the main story.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the way in which Jaugey structures her film. At first it takes on a very episodic nature (there's a prologue that doesn't say much about what will happen next but sets the mood brilliantly) but slowly reveals itself to be shaped in a rather straightforward arc.
It mainly follows Yuma. The characters around her are supporting in the strictest sense without becoming accessories and the actors playing them are fantastic (María Esther López is a delicious scene stealer as Yuma's employer, the sassy shop owner Scarlett).
There is also the predominant theme of fate and the director questioning if one can make one's own or if in fact, there's nothing we can do to change it?
This is exemplified beautifully in the love story between Yuma and Ernesto (Benavides) a middle class university student who meets Yuma through an apparent coincidence.
At first we're meant to understand that Yuma herself is shaping the path she wants for herself, after all she spends most of the movie expressing how much she wants to leave, even looking down at those who want to stay behind.
Yet it's impossible, especially for those who tend to be more skeptical-which ironically would lead their position to resemble something like spirituality-to think that a simple human being isn't able to do so much and they might ask themselves, if in fact, Yuma's life, as driven by its protagonist as it seems, isn't already "written".
The truth is that those debates are better left for the audience, given that Yuma probably would have no time, or desire, to listen to existentialist issues; after all she's all about moving forward (notice how the camera often shoots her from behind, as if it too is trying to catch up her) and in the film's moving denouement we are reminded that life is too relentless for us to wait for it to happen.

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