Film: Panama’s ‘Plaza Catedral’ for the Oscars

In “Panamá apuesta ahora al Oscar con la impactante ‘Plaza Catedral,’” Sergio Burnstein (LA Times) reviews Panama’s Oscar contender Plaza Catedral, directed by Abner Benaim.

This is what you can expect from the Panamanian proposal included in the ‘shortlist’ for the Academy Awards.

If you live in the United States, and even if you are interested in seeing Latin American cinema while you are here, it is likely that you do not remember having seen many films from Panama, which makes sense not only because we are in a country where few productions from Panama are released, but also because this small Central American nation does not yet have an actual film industry.

But it is not at all a place where this discipline is unknown, especially in view of developments in recent years, which have seen the making and launching (in theaters in Panama, of course) of numerous productions, among which, according to experts, those by Abner Benaim stand out. [This director] has participated in one way or another in an impressive number of works that have also been presented at international festivals held in different parts of the world.

Benaim is also essential for Panamanian cinematography in the sense that he was not only the creator of the first work presented by his country in the category of Best Foreign Language Film (“Invasión”, 2014), but also the second (“Yo no me llamo Rubén Blades”, from 2018) and, now, the third, “Plaza Catedral” (2021), which is vying for a nomination for the same category, whose name was recently changed to Best International Film.

In the end, neither “Invasion” nor “Blades” (which was seen in the US and is still available on various platforms) were nominated by the Academy, and we will have to wait and see what happens with the new one, which passed the first preselection and managed to be on the ‘shortlist’ of 15 titles, next to such heavyweights as “Drive My Car” from Japan, “A Hero” from Iran, and “The Worst Person in the World” from Norway. “Plaza Catedral” is also the only Latin American film pre-nominated alongside “Noche de fuego” (“Prayers for the Stolen”), from Mexico, and one of the three pre-nominated films that are spoken in our language (the third is “El buen patron”, from Spain).

The film, which has the aforementioned Blades as executive producer, is Benaim’s most international project to date (at least in terms of its commercial and best-known titles), in the sense that it places two actors from different latitudes at the forefront, which could open the door to a broader market than the initial one: Mexican Ilse Salas, who has participated in several series and soap operas, as well as in the films “Cantinflas”, “Güeros” and “Las chicas bien” ; and Colombian Manolo Cardona, widely celebrated for his roles in television productions and in films such as “Rosario Tijeras” and “El cartel de los sapos.”

The truth is that the presence of Cardona (who plays Diego, the husband of Salas’s character) is limited, unlike Salas, who places herself in the shoes of the protagonist, Alicia, an immigrant and architect who is still deeply affected by the death of her young son and who, after divorcing Diego, has moved to a building in the historic center [Casco Antiguo] of the Panamanian capital where outdoor parking areas are almost completely taken over by unauthorized ‘caretakers’.

One of them is ‘Chief’ (Fernando Xavier de Casta), an urban teenager of humble origins who calls Alicia a ‘gringa’, and with whom the architect establishes a strained relationship when she refuses to give him the money he demands for what he considers a job and she considers an illegal activity. From that moment, the storyline presents us with a common situation in many Latin American countries, where lack of opportunities in the labor market has produced an uncontrollable irruption of informal trades responding to the demand, and often taking advantage of the lack of controls on the part of the authorities.

Eventually, as is to be expected, Alicia and ‘Chief’ reach an emotional meeting point that brings them together in an unexpected way in her apartment, which for her is not a big deal but for him is akin to a mansion; it is there where the most moving moments of a film take place. However, the plot moves away after this convenient tenderness to follow the natural course of what was already glimpsed initially, especially with regard to the boy’s character, bringing to the fore the consequences of his upbringing in a poor and violent environment.

“Plaza Catedral,” which uses some particularly ingenious visual resources and is very well filmed (Lorenzo Hagerman’s photography is particularly impressive), always assumes the perspective of the ‘gringa,’ which gives Salas a great opportunity to shine in what is probably the best role of her career, displaying a remarkable performance.

But there is no doubt that, as it progressively happens to the depressed Alicia, the spectator’s curiosity will be mostly centered on Xavier de Casta, the young ‘non-actor’ who plays ‘Chief’ with an extreme naturalness that may be due to to his own origins and direct knowledge of the social environment that the character represents. The fact that the young actor himself was shot to death in his own neighborhood, months before the film was released, gives the whole project an additional aura of realism and tragedy.

Translated by Ivette Romero. For original review (in Spanish), see https://www.latimes.com/espanol/entretenimiento/articulo/2022-01-08/panama-apuesta-ahora-al-oscar-con-la-impactante-plaza-catedral

Also see https://variety.com/2021/film/news/plaza-catedral-abner-benaim-iff-panama-1235122928/

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