11 May 2009 | boblandock
On the road headed north
I recently had the opportunity to view Descansos at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico for its world premiere. In attendance were many of the principal cast members, along with the major crew including writer/director Chris Roybal. In the film, first-time director Roybal gives his audience a vision of how death is perceived in the eyes of people left behind.
In the style of such films as The City and Coffee & Cigarettes, Descansos takes on a neo-realistic approach as it follows several people across the American Southwest. Portrayed by a number of professional actors and local first-timers, the characters range from family members dealing with the loss or soon-to-be losses of loved ones to lovers left shattered after betrayals, deaths, and murders. It's not hard to remember the characters but by the end of the film you're emotionally exhausted. Some of the vignettes are rather uplifting and stylistic while others hit you rock bottom where it hurts. A number of them, however, do have their flaws.
"Marcelina", the first vignette, prepares the audience for just what they will be watching. Despite strong bits from its leading actors, Steven Martinez and Sylvia Sarmiento, and done gorgeously from an artistic point of view, the dialogue is much too repetitive despite being engaging. The lack of event is no problem but the pacing is off and the story drags. "Sue", the fourth vignette, does very much the same thing. Though beautifully lit with a binding performance from Diego Deane, his co-actor Eduardo Flores does little to impress with a monotone performance and more-so with over exaggerated facial expressions. Corny dialogue doesn't help remedy situation either.
Chris Roybal's vision, it seems, is the silence that comes in thought. While many of the vignettes require a lot of this (and it works to it's advantage), others are left flat when the actors do not offer any emotion during their rows of silence. Extended cutaway shots also drag out sections of monologues that should've never been separated. This, however, is really all the negativity that can be spoken of the film.
In favor, the third vignette "Lina" is the most uplifting, enjoyable, and one of the shortest. Its title character visits a store to purchase a dress for her inevitable funeral. But the story ends up being more about her 30-something daughter, Debra, who is soon to pick up the pieces after her mother's death. This interesting turn ultimately gives the viewer a look at where the suffering lands in someone's death. Strong performances by Lenore Armijo and Genia Michaela as mother and daughter help to anchor the story.
By the time the film has hit the one-hour marker (the entire film is 2 hours and 20 minutes) the final four stories send the film flying. Tighter editing and more artistic, eccentric styles of film-making and cinematography kick in. For example "Eva", the fifth vignette, is told completely with music. Gentler performances from a younger range of actors and a heart-wrenching story of a couple in despair also round out the second half of the film. A sad yet uplifting ending also eases the exhausting story.
Chris Roybal treats his audiences to the gorgeous wind-swept plains and mountain ranges of New Mexico in a very colorful array of greens and browns and several black and white arrangements. Despite the large cast (and the wonderful range of acting abilities) the true sense comes in the isolation many of the characters feel and massive close-ups for many of the characters allows the audience to connect further. Roybal uses nice levels of eccentricities in each vignette from subtle voice-overs and narrations to long one-take methods.
The other thing to take note of is the exceptional soundtrack. Full-featured Nathan Fox-Helser gives the film just a bit more stylism without getting in the way. Scottish singer/songwriter Michael Hargan provides beautiful vocals to a softer setting while English singer/songwriter Edward Bell's song "Two Continents" gives off a youthful feeling to teenage angst. The musical talents from all over the world top-lining the soundtrack are also perfect parallel to the multicultural cast leading the film itself.
Roybal has a clear vision of what he wants. He does it beautifully in direction and cinematography. The one thing he either needs to work on or pull in from an outside source (even an outside opinion) would be the editing which is most important for a film like this. Vignette style films either end up too long or too short; in this case it was too long. Hopefully a wider audience will give Descansos the chance it deserves and that's simply to be seen and appreciated for what it is.