Director: Wisny Dorce
Writer: Wisny Dorce
Cast: Mauricio Gonzalez, Daiana Velozo Rocio, Hugo Daniel Balcone
Running time: 1hr 47mins
In modern film criticism, it’s fair to say that there are fewer genres so commonly understood as melodrama. Among more repressed cultures like my own English origins, the medium is given a particularly bad rap; if someone behaves melodramatically, they said to be exaggerating or overemotional – both quite unseemly qualities for a nation which favours quiet tolerance of suffering over vocalised complaints any day of the week. Such a starch-collared approach to human emotion sadly means the British tend to overlook the qualities of melodrama as an art form.
This is something which Latin cinema in particular understands well; in spite of what you may have been led to believe by various cultural straw-men dreamt up to belittle the USA’s neighbours. When we think about melodrama in Central and South America, the conversation mistakenly gets stuck on telenovela. While I can’t dispute that to an outsider, this genre presents rich pickings for ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ viewing, it would be wrong to sneeringly assume Latin melodrama is limited to telenovela – in the same way it would be wrong to assume all British cinema is as mawkish and moribund as the dated parody Cockneys paraded about in Eastenders.
At its best, melodrama often has complex ties to realism – focusing on ordinary or poor people – but extracting them from the comfort of kitchen-sink realism and exposing them to extraordinary events. Melodramas use this dichotomy to explore disparities between race, religion, sexuality, gender and class in an accessible way – they can address real issues, while drawing a broad audience in search of entertainment. This is why some of Ken Loach’s more snobbish detractors tend to label the socialist filmmaker’s work as “melodramatic,” despite his ties to the realist movement of the 20th century.
Ultimately, melodramas can also offer a way for ordinary people to be seen to triumph in some way; to defeat the drudgery of the everyday lives the status quo expects them to endure silently on its behalf. As Peter Brooks summarises in his book The Melodramatic Imagination, melodrama’s high emotions and dramatic rhetoric, represent a “victory over repression” above all else. And that brings me to Wisny Dorce’s directorial debut, El Afortunado.
Born and raised in Haiti, Dorce spent a period of his life travelling before settling in Argentina. He has since become an Argentine citizen, and studied cinematography. His prima opera subsequently attempts to explore the many systemic disparities he has encountered on that journey, aiming at depicting the daily struggles working class black communities face in South America. While it is not always successful in its execution, its honourable motives mean many of its vices can be easily forgiven.
The film follows Emanuel (the extremely affable Mauricio Gonzalez), a young Afro-Argentine who lives in Buenos Aires. The sole guardian of his two younger brothers, which is made more difficult by the fact that despite being a biochemist, employers of Buenos Aires are unwilling to hire a black man in any capacity. Placed in a position where he must take what he can or face his family starving and becoming homeless, Emanuel is beset by parasitic landlords and uncaring bosses, all looking to cash in on his vulnerable position.
Emanuela (the suitably dislikeable Daiana Velozo Rocio) is the spoilt daughter of a businessman who dies in the film’s first act. The crux of the story is that before his passing, he unwittingly transfers Emanuela’s inheritance of several million pesos to Emanuel’s bank-account, which is identical but for one digit. Understandably, chaos ensues, and the players are thrown into a comedic melodrama akin to Trading Places, whereby they educate each other away from their former prejudices, and build a happier life together, more or less…
Unfortunately, El Afortunado lacks the polish of its American predecessor. While a chunk of that can be attributed to a sizeable budgetary difference, and the inevitable inability of first-time filmmakers being able to attract the industry’s big names, there are many issues which Dorce and co. could have easily dealt with themselves.
The film’s plot is flabby, and it takes far too long to get its characters where they need to be before the fun begins. At the same time, its editing is rough around the edges, to say the least. The camera seems to Quantum Leap between scenes, often leaving disorientated viewers wondering where and when we are.
This is not helped by director of photography Jeremias Martinez Maggio apparently being anaphylactically allergic to establishing shots. At any one time, Emanuel might be sitting in his home, or the doctor’s surgery, or a police station for all we know! For a film set among the stunning surroundings of Buenos Aires, this seems like a missed opportunity, with the opportunity to contrast Emanuel’s hardship against some of the city’s more notable symbols of wealth and power.
Speaking of severe medical conditions, Emanuela’s father (Hugo Daniel Balcone) seems to be suffering from a chronic bout of over-acting, on top of seemingly being inflicted with every known variant of cancer. When his daughter hangs up on a call, he bellows “Hello? Hello?” to his smart-phone – which not only visually shows when someone has ended a call, but makes a sound.
This embarrassingly out-dated trope simply doesn’t work when someone isn’t using a phone mounted to the wall he has to wind-up first, and illustrates how Balcone might have been better directed to “rein it in a bit” for the duration of his performance. Similarly, to make sure we understand he is in less-than-good-health, poor old Andrez coughs, clutches his chest, collapses and pisses blood before – somewhat anti-climactically – shuffling off his mortal coil off-screen. Melodrama is over-the-top sometimes, sure, but this is borderline comic, and it isn’t being played for laughs.
Luckily for El Afortunado, the film’s well-executed feel-good elements and a worthy undertone of social commentary will help these sins fade to the back of viewers’ minds. Of particular note are one scene where Emanuel discusses racism with his cousin. While she says she is often told she is “quite pretty for a black girl,” as the son of a Haitian migrant, he has been made to feel as if he is a foreigner in his own land, “but this is my land, it’s my country!” In contrast, we see Emanuela and a friend lounge about in a lavish spa-hotel on Dad’s coin, while waxing lyrical about the importance of “seeing the world.”
The ways the two halves of the film live are both infuriating and relatable, and they carry us with the characters throughout the rest of the film – even if we are at times driven to distraction by its slow pace or frustrating editing. At the end of the day then, this might lack a lot of the comedic edge or directorial polish of the likes of Trading Places, but if you can exert a little patience, El Afortunado will take you on a journey with its characters that is well worth experiencing.
As is perhaps to be expected, first-time filmmaker Dorce’s prima opera is sloppy in its delivery, with audio and visual editing that leaves a lot to be desired. With that being said, it possesses an infectious likability which means many of its sins can be forgiven, and which enables it to deliver on some of the very best aspects of melodramtic cinema. In terms of the broader picture, Dorce and his team have shown they have the raw materials needed to produce something genuinely special in the future, providing they learn from the issues of El Afortunado.
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