From way south of the border, an Ecuadorean thriller

The Washington Post
Sept. 15, 2005

Pablo Izmirlian


The Internet Movie Database catalogues films going back to the earliest days of the medium, but it lists only 36 movie titles produced in Ecuador. Two of them belong to a young filmmaker with Ecuadorean roots, Sebastian Cordero: "Ratas, Ratones y Rateros" (1998) and "Cronicas," which opened in July in New York and Los Angeles.

"Cronicas" begins when TV tabloid reporter Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo) is deployed in Babahoyo, a poor rural town, to cover the developing story of a serial killer who rapes and tortures children. "The monster of Babahoyo," as Bonilla nicknames the killer, could pump up Bonilla's ratings, but discovering the murderer's identity could nab him his own show. The thriller - based on the true story of Colombian serial killer Luis Alfredo Garavito, who confessed in 1999 to murdering 140 children - is a psychological tug of war with a squinting resemblance to "The Silence of the Lambs."

A Latin American film getting released in U.S. theaters is becoming less of a rare event, after hits such as "Amores Perros" (2000) by Alejandro Gonzalez Iqarritu, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001) by Alfonso Cuaron (both from Mexico), "Central Station" (1998) by Walter Salles and "City of God" (2002) by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Not only did they garner critical praise, but most did relatively well commercially ("City of God," for example, made more than twice its estimated $3.3 million budget in the United States).

"Maria Full of Grace" - an American/Colombian co-production - made $6.5 million.

Those movies paved the way for "Cronicas," which is opening in six U.S. cities before it's released wide in Latin America. The movie also made the festival rounds, at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, San Sebastian, Miami and Guadalajara.

Ecuador is still a country better known for, say, the exotic Galapagos Islands than for movies. As in other South American countries, film production there is scarce. But that may be changing.

"A lot of talent is coming now from outside of the U.S.," says David Koh, head of acquisitions and production at Palm Pictures, which picked up "Cronicas" for distribution in the United States. "It is an undeniable fact that there is a large audience" for Latin movies and that they "are doing commercially really well."

Gael Garcia Bernal of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" may not be a household name yet, but he's at least reached the neighborhood.

"It's fascinating how the international distribution scene has changed in the last five years," says Cordero, 32, who counts himself as part of a young generation of Latin American filmmakers slowly making their way to bigger audiences in the United States and Europe, their passports stamped for Cannes, Toronto or Sundance. It was while touring with his films that Cordero met Lucrecia Martel ("The Holy Girl") and Pablo Trapero ("Mundo Grua") from Argentina, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll ("Whisky") from Uruguay.

Cordero's project owes a lot to Cuaron, who made a few Hollywood films, including "Great Expectations" with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, before he returned to Mexico to start his own production house, Producciones Anhelo. The company's first feature was the hot road movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Cuaron, trying to break away from Hollywood-style films, reportedly had a company policy that dictated "no serial killer movies," but he broke his own rule to produce Cordero's film.

Cordero was born in Quito and moved at age 9 with his family to Paris, where his father died in a car accident. He sought refuge in movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Raising Arizona," and studied at the University of Southern California, a dream come true for someone hooked on cine gringo of the 1970s. He was also inspired by low-budget films like Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" and Nick Gomez's "Laws of Gravity." Fresh out of film school, Cordero quickly realized that the stories he wanted to tell were closer to his home country. "The most difficult part of making a movie is writing it," he says from his home in Quito. "You are all alone."

Back in Ecuador he shot videos for local bands and experimented with short films while working on a script that would become his first feature.

"Ratas, Ratones y Rateros" (or "Rats, Mice and Petty Thieves") is the story of Salvador, a teen-age delinquent on the streets of Quito. Cordero made it for about $250,000, gathered from local investors, family and friends. The film was nominated in 2001 for an Ariel, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscar, and at the awards ceremony Cordero met Berta Navarro, who would become a producer on "Cronicas." She talked about the script to director Guillermo Del Toro ("Cronos," "Hellboy"), who tipped Cuaron to Cordero's film idea. "Cronicas" was shot on location in Ecuador and stars Leguizamo and Leonor Watling (the comatose dancer in 2002's "Talk to Her"). The role was a challenge for the Colombian-born, U.S.-bred Leguizamo, who delivers his first Spanish-speaking performance.

"My parents talked to me in Spanish and I answered in English," Leguizamo explains. His character is a Hispanic American reporter, based in Miami, who switches between languages during the film. Leguizamo used a language coach and watched hours of Univision and Telemundo to prepare.

Another well-known star, Alfred Molina, used a free day during the production of "Spider-Man 2" to shoot his cameo in "Cronicas."

As a spinner of tales, Cordero likens himself to the popular tabloid media in Ecuador. "In a way, as a scriptwriter I do the same thing that sensationalist TV does," he says. "I read them as little works of fiction."

Cordero has new projects, but he doesn't talk about them. It's a question of superstition, he says, but it's likely the storyteller will take his inspiration from home: "Latin America is full of stories. You just pick up a little stone anywhere and you'll find plenty of them."