south of the border, an Ecuadorean thriller
The Washington Post
Sept. 15, 2005
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
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 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."