Opening tomorrow at the Cinema Village in New York, the Paraguayan film “Seven Boxes” will not only remind you of another film with a digital title—“Seven Psychopaths”—but also its uniquely British mixture of criminal mayhem, wild coincidence, and dark comedy. Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of “Seven Psychopaths” was a relative latecomer to a genre pioneered by Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Snatch”), and before him Charles Crichton of “Lavender Hill Mob” and “A Fish Called Wanda” fame.
What distinguishes “Seven Boxes” from its British cousins is its affinity for a completely different genre, Italian neo-realism. Filmed on location in the mean streets of Ascension, the characters are the kind featured in a Da Sica or a Rossellini classic, starting with the lead character Victor (Celso Franco), a teen-aged porter in a local open-air market place of the sort that are found throughout Latin and Central America, where you can buy used clothing, fresh fruit, cell phones, CD’s, etc.
Victor roams around the marketplace with his pushcart, looking for customers who need goods conveyed from one location to another. But he seems to prefer watching movies, especially crime movies, on TV sets in the local electronics stall. When we first meet him, he is gazing intently at a gangster movie. Little does he suspect that within minutes he will become pulled into a chain of events like those he is watching on television.
Victor hopes to pull together enough money to buy a smart cell phone capable of recording video. That would be the first step in being able to make his own movies, with him as director, writer, and leading man—maybe not sufficient to open at the Cinema Village but surely good enough to be seen on Youtube.
Just such a phone becomes available when his sister’s best friend, who works with her in the kitchen of a Korean-owned restaurant, decides to sell her cell phone to cover some medical expenses—she is in her ninth month of pregnancy. Victor runs into pure serendipity when a butcher hires him to remove seven boxes from his shop for a couple of hours until the cops have finished inspecting his place. The word butcher should give you a clue as to what is found in the seven boxes. Victor’s payment for tending after the seven boxes will be just enough to cover the coveted smart phone.
Another porter, who augments his income by petty crime, enters the scene in order to hijack the seven boxes, assuming—quite rightly but mistakenly—that they contain money rather than body parts. With a gang recruited from the marketplace, they chase Victor here and there hoping for a big payday. Co-directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbor orchestrate such scenes as deftly as anything seen in the Jason Bourne series but with much more of a feel for the realities of the open-air market and the lives of ordinary people. These Paraguayans are obviously too poor to afford high-powered motorcycles or BMW’s.
Juan Carlos Maneglia was a regular visitor to Asunción’s Mercado 4, and in 2004, he began planning to film the porters and vendors who worked there. The shooting of the film took place mainly at night. 7 Boxes had a cast of 30 people and a large crew. The production included an office near the shopping area, with the support of the leadership of the Municipal Market No. 4 for logistics and safety of the film crew. The National Police accompanied the filmmakers for some sequences in which some sectors needed to be closed off for location shooting. The script provides about 75 locations for about 179 scenes. The filming of 7 Boxes lasted two months and two days of shooting, where more than 40 technicians and actors participated in the filming.
This is the second Paraguayan film I have had the pleasure to review in the past year. The first was “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights. While the demise of the Stroessner dictatorship can first of all be celebrated as a welcome end to death squads and torture, an ancillary benefit is the apparent inception of a new film industry that is humanist at its heart. You can enjoy “Seven Boxes” in the same way that you can enjoy a British crime caper but you can also get a feel for the lives of the marginalized who are making history today by finding their own voices. If Victor’s dream is to make and star in film, that is not much more than a fantasy than Venezuelans or Bolivians seeking to use the wealth of their country for human needs rather than private profit.
“Seven Boxes” also opens in LA and Chicago tomorrow. It will be available as VOD from ITunes and other streaming sources as well.
Also off the beaten track and opening tomorrow at the Indiescreen Theater in NY and Arena Cinema in LA is “After the Dark”, a film that probably would have been better off retaining its original title “The Philosophers”.
Filmed in Indonesia, it tells the story of a philosophy class meeting at an international school for its final session before summer break. The professor is used to challenging the students with thought experiments meant to force them to make moral choices based on utilitarian principles a la Jeremy Bentham. For example, a trolley car is headed toward five people tied to the tracks like in an old “Perils of Pauline” serial. There’s a track adjacent to that one that has only one person tied down. What is the ethical choice? To pull a switch that shunts the trolley to that track, resulting in only one death? That’s an easy one for the class to answer.
For their open-book final, the twenty-one students are presented with another ethical dilemma. All-out nuclear warfare has broken out and life on earth will be destroyed except for 10 of the students in the class. A bomb shelter will be available but it only has enough air supplies for that number. Drawing cards from a box, the professor assigns identities to the 21 students and allows them to decide who is more important for the survival of the human race. An electrical engineer will be more “utilitarian” than a poet, and so on.
The scenario is reenacted three times in the film in settings outside the classroom through imaginary simulations—the first in a place that looks like Angkor Wat, the second in a desert, and the third on a South Pacific island. In each location, the students struggle with each other and the professor to decide how to pick the right 10 people. As a “survivor” type exercise, I found the film a lot more compelling than “The Hunger Games” even if the film was a lot more modest in its visual presentation.
If there’s any criticism to be made for this intelligent actor’s vehicle, it is that the “thought experiment” framework largely undercuts the sense of impending doom and life-or-death decisions that would take place in a real nuclear Armageddon.
The dramatic tension in the film largely consists of the students challenging the utilitarian assumptions of the professor that not surprisingly echo those of capitalist society in general. What is the “utility” of an art historian compared to an electrical engineer? Just ask President Obama who told an audience that manufacturing jobs pay more than those you get with an art history degree.