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Coming-of-age ‘La Familia’ reflects cyclical urban violence

“La Familia,” a Venezuelan film about growing up amidst urban violence, was shown at Wasserman Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 28, as part of the Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF). “La Familia” won Best Film in the 2017 Miami Film Festival and was selected as a finalist at Cannes this year.

In its 16th year, BLIFF showcases films that feature Latinx-related topics. This is the first year that Brandeis joined other Boston-area colleges and venues to host BLIFF screenings.

“La Familia” centers on the story of a 12-year old boy named Pedro growing up in a poor suburb of Caracas, in an area referred to as “the block.” Pedro spends his days roughhousing with other kids in the neighborhood, until one day a younger boy approaches Pedro and his friends, takes out a gun and demands their cell phones. The boys resist, slapping the gun from his hand, and a scuffle breaks out. Here the action cuts to Pedro’s father, Andrés, walking down the street to meet his son, but we do catch a glimpse of Pedro picking up a piece of glass. When Andrés turns the corner, he sees Pedro holding a bloody glass shard, red soaking through his shirt. The gun-wielding boy is lying on the ground, clutching at a gash on his neck.

Andrés tries to help the bleeding boy before realizing it’s of no use and rushes Pedro home. There, he hastily commands Pedro to wash off the blood and pack a backpack so that they can leave. It turns out that the young boy Pedro stabbed is from “the slums,” a neighboring area controlled by gangs. Once they find out that Pedro stabbed one of their boys, they’ll come after him.

The rest of the movie chronicles Pedro and Andrés on the run, heading into the city to find work at a series of Andrés’ odd jobs. They spend a few days doing construction work at a remodeled house in an affluent neighborhood. One evening, the pair caters a ritzy event, what looks like a wedding, and Andrés brings a bottle of champagne to a guest, telling him that even though the bottle is reserved for family only, he’ll do him a favor—all the while hoping, of course, for the tip that the man eventually pulls from his wallet. The wealthy man then turns to the woman he’s with and remarks that the family—“la familia”—isn’t what they used to be.

In many ways, this line reflects Pedro and Andrés’ changing relationship. At the beginning of the film, it’s clear that they don’t spend much time together; Andrés goes to jobs for days on end. But once they leave the block, they slowly form a bond by working together every day. One of the longest conversations they have in the entire film is at the jacuzzi of the remodeled home, where Andrés tells his son that Pedro’s mother (implied to be dead throughout the film) used to love swimming in the public pool.

This is not to say that the father-son relationship blossoms by the end. The film is rife with long, stony silences, mainly from Pedro, and it’s hard to count the number of times that Pedro asks his father a question, and Andrés doesn’t answer—the film simply cuts to the next scene.

The film had a striking imagistic quality. One of its defining images was having the camera linger on shots of long, straight lines—characters walking along the edge of a rooftop; Pedro lining up a row of bullet casings; the lights along the top of a tunnel; the sharp angle of a hilly street. This focus on lines, and the camera staying with them, creates a feeling of extension, both of objects and of time.

This effect parallels one of the film’s most important themes: the endless cycle of poverty and violence afflicting young boys in Venezuela. As Pedro and Andrés spend more time together and begin to share a career path, it is clear that Pedro will grow up to find himself in the same dead end as his father. There is a poignant scene where the father and son are moving heavy materials for the home remodeling job, and as they each carry the ends of heavy sacks, they stare at each other, not saying anything. Pedro walks parallel to his father, straining his smaller muscles, looking at the future man he will become. Once the pair leave the city for good, there is no other option for Pedro—he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps, working manual labor jobs and remaining in poverty.

The same can be applied to the young boy who originally held Pedro and his friends at gunpoint. He was raised in the slums and thus born into the systems of gang violence that rule his neighborhood. He may have chosen to specifically target Pedro’s group, but his life and the choices he made were controlled by the men who gave him the gun.

“La Familia” communicates Pedro’s growth, and the harsh realities of urban violence and poverty in Venezuela, with little dialogue or explanation. It is a film driven by feeling, from the long silences and extended camera shots to Andrés’ ever-present worry. Pedro’s development is unspoken but written on his face; we see his anguish, anger, resignation. The film does not end on a hopeful note; rather, there is a lack of resolution and the sense that hardships are only just beginning for Pedro and Andrés. As for many Venezuelan families, this struggle is one without a solution in sight.

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