Gente de bien

Columbia (2014) Dir. Franco Lolli

We are always told that the grass is greener on the other side but often the reality of this encouraging maxim proves to be the opposite. While an adult one can at least do something to make sense of this and seek a solution, for a youngster, this is a difficult disappointment to reconcile.

In this French-Columbian co-production we meet Eric (Bryan Santamaria) a 10 year-old boy who is off loaded by his mother to live with his estranged father Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Pérez), an impoverished handyman in a less affluent part of downtown Bogota. Gabriel currently works as carpenter for middle classed Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero), who takes pity on father and son when Christmas approaches and they face eviction from their tiny apartment.

The English translation of the title is either “Decent People” or “Rich People”, the double meaning adding a cynical slant to the film’s central themes of social inequality and modern day poverty. As such, the assumption that the “decent people” are the maligned poor folk is an easy one to make although Maria Isabel’s charity dispels this myth; similarly Gabriel, and to a lesser extent Eric, has a chip on his shoulder from having to live hand to mouth or begrudgingly accepting handouts.

First time feature length helmer Franco Lolli is a Columbian native but studied filmmaking in Paris where the financial support for this film came from. One can feel a slight whiff of Gallic arthouse in Lolli’s mood building, most notably during the scenes with the rich family, yet the overall tone and aesthetic is intrinsically and distinctively Latin American.

Played out in a naturalistic manner Lillo depicts the struggles of Eric and Gabriel through an observant lens, keeping the camera respectively distant only closing in when it needs to. It’s not made entirely clear why Eric’s mother decides now is the right time for her son to meet up with his father again, the only real clue being the highly populated flat they live in. With his dog Lupita in tow, Eric is taken to Bogota on a bus and left with a bemused but nobly accepting Gabriel.

Living with Gabriel is less a step up but a step down in terms of squalor and immediately puts a strain on Gabriel’s meagre finances as he searches for a bigger place, jeopardised by the eviction notice which arrives shortly after. When Eric is caught stealing from Maria Isabel he is forced to reveal this predicament which leads to her invite to stay with her at the family home for Christmas.  

An act of generosity you would think but to keep Gabriel’s pride intact it is presented to him as a busman’s holiday while Eric gets to have a proper Christmas break. Barely a day into the holiday and Gabriel is resentful of the situation, working away on unimportant repairs while Maria Isabel and her clan idly sit around soaking up the festive cheer. Gabriel’s wounded conscience forces him to leave while Eric stay behind but soon the spoilt kids of the family show their true snobbish colours towards him.

This isn’t your typical “right or wrong” scenario yet we are presented with a situation in which are asked to consider the conflicting actions and attitudes of two people, born out of their financial and social status. The main problem that arises from this is one of communication with neither side able to articulate their feelings, their breeding if you will being a difficult barrier to overcome in making the other understand.

Like all good filmmakers Lolli doesn’t direct the audience towards any one path of opinion or influence where our sympathetic allegiance should lie. He presents the case without any sense of manipulation and we are left to make our own minds up. At time sit is awkward to watch as we are able to view this from both perspectives, but the crux of the matter is how it is handled by both parties.

Gabriel’s reactions are simply a reflection on his working class pride while Eric feels like the proverbial hot potato, passed from his mother to his father and now to a relative stranger in Maria Isabel. The latter isn’t aware of this so Eric’s outbursts and truculent behaviour is pure disrespect in her eyes in lieu of the charity she has shown him. But he is a child so he is reacting as only a wounded and confused child would, even if he is ethically wrong to do so.

Meanwhile representing the Bourgeois sect of society, Maria Isabel and her clan aren’t shown as inherent snobs but the odd whisper of concern about mixing with the hoi polloi is raised, much to her annoyance. The embarrassment they feel is of course shared by Gabriel and Eric yet it is with some irony that the one thing that actually connects them also divides them.

With the exception of Alejandra Borrero, the cast are non-professional or first time actors who equip themselves very well. Carlos Fernando Pérez plays Gabriel with a quiet dignity and earnestness for a man with such strict personal pride, but it is Bryan Santamaria who steals the show as Eric. Exuding the natural and unaffected innocence of a boy in a new world there is much to relate to when watching Eric, whether you are a child or an adult.

As a first timer, Lolli directs with assurance but also with a sense of familiarity in that it sits nicely alongside other films of this style and nature without being totally distinctive enough to stand out as a groundbreaking work. Lolli shows promise and has a keen sense of how to present a thoughtful story.

Maybe he could have explored a few more lighter moments for this estranged pairing as things are largely downbeat, if reflective of life on a shoestring. As a new voice in the world of naturalistic social dramas Lolli presents us with a cogent and impressive debut with Gente de bien.