The striking opening shot of Abner Benaim’s plangent drama “Plaza Catedral” induces slight vertigo. The camera rises on an elevator attached to the outside of a partially built skyscraper, looking out across Panama City’s high-rise apartment complexes, and eventually, at the bay beyond. It should be uplifting, but a chilly, murmured voiceover and the opening drone of Matthew Herbert’s rueful score, are like the rainclouds that edge the blue sky in foreboding gray. The view ascends, but it evokes a sinking feeling.
The voice belongs to Alicia (a strong, subtle turn from Mexican actress Ilse Salas), who introduces herself and speaks elliptically, in her emotionless, removed way, of a loss she has suffered in her recent past, that has put her at odds with the world around her. She is an architect by training but a salesperson for an upscale property developer by profession, hence her visit to this half-finished penthouse, with the young family who are thinking of buying it.
In the wake of losing her 6-year-old son in a freak accident, Alicia and her husband Diego (Manolo Cardona) divorced. She now lives in a smart, well-appointed apartment on the Plaza of the title, where one day she is waved into a parking space by a rangy 13-year-old who calls her “Boss” and goes by the nickname “Chief.” He is played by a terrifically surly, understated Fernando Xavier De Casta, whose murder mere months before the film’s release is a shattering blow revealed to us in a terse title at the end, and cannot but cast a retroactive pall over the project, even while it stands as a fine testament to his nascent talent.
Chief is an annoyance to Alicia, who is wrapped up in her self-imposed, grief-mandated, guilt-induced isolation. He flings coins back at her when she doesn’t pay him enough, sneers at her as a gringa (she’s Mexican, but not being from Panama apparently makes her foreign enough to warrant the slur) and insinuates vague threats about what will happen to her car if she’s stingy. Alicia, with the grit of the hard-edged urbanite who is just too preoccupied right now to worry about checking her privilege, refuses to be intimidated. They settle into a frosty stalemate, which changes abruptly when one night Alicia finds Chief bleeding from a bullet wound to the stomach on her stairway.
This is the third time a film of Benaim’s has been selected as Panama’s entry for the international Oscar, but the previous two were documentaries (2014’s “Invasion” and 2018’s “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”). This time, in his second fiction feature, Benaim brings some of his documentarian sensibility to bear on a story that might otherwise feel a little schematic. As it is, the entirely convincing snapshot he presents, of a city riven by divisions between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken, comes to glowering life in the gently thawing chemistry between his two protagonists.
And while “Plaza Catedral” never lapses into sentimentality, as Alicia’s unexpected and volatile connection to Chief evolves to provide her with the redemption perhaps even she does not know she is seeking, the truthfulness of the performances renders it moving and genuine, despite the inherent problematics of its focus on the poor boy primarily as an agent of change for the well-off woman.
The actors’ subdued, elegant downplaying is complemented by the cool restraint of Lorenzo Hagerman photography, which is especially attuned to the impersonal, somehow oblivious, coldness of more moneyed surroundings: the expensively neutral upholstery of Alicia’s spacious apartment; the angles and floor-to-ceiling windows of the office where her complacent boss Jack (played by Benaim himself) insists on sharing a celebratory drink with her at 10 in the morning. One shot, of a painstaking scale model of the Panama City skyline which is placed by a window that looks out onto the very same real-life view, is eloquent in its summation of an entire professional elite who literally get to build the world according to their own design — or, conversely, get to look on the real world from a lordly perspective, as though it were their plaything.
It contrasts most markedly with a section toward the end when Alicia finally visits the grubby, ramshackle neighborhood where Chief lives, and of which it’s likely no architect ever troubled to build a model. That Benaim, who also wrote the screenplay, chooses to end his film here, in a moment of sudden violence that is a darkly cathartic culmination for both characters, is poignant in offering the slenderest, faintest tendril of optimism. Which somehow makes that final title, with the news of this promising, charismatic young actor’s horribly premature death, all the more crushing: an example not of life imitating art, but obliterating it.
‘Lunana’ Makes Long Trek to Oscars From Remote Corner of Bhutan
Bhutan’s first Oscar entry in 23 years, Pawo Choyning Dorji’s feature debut “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” had an unusual journey before landing on the shortlist for Oscar international film.
The lushly lensed feature, with a plot revolving around the spiritual coming of age of a young man on a quest to find happiness far from home, was made on solar batteries and shot for three months in one of world’s most isolated human settlements with first-time actors and an amateur crew.
“It’s a very surreal journey, and for me it really validates the power of art and filmmaking, that if you put your heart into it, and share a story with the world, it can go from the remotest school in the world, all the way to the most prestigious stages of the world,” says Dorji. He is an author and photographer from Bhutan whose work has been published in magazines such as Life, Esquire and the Wall Street Journal.
Dorji was mentored by Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu, who is also his spiritual Buddhist teacher. Norbu’s 1999 directorial debut, “The Cup,” was the first Bhutanese film to have been submitted to the Oscars.
“Lunana” follows a young teacher from Bhutan’s capital who dreams of immigrating to Australia to become a professional singer, but instead finds himself assigned to a school in the most remote village in northern Bhutan. Although he wants to leave immediately, the young man eventually finds true happiness and bonds with local children, who persuade him to stay.
Represented by Berlin-based Films Boutique, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019 and won the audience award at last year’s Palm Springs Film Festival. Samuel Goldwyn Films has North American rights.
The movie was submitted last year by the Bhutanese government’s Ministry of Information and Communications but the entry was considered ineligible because Bhutan sent the film before getting its selection committee officially approved by the Academy, which requires committees to have submitted at least one film in the past five years.
A new selection board, including Norbu, was formed within the last year and unanimously chose “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”
Dorji says that every aspect of the film was inspired by true accounts he collected through his trekking trips through yak herding villages where he “personally experienced the tough but beautiful and fulfilling lives these people were living.”
Dorji had the idea of setting the film in Lunana — an area so remote that its name translates into “dark valley” — to “capture the genuineness of a people who were untouched by the world” and see “if we could actually discover in the shadows and darkness, what we are so desperately seeking in the lights of modernization,” he says.
“Bhutan is known as being the happiest country in the world, yet there are thousands of Bhutanese youth who are migrating to Australia and the Americas every year,” says the helmer, who previously worked as an assistant on Norbu’s “Vara: A Blessing” in 2012 and as a producer on “Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait” in 2016.
The “Lunana” cast is made up of people whose real lives mirror their on-screen characters — for instance, Sherab Dorji, who plays Ugyen, dropped out of school to pursue a career in music, while Pem Zam, the little girl who doesn’t have a mother and is being raised by her grandmother, just like her character in the film. As with other villagers who appear in the film, Zam never traveled outside Lunana.
Filming was epic and challenging but spiritually fulfilling, explains the filmmaker.
“We spent a year in production where we had to work with an army of mules and donkeys to carry up everything we need to make this film, from solar panels, batteries, resources to build our own temporary housing, rations to last the whole production,” says Dorji, who produced the film with Steven Xiang, Stephane Lai and Jia Honglin.
“We literally came back looking like yaks! But we all shared this amazing experience and I think it translated onto the film.”
Ian Alexander Jr., Musician and Son of Regina King, Dies by Suicide at 26
Ian Alexander Jr., a musician, DJ and son of actress and director Regina King, has died by suicide. He was 26 years old.
Alexander’s death was confirmed to Variety by a public relations representative for King. No further details are available at this time.
“Our family is devastated at the deepest level by the loss of Ian,” King said in a statement. “He is such a bright light who cared so deeply about the happiness of others. Our family asks for respectful consideration during this private time. Thank you.”
Alexander was born on Jan. 19, 1996. He was King’s only child. She shared him with her ex-husband, record producer Ian Alexander Sr. The pair divorced in 2007 after ten years of marriage.
Alexander was a practicing musician and DJ. Performing under the name Desduné, Alexander had been preparing to perform several shows in Los Angeles later this month. His most recent single, “Green Eyes,” was released on Jan. 7. King shared the track on her Instagram last week, showing support for her son.
Alexander was often seen accompanying his mother at red carpet events, including the LACMA Art+ Film Gala and various awards shows. Most recently, he had appeared alongside King to help commemorate his mother’s achievements in entertainment at her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in October 2021.
“She’s just a super mom,” Alexander told E! News in a red carpet interview alongside King at the Golden Globe Awards in 2019. “She doesn’t really let bad work days or anything come back and ruin the time that we have. It’s really awesome to have a mother who I can enjoy spending time with.”