7 Boxes Paraguay | 2012 | 105 min. Director: Juan Carlos Manegila, Tana Schémbori | Thriller | Guaraní and Spanish with English subtitles

Victor (Celso Franco) is a teenaged carretillero (delivery man) in Mercado 4, a market in the heart of Paraguay’s bustling capital city of Asunción. It’s 2005, and Victor is mesmerized when his older sister (Nelly Dávalos) shows him a cell phone that can record videos. The boy stares wide-eyed at his image on the phone’s miniature screen and has dreams of one day seeing himself on television.

When the local butcher hires him to deliver seven wooden crates and promises to give the boy the other half of a ripped $100 bill (worth nearly 700,000 guaraníes), Victor sees his chance to buy a new cell phone of his own. But he soon learns what’s in the boxes, and that his maniacal and greedy rival (Víctor Sosa Traverzi) has recruited a band of other carretilleros to hunt Victor down and retrieve the boxes, by any and all means.

Joined by his hardened friend Liz (Lali González), Victor spends the entire night evading the police and the other carretilleros, hoping to get his cargo to its destination, receive his payment, and end the whole ordeal.

Directed by the longtime duo of Juan Carlos Manegila and Tana Schémbori, 7 Boxes (7 Cajas) is the pair’s first feature film, though it hardly shows. The movie is a gritty thriller capturing the seedy, ruthless passageways in one of South America’s oldest cities.

The boyishly brown-faced Franco is an endearing protagonist in his acting debut. The other notable performance belongs to González, whose sweet yet feisty character serves up plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The cinéma vérité used at times by Manegila and Schémbori, who attach the camera to a variety of objects, has audience members feeling as though they’ve been planted in the middle of the action, running alongside Victor and Liz.

The hapless police officers also provide some comic relief, as well as the wannabe tough guys from the butcher shop, who first screw up by giving Victor the wrong boxes and then bungle their attempts to track him down. Victor’s rival, wearing a crazed look of desperation and roaming the neighborhood with a gang of menacing carretilleros, is the most life-threatening hazard in the film.

There are a few sappy coincidences, like when Victor and his cargo hitch a ride on a truck, only to be met by Liz when he arrives. As with any self-respecting chase flick, romance slowly displaces the once Platonic friendship between the two young tramps (because nothing gets people in the mood like the ever-present threat of a tortuous death). Then there’s what happens to Victor near the end (which I won’t spoil for you here)…

Still, considering it’s one of only 20 films ever produced in Paraguay (and its most popular to date), 7 Boxes is a triumph, delighting audiences on a variety of emotional levels. The telegenicity of Mercado 4 — with its balmy streets and alleyways, the shuttered stalls and storefronts, the blues and greys — make for an exquisite setting. Franco’s onscreen charisma and his character’s dreams of seeing himself on television definitely endows the film with a Slumdog feel.

The audience here at the Chicago Latino Film Festival gave the film a hearty applause, especially the paraguayos in attendance. Though not a paraguayo myself, I agree with the enthusiastic reaction 7 Boxes received last night. The film may mark the arrival of directors Manegila and Schémbori as a substantial presence in the world of cinema, and their work now has the Latino film industry taking notice of oft-forgotten Paraguay. I would be surprised if 7 Boxes isn’t among the nominees at next year’s Oscars, and I’m certain we’ll be seeing more from at least one half of the directing duo.

This charming, suspenseful drama is a must-see.

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