What we do when no one is paying attention is often us at our most honest. It can also be us at our most devious. Misdirection or slight of hand allows a magician such space for the purpose of magic. In Thomás Bascopé’s first feature film, The Elevator, we see much more than magic happen when precious attention is directed elsewhere. From shady business dealings beyond the sights of the law to all that happens in the three-day penumbra of Carnival, Bascopé tells his tale. But it is within the confines of a space too small for shadows when all you can do is pay attention that the real drama escalates.
Young, handsome and silver tongued, Héctor Suárez (Pablo Fernández) plays a quick dealing businessman who exudes the black arts of the white collar world. Carlos (Jorge Arturo Lora) and Johnny (Alejandro Molina), on the other hand, have no last names and seemingly anything else separating them from being branded nothing more than thugs.
Archetypes such as these – business man and thug – ignite on screen in the first 26 minutes of the film rendering the audience very certain as to who is exactly good and bad. Then the credits roll. The delay of almost half-an-hour for the opening credits is most curious if not for the following scene identified with the spelled out credit: Day One.
All three men are now trapped in the elevator, and our familiar identity types now flail about for autonomy. The mask of handsome businessman loses its luster as we find the glimmer of virtue amid the thug personae. One begins to question if action-packed thriller a more apt designation for this comedy-drama. In the same breath, one is also moved to admire that such action happen within the confines of an 8 x 8 suspended room.
It is here that The Elevator sparkles. One of the most powerful stories we can tell ourselves is that of the person behind the mask. Sure, we need a shorthand for day-to-day life. No one has time to get into every nook and cranny of someone’s personality. But when it matters, sometimes we struggle to find such humanity. We dismiss people by their title, their perceived identity. Just like the characters on the screen, however, we, too, are forced to see the masks fall because we are a part of the audience. And often this leaves us laughing one minute and dead silent the next.
Along with the challenge of what and how to eat within the confines of an elevator full of captive and captor alike come the more problematic issues of going to the bathroom and even sleeping. Bascopé has some fun with these milestones with unexpected dream-like sequences. Such technological gloss used to enhance the storytelling is quite well done although the film would have been better served with more time spent toward accurate English subtitles for those of us unlucky enough to be in need. Fortunately, once the film finds its pace, the poor translation ceases to distract as we slip into the weightier issues such as: Just what do these men talk about under such extremes?
In an interview with Jonathan Miles for his book, “Dear American Airlines,” Miles talks about how writing for his drink column in the New York Times – Shaken and Stirred – informs his novel writing in that life in a bar is often life in extremis in which people are existing in various degrees of sobriety, and in such states, what becomes socially appropriate becomes debatable to perfectly good people. Such careening to extremes is life around alcohol.
Life in an elevator becomes much the same. We all do silly things when we feel trapped. Animals trapped in a corner become lethal. Humans in a hot elevator for three days armed with nothing but chips and soda and scotch whiskey and a gun? This makes for very good storytelling taking us to places far exceeding the imagination.
The storytelling doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. Well documented by audiovisual expert and film aficionado The Moliendero in his wonderfully informative blog “el Ascensor,” we can read about the early beginnings from when The Elevator was percolating in the mind of writer and director Thomás Bascopé to its win years later of the coveted “Audience Award” at Chile’s 2010 DIFF Festival in Viña del Mar to it being heralded as one person put it, “the best film in Bolivia over the past 15 years.” The Elevator represents not just an accomplishment for filmmaking in Bolivia but hopefully the beginning of much more to come.
Spanish with English subtitles, 2009
Dir. By Thomás Bascopé
Showtimes at the Chicago Latino Film Festival:
Saturday, April 9th at 3:45 pm
Instituto Cervantes, 31 W. Ohio St., 312-836-7000
Tuesday, April 12, 9:30 pm
Landmark Theaters, 2828 N. Clark St., 773-509-4949