CLFF Review: ‘To the South of Innocence’

Dominican Republic | 2013 | 88 min.
Director: Héctor M. Valdez
Genre: Drama
Spanish with English subtitles

The first feature film by Héctor M. Valdez is a coming of age story following rich-kid step-siblings Vera and Andrés, who escape on an impromptu, picturesque road trip across their homeland, the Dominican Republic. After their father is publicly arrested for fraud and money laundering during Vera’s big college graduation party, the brother and sister abandon their lavish home and their family’s social circle, armed only with a new car (a gift from their uncle) and a new friend, Santiago, who promises to lead the way.

The film’s title is an almost too-literal reference to the fact that Vera, Andrés and Santiago are driving south and are expected to lose their innocence in some way. Despite the film’s poster, which features an image of a woman’s abdomen with a toy car (the one from the movie!) being rolled towards her crotch — offending my killjoy, feminist, cliché-hating sensibilities — the film is not clear on the ways in which the characters are losing their innocence, besides maybe learning to live without their money and material things, to a certain extent, like when they have their things stolen at various times.

Early on their journey south, Santiago propositions Vera and Andrés with some hallucinogens. While tripping really hard, Vera is sexually assaulted by a stranger, which could have read as a somber and screwed-up loss-of-innocence moment but instead read as more telling of the random, shitty ways things happen in the world, things that no one needs to talk about because that’s what happens. This event is not really revisited again, though Andrés’ dealing with his own past and demons related to his mother are, which seemed inconsistent.

So much of the film is filled with random, terrific, uncontrollable or shitty things that could happen in life, but the storytelling does not tie these things together well enough. I don’t mean that there needs to be a deep purpose to anything, but if there was supposed to be even a most basic theme like “life is shitty and great and beautiful and random and whatever,” the filmmakers did not exhibit that in an interesting way or with decent dialogue or character development, even if they did make up for it by giving the audience a sense that the characters were real people, if only in their ordinariness.

The film had some cool moments in which the filmmakers played around with visual effects, color saturation, music and editing, but the phrase of the day for me was “a little all over the place.” Not only was the storytelling choppy, but the use of visual and musical devices were too sporadic throughout the film and seemed a tad amateur. The best aspect of the film was undoubtedly its cinematography, which showed the audience so many beautiful areas of the Dominican Republic and gave a glimpse at an array of realistic characters that read like normal people.

Overall, To the South of Innocence is a gorgeously shot film that is fun and interesting in many moments, but ultimately fails to find enough footing to be engaging, even for those of us who might love the idea of taking a young-beautiful-and-free trip down the countryside of a rich and diverse island.

To the South of Innocence (Al sur de la inocencia) will be shown with short film Interstate April 16, 6:00 p.m. at AMC River East 21.

[Photo: Chicago Latino Film Festival]

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