Los Debutantes serves up the sleazy side of modern Chile but is no main course and leaves a bad taste
2003 (Spanish, English subtitles), Zoo/Retaguardia/Revolver
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
LATAMROB rating: *
PLACING CREAM over someone’s nipples, metaphorically speaking, does not make them any tastier – at least that’s what we can conclude from this low budget rite of passage both for the characters in the movie itself and its young director Andrés Waissbluth.
While dressed up as a credible insight into the sleazier side of modern Chile – where the open approach to sexual themes has become something of a bellwether of the extent to which the country has lightened up under democracy – this movie fails to convince.
Waissbluth has potential but he has wasted it on this crude and simple romp that imparts few of the merits of the Chilean film industry. The plot is puerile, the sex gratuitous, and the characters lame and clichéd.
Los Debutantes also reveals the taste for fashion, and perhaps even cream, among the selecting panels of various international film festivals, because surprisingly it was among nominations for best film at the 2004 Bogotá film festival, and also made it on to the official selection of the 2004 San Francisco, Montreal, Rotterdam and Miami Latin film festivals and the 2005 Cambridge film festival.
As the title suggests this is story about novices and lost innocence. Two brothers from the provinces – hicks new to the big city and its questionable mores – settle in Santiago after the death of their mother. They get into a serious mess after the younger Víctor (Juan Pablo Miranda) ends up with a throbbing crush on Gracia (Antonella Ríos), a pole dancer who specialises in spreading cream over her bosom, after he has been taken to a brothel to lose his virginity as a birthday present. Gracia is a part-time night-teaser, part-time mother and ticket girl in a porno cinema, but is waiting for a bigger deal as a singer through her boss.
The naive Víctor’s older brother Silvio (Néstor Cantillana) manages to find a job at Gracia’s club as the boss’s assistant – but also ends up falling for her and jumping into her bed. The sinister Don Pascual (Alejandro Trejo), who runs the seedy club, has a sideline in porno films and, apart from exploiting the likes of Gracia, is waiting for a deal which never comes because a bigger fish is scheming to whack him.
As it says on the packet, there is sex, drugs, violence and betrayal. At times, Waissbluth even experiments with the flashback techniques that have become de rigeur in Latin American cinema. However, it took him over seven years to complete this film, and despite this and some clever editing which has gained him the recognition of the Chilean new wave, the Latino-Tarantino narrative style of Los Debutantes is not well adapted to the plot, there is no clever dialogue, there are real technical hitches such as the poor sound, and the story is predictable and turgid.
Antonella Ríos cannot sing to save her life (or Silvio’s for that matter), but shows promise as an actress, although the role she has been assigned is a weary favourite: asking a hot chick to undress in front of the camera has to mean something today if it is to be cinematically relevant and the director is to be taken seriously, otherwise, one is in danger of being left with the simple titillation of one of those porno shows that it would appear Waissbluth was taking a swipe at through Trejo’s character. However, Ríos leaves us in no doubt why Los Debutantes became one of the highest grossing films in Chilean movie industry history.
Nonetheless, Trejo performs well and generates a frisson of fear, and Cantillana is charismatic and has a bright future. He won Chile’s 2004 APES Award for Best Actor for his performance in this film.
Despite the goodwill of all those awarding juries and selection panels, the only real merit of Los Debutantes is the risqué theme – while Chile remains one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America, it is clearly emerging from the suppression of free speech of the past.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist