Building relationships across the class divide, Franco Lolli’s Gente de Bien turns into an unexpectedly moving portrait of father and son bonding.
Dreams Of A Lifeby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s something of a trend going on in South America, with its cinematic sub-genre of upstairs-downstairs relationships between rich and poor. First there was Sebastián Silva’s The Maid, and then more recently Anna Muylaert’s similarly themed The Second Mother and Benjamín Naishtat’s History of Fear, documenting the impossible divide between the classes. Neither is Franco Lolli’s Gente de Bien worlds away from that other South American staple – the dream of emigrating to the land of opportunity north of the border – as Eric is shipped off to his estranged father when his mother leaves Colombia for a better life. But despite its familiar premise, with its portrait of an uprooted young boy finding his place in the world, Gente de Bien makes for a moving metaphor of socio-economic equality.
When his mother leaves the country, Eric (Brayan Santamarià) and his dog Lupe go to live with his father Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Perez). Working as a handyman and living on the breadline, Gabriel can barely afford to take care of Eric, squeezing his son into his room in a boarding house and hoping to borrow enough money from his sister to get a new place. But no-one has it easy here, except his well-to-do employer Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero) who, refusing to acknowledge any class distinction, encourages Eric to play with her son Francisco – treating him like one of the family, letting him play their Wii and giving him Francisco’s outgrown hand-me-downs. It’s a trust that’s hard won and honest, as Eric steals money from Maria Isabel’s purse. But she’s also fundamentally maternal, forgiving and persistent – inviting Gabriel and Eric to spend Christmas with her family upstate and even to look after Eric while Gabriel finds his feet – a generous gesture that backfires as the divide comes even more sharply into focus.
Meaning both Decent People and Wealthy People, Gente de Bien offers a strange hope in Lolli’s neorealist world that the upper classes might just offer a way out to those below them on the social scale. But with a chorus of onlooking (and silently disapproving) family members, her own under-enthusiastic and overprivileged children and a moody ten-year-old who resents being excluded by the other boys, Maria Isabel is alone in her attempts to nurture this desperately fragile status quo – desired by all but so easily thrown away with an angry word or a second thought. And driving Eric back to his dad on Christmas Eve, charity it seems is an impossible idyll – with Eric, after all he’s been through, unable to take the other boys’ taunts on the chin.
So it’s with a strange about-turn that Lolli’s Gente de Bien most unexpectedly ends – with Eric and Gabriel together for Christmas, but nursing their dog Lupe as it’s put to sleep. With class conflict left behind on the outskirts of Bogota, Gente de Bien undergoes a final-reel reinvention, as it metamorphoses into a film about fathers and sons. It’s a moment of paternal closeness delicately captured by Óscar Durán’s dusky cinematography. And yet it’s overshadowed by a dead dog, for it’s impossible not to view the lifeless hound as a metaphor; a lost innocence, a now forgotten link to the past or the hope for a better life now put down. Perhaps like Lupe, the family one ends up with is nothing more than a matter of chance – a dog-eared destiny that neither social climbing nor philanthropy can better.
The debut feature of FEMIS graduate Franco Lolli, Gente de Bien is every French producer’s dream; a moody social realist drama exploring the well-intentioned blunders and irreconcilable differences between rich and poor. Like Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, it’s the younger generation that fail to grasp those deeply entrenched positions between the classes, waltzing into the houses and families of the wealthy with an egalitarian sense of entitlement, while the older generation negotiates antiquated notions of dignity and pride. But armed with a beautifully real script, Gente de Bien provides an honest look at a life of being passed from pillar to post, with its outbursts of aggression, jealousy and depression. As well as a nuanced view of the impossible decisions facing impoverished parents and the awkward complexity of charity.
Gente de Bien is released on 17th April 2015 in the UK