Dir: Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez. Costa Rica/Nicaragua/France. 2008. 91 mins.
The road trip of two desperately poor Nicaraguan kids in search of their absent mother becomes an other-worldly journey with echoes of The Night Of The Hunter in Costa Rican director Ishtar Yasin's impressive debut, which screened in the Forum. Two astonishingly believable and watchable child actors, and a mature grasp of cinematic technique and structure, keep The Path suspended in the hinterland between cine-verite realism and dreamlike quest for most of the film.
It's only right at the end that Yasin blows it, when she gives full rein to a dark but also gratingly absurd magical-realist sub-plot that had been held in check up to this point.
But while this may put off the few specialist buyers who might have taken a nibble, it won't deter fans of Latin American cinema, who should catch this fresh, original work somewhere on what is likely to be a multi-date festival tour.
It may be that the director's own background - she was born in Moscow to a Chilean mother and Iraqi father - has given Yasin an inside appreciation of the traumas of emigration. But this isn't played straight: The Path is blend of gritty migration drama and fairy-tale quest. Young Saslaya (Velasquez), who looks around ten, lives near Managua with her mute younger brother Dario (Jimenez) and their grandfather (Meza) in a tumbledown shack by a huge open-air rubbish tip - which they comb for salvageable junk.
Tired of being abused by grandpa - who summons her to his hammock at night - Saslaya puts on a pink dress and slips away with her brother early one morning, telling him that they're off to look for their mother, who left to work in Costa Rica eight years before.
So begins a journey that takes the two children across country - on foot, by bus, by boat - until they finally hook up with a group that is attempting to cross the border with Costa Rica (they appear to be real immigrants, rather than actors). The places Saslaya and Dario pass through are left unnamed, and take on universal connotations: we see scraggy cornfields, urban bus stations, a religious fiesta, a distant, smoking volcano, a wide lake; all the time, a gusting wind (one strand of the rich sound design) never lets up.
People are neither hostile, nor, by and large, particularly friendly to the two waifs; gradually, though, we realise that a sinister puppeteer in a linen suit (Stevenin) and his reluctant companion, a woman called Luz (Guadalupe) who dances and strikes Greek tragic poses, are taking the same journey; so too are two corpulent guys carrying an antique table.
Dialogue is spare, and as the migratory Huckleberry Finn journey nears its end, nature seems to take over, with lingering Malick-esque shots of jungle flora and fauna.
Shot in crisp, carefully-framed HD, the film challenges the assumption that migration dramas necessarily need to look grainy and handheld.
Astarte Producciones (Costa Rica)
Gadeon Programmes (France)
00 33 1 5395 0455
Produced, written and directed by
Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez
Luis Javier Castro
Sherlyn Paola Velasquez
Marcos Ulises Jimenez
Jean Francois Stevenin
Juan Josue Bordas
Cornelio Flores Meza