Winner of multiple awards on the 2013 festival circuit including the Golden Seashell in San Sebastian, Mariana Rondón’s Pelo Malo (2013) distorts your typical coming-of-ager about gender confusion into a well-observed Polaroid snapshot of contemporary anxieties in Venezuela, as well as the country’s deep social fissures economic and political disquiet. Set within the overpopulated housing projects of Caracas, Pelo Malo observes a young boy, Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano), whose constant obsession with straightening his curly black hair elicits a torrent of irrepressible panic from his mother (Samantha Castillo) – who fears he might be gay.
Junior’s grandmother (an endearing Nelly Ramos) is far more supportive, indulging his many eccentricities and happy for him to dream of being a singer rather than a gangster. An upcoming school photo – which many children choose to have photoshopped to express their dreams and desires for the future – gives Junior the opportunity to bring out his flamboyant side, but with his mother adamant he become a man, what type of photo will he chose to have taken – a singer posing in front of a tropical waterfall, or a solitary child soldier embracing an AK47? Not unlike Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds (2012), Rondón arouses the vivacity of Caracas’ inner-city jungle through a powerful amalgamation of domineering orchestral surges and piercing urban soundscapes.
A tense intimacy is likewise evoked through intelligent, tightly-bound compositions, making the capital feel like a living breathing organism trapped inside a Petri dish of cultivated social anxiety. Violence always feels like its lurking just around each and every corner, Pelo Malo’s lingering, almost voyeuristic depiction of humanity alluding to a world under the constant threat of attack. The camera’s observant gaze often falls upon the poverty of the area through the innocent perspectives of local children. Junior’s obsession with his hair is presented as a sign of sexual curiosity, yet is far more relatable as a metaphor for the rejection of his roots and a need to escape his preordained life of poverty. This intimate approach gives way to a larger criticism of life in Venezuela, the film constantly allowing state controlled dogma to permeate the frame through television news and radio broadcasts. Rondón appear to be making a comment on the struggle between freedom and ideology in Venezuela – a country in transition after the death of Hugo Chávez.
Whilst members of the public shave their head in solidarity of Chávez’s fight with cancer, Junior’s unwillingness to conform illustrates a generation ready to move on from socialism. Sadly, Pelo Malo struggles to methodically align its social criticism with its adolescent malady, often taking jarring narrative diversions in order to appease various strands of its multifaceted tale, yet this study of generational differences makes for fascinating viewing for Western audiences. An imperfect yet endearing portrait of the complex sentiment that met the end of Chávez’s rule in Venezuela, this affectionately articulated adolescent drama manages to take a few caustic swipes at the society that surrounds it, distilling complex concerns into the digestible form of social commentary.
This review was originally published on 11 October 2013 as part of our 57th BFI London Film Festival coverage.