There are a number of key scenes in Columbian director Franco Lolli’s superb Gente de Bien (2014) – a playful title that means both ‘Decent People’ and ‘Well-off People’ – where it feels like it was written as a sequel to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). The setting (Bogotá) and the language (Spanish) are immaterial to the notion that the neorealist classic is this French-Colombian co-production’s spiritual cousin. The story of a working-class man and his son passing through an upper-class world (thanks to a kindly employer) is a beautifully observed tale about familial estrangement, the false consciousness of the class system and reconciliation between a parent and child that barely know each other.
Ten-year-old Eric (Brayan Santamarià) is sent to live with his father Gabriel (Carlos Fernando Perez), a carpenter who works as an odd job man for a middle class do-gooder (Alejandra Borrero). Gabriel lives in a boarding house in the city centre and constantly struggles for money. Maria (Borrero) is a well-to-do person with a good heart, who genuinely wants to help those further down the social ladder. Her blind spot, however, is the failure recognise that entirely honourable actions can be read as interference and can lead to friction and offence. It is this battleground between charity and pride that is the engine of the drama and plot dynamics. So, in the latter half of Gente de Bien, when Eric calls Maria a “bitch”, several times in fact, the kid is bang out of order.
But the viewer – as observer to the unfolding drama – both understands his rebuke and feels an increased frustration with the lad’s sullen and disrespectful behaviour. (Despite Maria not quite getting the fact he’s been abandoned by both his mum and dad and might find this a bit upsetting.) Lolli and his co-writers, Catherine Paillé and Virginie Legeay, never depict the wealthy characters as emotionally cold or as sneering, one-dimensional folk. It’s more their passive-aggressive everyday snobbery and fear of social mixing that is noted. Maria’s soft heart and attempts to help Eric and Gabriel are met with increased resistance because they feel embarrassed. Yet there are equally harmonious scenes underlining the fact that people from different social backgrounds are perfectly capable of getting on. Aided by a vivid depiction of downtown Bogotá – the sound design is particularly excellent – Gente de Bien is a sensitive and rewarding viewing experience about the social barriers we erect and the economic hardships and necessities impacting on working families in Latin America.