By Dr. Luis Dias
Karnawal (2020), directed by Argentinean Juan Pablo Félix (this is his debut film), is so many things: a coming-of-age story, an insightful peek into malambo (the unique folkloric but refined masculine dance that is “percussive while uniting speed, passion and precision”) of the gauchos (the iconic cowboys in his country’s fertile Pampas lowlands), a carnival fiesta and an engaging family drama.
Once banned for its perceived indecent sensuality, the malambo is an animalistic, visceral yet beguilingly graceful “celebration of the male body”, danced with dignified charisma-exuding poise, head held high, to the pulsing beat of the Bombo drums that mimic the hoof-beats of galloping horses, to which the dancers may add their voices (chant, but no lyrics), and certainly the sound of their eloquent tap-dancing footwork in distinctive gaucho boots. Hand-held props include the boleadoras, a throwing weapon made up of intertwined cords and weighted with stones; and lazos (lassos).
The important moves in malambo are ‘la cepillada’, where the sole of the boot brushes the ground; ‘el repique’, striking the floor with the boot heel; and ‘floreos’, steps that barely make contact with the ground.
Cabra (Martin Lopez Lacci) is a rebellious teenager who lives with his mother (Mónica Lairana) in Quebrada de Humahuaca, a village in northern Argentina, close to the border with Bolivia. His father El Corto (Alfredo Castro) is a conman serving a prison sentence of seven years.
Cabra dreams of becoming a professional malambo dancer. It is the festive period of the much-awaited Andean Carnival, and he is working hard at a shot in the most important malambo dance competition, going to intense rehearsals with his instructor, who urges his students to focus: “Concentración! Concentración!”
Cabra’s life is turned upside down and his chances at the competition jeopardised when El Corto turns up abruptly, having been given permission to leave prison for a few days. He takes his family on a road trip in a battered roofless old car, using the time to bond with his son, whom he hasn’t seen in a long time.
Before they can even realise what is happening, mother and son find themselves caught in a violent stand-off in the middle of the desert.
Will Cabra still manage to keep his appointment at that important dance competition? Or, will he have to make a choice between his father and his future?
Martin Lopez Lacci is a trained malambo dancer, so you can expect some dazzling displays of his artistry.
Casting for the film began in 2017. In a 2019 interview with Variety magazine, scriptwriter-director Juan Pablo Félix spoke of the difficult task of casting the main protagonist Cabra, “When I started writing I was certain that the protagonist had to be a genius dancer who we’d then train as an actor. I felt that putting a real dancer in front of the camera would enhance the degree of emotion and truth in the film. Finding him was more difficult. We went to malambo competitions all over the country for two years. After seeing more than 300 professional dancers, we found Martin López Lacci – a national malambo champion – and he was a revelation. We knew immediately he was our lead.” Lacci then took acting lessons for a year from renowned coach actor Maria Laura Berch.
In a video interview in these COVID times, Lacci also gave credit to the training he received from his malambo coach, Ramón Aguilar, himself a winner at many competitions just like the one depicted in the film.
Karnawal is extraordinary in that it is a collaborative venture between six countries: in addition to Argentina’s Bikini Films, Brazil’s 3 Moinhos Produçoes, Chile’s Picardía Films, Mexico’s Phototaxia, Norway’s Norsk Filmproduksjon, and Bolivia’s Londra Films co-produced the film.
Félix explained that he had always considered the film to have a Latin American heart and wanted the co-producers to reflect that.
He also has a personal experience with dance, having studied folk and other types for years in his youth, dividing his time between academies and dance competitions.
“I remember the incredible enthusiasm, the passion, and the tension among all of us who danced. Most of all, I remember that dance was my refuge going through a difficult adolescence. I think these memories are what prompted me to write this story”, he told Variety magazine.
More recently, Félix directed a documentary series about young dancers from North Argentina. This experience gave him a deep knowledge of the region and was what inspired him to set this story against the dance of northern Argentina. This suggests that the story of Cabra might be semi-autobiographical. You can certainly find “incredible enthusiasm, passion and tension” in his debut film. As we say in Goa, although about a month too early, Viva Carnaval!