57: The Bad Intentions (Las Malas Intenciones) (LAFF 2011)

wri-dir. Rosario Garcia-Montero, Argentina/Germany/Peru, 2011, 107 mins

(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)

As nine-year-old Cayetana de los Heros (Fatima Buntinx) is being driven home by her father, she sees something out in the darkness: a fiery hammer and sickle burning on a hillside. She asks her father what it is; he tells her it’s nothing, just burning trash. But we’re in Peru and it’s 1982, so we know that it’s another act of terror by the Shining Path, one of the belligerents in the country’s bloody decades-long internal conflict. The Bad Intentions (Las Malas Intenciones), the feature debut of writer-director Rosario Garcia-Montero, uses the terrible violence as the backdrop for a darkly comic portrait of Cayetana’s morbid childhood.

Here, the invisible yet ever-present threat of death transmutes strangely in the mind of an upper-class child. Cayetana is bombarded with Joycean levels of Catholic guilt from a firebrand priest, she yearns for affection from her absentee womanizer of a father, and ironically enough she’s obsessed with the centuries-old historic revolutionary heroes of South America’s past, as befitting her name. She even envisions entire imaginary adventures with them. When Cayetana finds out that her mother is pregnant, her neuroses all converge into the belief that she will die when her mother gives birth to the child.

Buntinx carries the film on her diminutive shoulders, and her performance treads a fine line: she captures the naïveté of a young girl’s flights of fancy while giving a window into her overweening, privileged narcissism, one that’s just a shade away from sociopathy. A recurring comic motif of Cayetana trying to care for small animals and failing miserably takes a disturbing turn as the film progresses.

In many ways, The Bad Intentions is a twisted counterpoint to the 2006 Julie Gavras film Blame it on Fidel; both track young girls growing up in unstable political circumstances. But while Gavras spins a humanist tale of how resilience and an open mind can help a person connect to the world, Garcia-Montero shows how a fortress mentality and stultifying privilege can warp a child. Cayetana is a lost, lonely girl watching the walls of her mansion compound rising higher and higher; she’s oblivious to the fact that she and her family are perhaps a bit reminiscent of the colonialists that her revolutionary heroes fought against.

But political acuity is not the film’s only strength. Throughout, Garcia-Montero maintains a firm control over the tone, keeping an ironic distance with pointed gallows humor yet managing to find sympathy for its troubled protagonist. Cayetana may be preoccupied with death and abandonment, and she hardly ever smiles; meanwhile the hazy, washed-out color palette evokes the paranoid decay of 1980s Peru. But even with all that, the film never feels dour or lifeless. It’s a nuanced portrait of childhood, clear-eyed yet sympathetic.