Following on from the 2007 guerilla drama ‘Postcards From Leningrad’, Pelo Malo (Bad Hair), marks the third outing from Venezuelan filmmaker and visual artist Mariana Rondón. Winner of the Golden Shell at the 61st San Sebastian Film Festival, Pelo Malo stars Samantha Castillo as newly widowed Marta and Samuel Lange as her pre-sexual son Junior in this raw neorealist drama.
In the wake of her black husband’s violent death, Marta struggles to maintain a steady job and support her two young sons. To add to her economic woes, Junior’s fixation with his hair and burgeoning sexual awareness disturbs her, leading her to conclude he is homosexual. Set against the sociopolitical backdrop of an unrelenting Caracas, Marta resolves to conform Junior to traditional gender norms and thwart his sexual identity before his sexual orientation has been realised.
Rondón narrates her story through the use of a shaky hand-held camera, creating a jarring documentary-style effect. This places the audience in the centre of a stifling Caracas, where Rondón’s camera is intended to unsettle the audience and make them experience the palpable suffocation of her protagonists; who struggle to assert an identity in a city that holds no refuge for the displaced. Junior’s desire to remodel his afro-textured hairstyle for his school photograph into that of a camp Venezuelan crooner becomes a conduit for an unflinching social commentary on the prejudices of Afro-Latino culture in Caracas. Racism, homophobia, sexual violence and oppression are indelible in the psyche of the South American city and Junior’s curly hair not only marks him as ethnically dislocated but Marta too; his hair symbolic of the racial boundary she negotiated through her relationship with his father.
The iconography of economic power is as faceless as the characters who inhabit it; building upon building of intimidating vertical high-rises reiterate that theirs is just one narrative in a plethora of dark oppressive tales. Caracas has been built on misplaced ambition and morality far removed from the economic success it projects. The dehumanising landscape becomes reflective of the dehumanisation of Marta, whose sensibilities are so ingrained in her cultural surroundings that the more sexually awake Junior becomes, the further Marta resists any emotional warmth with her son. Whether through guilt, fear or an ingrained social pressure, Junior’s effeminacy heightens Marta’s severity, and her resolve to teach her son an unyielding cultural lesson strips her of all maternal affection. The more she is failed by Caracas, the more she fails Junior, who ultimately risks failing himself.
Pelo Malo may appear on the surface a simple story about a boy and his hairstyle yet is it an unflinching social commentary about a city built on a host of contradictions. Themes of social injustice saturate the narrative reflecting the inner soul of a problematic city constantly at odds with itself. Beautifully shot, evenly paced and powerfully performed, Rondón refrains from being too critical of her central characters but rather launches a polemic on the prejudicial constraints that perforate a city at its socio-economic nadir. In Caracas, it is not a case of if you survive but how survive.
Pelo Malo is released in UK cinemas from 30 January 2015