Silence of Neto, The (1994)

Runtime: Guatemala:106

Country: Guatemala / USA

Cast overview:

Óscar Javier Almengor.... Neto Yepes

Pablo Arenales.... Rodrigo

Hector Argueta…. Deudo dos

Cristina Arqueta.... Nina cinco

Benjamim Rivas Baratto….Secretaria del Juez Yepez

Edgar Barillas.... Guarda espaldas

Willy Bihr.... Senor Fuller

Mildred Chavez .... Rosa

Indira Chinchilla .... Nidia

Miriam S. De Sosa.... Directora del colegio

Julio Díaz.... Eduardo Yepes

Otto Fernandez.... Nuevo Maestro

Elvira Gaytán.... Nina uno

Guillermo Gaytán.... Padre de Ani

Flavio Gozalez.... Vendedor de periodicos

Eduardo-Jose Guerrero.... German

Frida Henry.... Abuela Mercedes

Ingrid Hernandez.... Ani

Rolando Herrera.... Agente Chay

Gabriela Huertas.... Nina dos

Sonia Juarez.... Maestra de Ballet

Eva Tamargo Lemus.... Elena Yepes

Luis López.... Deudo tres

Victor López.... Portero del colegio

Luis Mendizabal.... Deudo uno

Ricardo Mendizabal.... Arzebispo

Herbert Meneses.... Ernesto Yepes

Gabriel Navasi.... Hombre en Julgado

Rudy Garcia Ochoa.... Nuevo Juez militar

Patricia Orantes.... Tia Cristy

Eduardo Ortiz.... Soldado en casa de ani

Sergio Paz.... Alberto

Diego Peralta.... Maria

Rosemary Ponce.... Nina cuatro

Zoila Portillo.... Matilde

Xiomara Ramirez.... Nina tres

Ana Solares.... Deudo cuatro

Germán Talavera.... Deudo cinco

Ana Luisa Yapur.... Maestra Emilia

Copyright 1995 The Chronicle Publishing Co.

The San Francisco Chronicle, SEPTEMBER 17, 1995, SUNDAY, SUNDAY EDITION

SECTION: SUNDAY DATEBOOK; Pg. 35

HEADLINE: Dreaming of Guatemala

‘Silence of Neto’ at Festival Cine Latino recalls film maker’s childhood

BYLINE: MICHAEL FOX, SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE

Scratch a director of television commercials and odds are youll find a would-be film maker underneath. But few commercial directors take the risky path of Guatemalan expatriate Luis Argueta, who chose for his movie debut an autobiographical coming-of-age story with explicit political overtones.

"El Silencio de Neto" (The Silence of Neto), which receives its Bay Area premiere Thursday as one of the opening- night films in the third annual Festival Cine Latino, marks the first feature film produced in Guatemala for international distribution. Shot with a Guatemalan cast and mostly local crew, the compassionate yet sharply observed film has collected accolades at one stop after another on the international festival circuit.

Set in 1954, "El Silencio de Neto" centers on the dreams and escapades of an asthmatic 11-year-old boy. His strict father, a by-the-numbers government employee, admonishes Neto to play it safe and keep his mouth shut. But his Uncle Ernesto, an outspoken rambler who leaves the country for stretches at a time, gives Neto flamma ble hot-air paper balloons to play with and encourages him to take chances. "The film is based on my memories of childhood," says Argueta, 49, over an early morning cup of coffee in his hotel room near the end of the Montreal World Film Festival. "At a certain point in the course of writing, when we changed the name of the boy from Luis to Neto, I was able to overcome some psychological barriers and remember more." Blocked memories and political instability are recurring themes in Latin American films, adding an undercurrent of anxiety to the narrative. In "El Silencio de Neto," the colorful childhood scenario brimming with young crushes and secret boyhood pacts is played out against the CIA’s escalating "anti-Communist" campaign against President Jacobo Arbenz. The film incorporates the propaganda radio broadcasts that were followed by U.S.-orchestrated air raids, prompting Arbenzs resignation. In the ensuing four decades, Guatemala has endured military dictators, civil wars and mass killings. Silence was a prudent course for most citizens, while thousands chose to emigrate.

"I have found a lot of Latin Americans, a lot of exiles who have left their countries in the last 40 years, who identify with the uncle," the stocky, thoughtful Argueta says. "They tell me, ‘I left because of the political situation, and when I go back, I am Uncle Ernesto.’ "

"El Silencio de Neto" is one of a half- dozen features premiering locally in the annual Festival Cine Latino, sponsored by the media arts organization Cine Accion. The largest such event on the West Coast with a program of more than 50 films and videos, Festival Cine Latino unspools Thursday through next Sunday at the 500-seat Victoria Theater in the Mission District.

Festival director Ethan Van Thillo has amassed a panorama of diverse, stereotype-busting Latino images. "If we were to believe what we’ve seen on television and in Hollywood feature films for the past 20 years," Van Thillo says, "we would think that all Latinos are pachucos who live in East L.A. and drive low-rider cars." The recent popularity of "Mi Familia/My Family" notwithstanding, Van Thillo maintains that a wider range of Latino characterizations is called for. " ‘Mi Familia’ was a wonderful story," Van Thillo concedes. "But it was L.A. and Chicano-oriented. And anyway, what was the film before that?"

The varied Festival Cine Latino lineup includes "Alejandro," a documentary portrait of a 63-year-old Salvadoran film maker who dreams of making movies in defiance of the realities of his war-torn country. Mexico is represented by "Bienvenido/Welcome," a fictional love story complicated by AIDS and an intrusive film crew. Other features on tap are "Miss Amerigua," a satire about the first beauty pageant in a tiny Paraguayan village after the fall of the military regime, and "Vea Esta Cancion," an anthology of four romantic episodes anchored by popular Brazilian songs. Argueta’s circuitous road to the big screen began in the mid-‘60s, when he left Guatemala to earn a degree in industrial engineering at the University of Michigan. But he fell in love with movies, and stayed in Ann Arbor to study film and literature.

The aspiring writer-director worked on Fernando Arrabal’s "Guernica" before moving to New York in 1977 to hone his skills in commercial production. A year later, Argueta went back to Guatemala to make a documentary, "The Cost of Cotton," exposing the effects of pesticides on workers and the environment. The piece aired on PBS but has never been shown in Guatemala. Argueta returned to New York, where he’s focused on commercials for nearly two decades. Morningside Movies, the company he founded in 1988, specializes in the Latino market and has produced Spanish-language commercials for Anheuser-Busch, McDonald’s, Kmart and AT&T, as well as a campaign for the National Crime Prevention Coalition. And yet, unlike many commercial directors who jump into features, Argueta shunned flashy camera angles and hyperspeed editing for "El Silencio de Neto."

"It was a conscious decision not to let the style interfere," confirms Argueta, who will attend the Festival Cine Latino screening. "I thought it would be obscene to spend a lot of money in lighting and fancy effects. It goes against one of the goals of the film, which is to promote the idea that we can make films in Guatemala, and that Guatemalans can make films."

Taking a slap at the hand that feeds him, Argueta says, "This shows how

wasteful the commercial industry is. I shot this film and put it in the can for the amount of money that I spent on a campaign of two commercials which might take four days to shoot. On the other hand, it shows that love and hard work can go very, very far." Argueta intends to maintain his lucrative career in commercials while developing other feature films. His wish list includes a New York-based film about a Guatemalan writer confronting his ghosts, and a pair of movies adapted from Guatemalan novels that he would shoot on location. "I’m even more drawn to Guatemala than ever before," Argueta explains, "and I would like to explore the decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And if not the next project, I would like to follow Neto as he grows up, as a vehicle to explore and retrieve the history of Guatemala."

Argueta’s political and personal reconciliation with his homeland is recent but dramatic. With "El Silencio de Neto," Argueta breaks his own silence about Guatemala’s painful history in the most public of forums. "For a long time I didn’t want to have anything to do with Guatemala, but I found that, like Uncle Ernesto says on his deathbed, ‘Only where we’ve been born can we come back to life again. Everywhere else, our pain would be eternal.’ To deny your origins or roots is impossible without a high spiritual price. I’m very happy that I’ve come to terms with that."

Copyright© 2000, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Copyright 1995 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. July 7, 1995, FRIDAY

By Bill Stamets

THE SILENCE OF NETO

Directed by Luis Argueta. Running time: 106 minutes. No MPPA rating (no offensive content, except for one scatological limerick). Spanish with English subtitles. Opening today at Facets Multimedia.

Judging from its prevalence at the Chicago Latino Film Festival each year, revolution is a favorite, and perhaps unavoidable, theme in Central American and Latin American cinema. Set in 1954 during the U. S. overthrow of Guatemala’s leftist government, "The Silence of Neto" is a gentle coming-of-age tale about a 12-year-old boy on a quest for freedom under the yoke of Yankee imperialism.

In his first feature, Luis Argueta skips the heavy politics yet milks the mise en scene for awkward symbolism. Neto’s asthma suggests Guatemala’s struggle to breathe free. Neto’s uptight upper-class dad suffocates the boy’s aspirations and curtails an adventurous hike up a dormant volcano, while Neto’s never-married, world-traveling Uncle Ernesto teaches the boy how to fly a toy hot-air balloon. Ernesto, who’s partial to red silk ascots and pajamas, counsels his nephew never to be silent like his passive mother (Eva Tamargo Lemus) and his country. Argueta’s most inspired epiphany links Neto’s eyes with ideology and libido. One day in the schoolyard, Neto and his pals glue mirrors on their shoes and invite their female classmates to look at the clouds so they can look up their skirts. This naughty voyeurism is interrupted when CIA-funded provocateurs flying overhead drop anti-government leaflets. The kids panic.

Netos sweetheart runs to his arms and rewards him with a first kiss. Politics makes a cameo, not a landscape. Radio supplies the history via excerpts from original broadcasts, with both sides deploying similar bombast. "Oh boy, no more school!" yells Neto’s little brother when the family evacuates their home. "Quiet kids, this is not a circus­this is a war," scolds their dad. Under right-wing rule, Neto’s imperious new teacher forces the class to memorize the capitols of Alabama and Arkansas. Corruption in the upper echelons trickles down and soon Neto is forging permission slips, shooting pool and smoking cigarettes. Billed as the first internationally released Guatemalan feature, "The Silence of Neto" feels more like an after-school special preaching self-esteem, than one of public television’s P.O.V. inquests into U.S. intervention in a tiny, troubled country. Director and screenwriter Argueta made a 1978 documentary about pesticides in Guatemalan plantations called "The Cost of Cotton" that turned up on PBS, but now he produces television commercials targeting the Hispanic market for corporations like AT&T, Burger King and Coca-Cola.

For his first feature, Argueta slights his homeland’s rich political drama. Forecasting resistance to the U.S.-sponsored coup, Ernesto boasts: "At least we’ll have the satisfaction of being the first little country to say ‘no’ to the Americans." Argueta, it seems, said ‘yes’ to Yankee taste when concocting this sweet and sentimental movie that occasionally resembles a soft drink commercial.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer.

Copyright© 2000, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.