It's a hot day in the capital city of Paraguay and the exchange rate for US Dollars is running as high as the mercury in Asunción's bustling marketplace. Narrow rows of stalls glutted with people, consumer goods, and hanging animal meat, all of which is for sale, barter, hustle, or theft. Enter Victor, a young kid who wheel-barrow's purchases, stock, whatever around the market for a price, when he is not day-dreaming about being an action hero on TV. Pestered by his best friend Liz (a remarkably natural girl-power performance from young Lali González) to buy a used cell phone with video capability, and desiring to be the star of his own movie, Victor takes a job carting around the eponymous crates from the brother of a pregnant friend of his sisters.
If that three-degrees of separation relationship seems convoluted, it is a mere warm-up as the number of characters and their tangled web of interrelations, lies, frantic sales pitches and waves of delegation hit the ground running - often literally through the maze of the marketplace. Pile in a gang of other wheel barrow operators who get wind of the value of those boxes, a smitten police officer, a Korean restaurant delivery boy, a lady-boy prostitute and a host of 'owners' of the boxes' mysterious (but never a Maguffin!) contents and, well, you have genre-film bliss.
Initially Victor's cargo has no tangible destination other to be moved around the marketplace, and the filmmakers delight in letting us into this world, a microcosm of the South American off-the-grid financial landscape in the same way that Fabian Bielinsky's Nine Queens functioned as a metaphor for the collapse of Argentina's economy. 7 Boxes is not a grifter-picture per se, but it is one in spirit. An honest-to-goodness pro-bono act by two random thieves is met with giddy celebration because it is unexpected and yet ironically appropriate.
The filmmakers don't rub our noses in their social commentary too much, though they clearly relish playing with the subject in an entertaining, wryly self-deprecating sort of way. Everyone is bumping into each other, connected yet compartmentalized, in the same way the boxes rattle and grind into one another without giving up their contents. The boxes changes hands as often as people's mobile phones, which might require a flow-chart to keep track of them all, but the filmmakers communicate the information with a mastery of craft.
To say more, plotwise, would be to spoil the surprise - actually surprises - of which there are as many as there are retail opportunities in the market. That the film is about something (more than Victor just getting on TV), and has a fair bit of heart in its cutely romantic relationship which it tucks gently in between episodes of inventive kinetic energy, is all just icing on the cake. I live for smart genre films like this one to be discovered at festivals.
Apparently, the cinematic output in the entire history of Paraguay amounts to about 20 feature films in total. But do not let this gushing review lead you to believe that because films from the central South American country are rare, they should be given a free pass. Quite the contrary: The storytelling confidence, the unaffectated acting, and, above all, a heightened grasp of plotting and logistics on display in 7 Boxes
is astonishing. It belongs in the company of Norway's Headhunters
and France's Sleepless Night
. That is to say, there are a lot of balls in the air, and the film juggles them both effortlessly and inventively.
Rare is the film that has me grinning like a fool as the chaos and bustle of all those casual seeming set-ups pay off; all the threads fold and tangle with one another. There is a Swiss watch sneakily clicking right along under its cracked concrete and corrugated steel veneer. Filmmakers Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori have got my attention, and they are, if I may say so, worthy of yours.
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