Alanis: Sofía Gala stars as a multitasking mom capable of texting her Johns while nurturing Junior.
  • Alanis: Sofía Gala stars as a multitasking mom capable of texting her Johns while nurturing Junior.
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Before congratulating Moisés Esparza, Programming Manager for the San Diego Latino Film Festival and Digital Gym, on this year’s outstanding lineup, let’s unleash a whole lotta love in the direction of festival papa Ethan Van Thillo on the occasion of the festival’s 25th anniversary.

My requests to Moisés were simple and few. No Telenovelas. (Sorry, Ethan!) No well-intentioned but visually bankrupt documentaries. No overt message pictures. No cheeseball horror. (He fills my plate with enough IFC Midnight throughout the year as is.) If possible, bring on the romantic melodramas, funny R-rated comedies, and dark crime pics. (Nudity and profanity is always a plus!) Admittedly there wasn’t much to laugh at this time ‘round, but when it came to delivering on the rest, the lad socked it out of the park. Here are three must-see movies playing at Festival 25.

Did you hear the one about the traveling salesman and the modest maid?

A telling moment opens The Desert Bride: a mistress gives her domestic Teresa (Paulina García) a manicure so that her mitts might look spectacular when she’s handed her walking papers. Other than a devotion to their growing son, we come to learn very little about Teresa’s relationship with the family for whom she spent the majority of her life working.

What little information there is arrives in the form of flashbacks sprinkled throughout the course of the film. What drives this narrative is Teresa’s desperation to find a gray bag containing her life’s possessions, a bag she left with a guy known only as “Gringo” (Claudio Rissi). Adding to the confusion: while en route to her new place of employment in San Juan, the threat of a storm brewing is compounded by the presence of a natural-born spieler, gently pressuring her into trying on a dress.

What awaits our travelers is a life-altering romantic journey about a pair of “stones in the road” who blossom into roadside Saints. Thinking that he might have accidentally left the bag at one of his numerous stops, Gringo invites Teresa to join him on his rounds. It’s just a matter of time before she lets down her guard, he eases up on the sales pitch, and together they find love among the turquoise tiles of a saloon lavatory.

Co-written and directed by Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato, this is one of the great screen romances in recent memory. I will be shocked if Bride doesn’t receive a second life at the Digital Gym. Just in case it doesn’t, here are three opportunities to see it at the festival: at the Digital Gym Cinema on March 15 at 7:55 p.m. or at AMC Fashion Valley on either March 18 at 8:40 p.m. or March 25 at 5:40 p.m.

Next up, Tigers Are Not Afraid, which on the surface appeared to be yet another just-say-no-to-drugs fantasy as filtered through the eyes of children. A local drug cartel known as the Huascas will stop at nothing — including killing innocents — to advance their cause. Five children orphaned by their bullets band together to put an end to the bandidos and avenge the death of their parents.

The title refers to a fairy tale assignment presented by Estrella’s (Paola Lara) homeroom teacher just moments before gunfire rips apart the classroom. Violence surrounds the student. On the way home from school, she turns and walks the other way to avoid a blanketed body lying on the sidewalk. Like ink-blown paint, the river of CG blood from the corpse begins to follow her, all the way into her home. The effect was so convincingly staggering that I hit rewind to make sure it was the result of a computer technician and not a well-aimed fan suddenly gusting off-camera. Animated moments dot the fabric of the picture — at times threatening to, but never quite leaving a lasting stain on the memory.

Don’t expect young actors assigned precocious dialogue and invested with wisdom far beyond their years. These are children, something the filmmaker never lets us forget. Hollywood thinking being what it is, would no doubt assume that those purchasing tickets were the same age as the youngsters appearing on screen. And so any semblance of real life interactions would immediately be watered down as the studio, eager to help boost ticket sales, would invariably aim for a PG-13 rating. Here’s one child’s-eye look at the world we live in that isn’t afraid to play unrated.

Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid screens at the Digital Gym, March 17 at 6:00 p.m. and AMC Fashion Valley on March 24 at 6:15 p.m.

Finally, there’s a young woman who goes by the handle Alanis (Sofía Gala). It’s neither her hooker name nor a tribute by a fanatical mother to Ms. Morissette, but her real name. Alanis is an intimate, slice-of-life gander at the Buenos Aires underworld that centers on a young prostitute (with child in tow) who gets bounced from her “house” by the same law enforcement officers sworn to help keep her off the streets. In this case, writer-director Anahí Berneri’s fly-on-the-wall technique frequently translates into long takes from a fixed camera, giving ample time (if not space) to observe our lead character.

Other than its naturalistic presentation, the film doesn’t offer much in the way of drama. But whatever preconceived notions about sex industry workers accompany you into the theatre are bound to be shattered, thanks in large part to Ms. Gala’s frank and tender performance. There are explicit scenes, but given the self-conscious, downright clinical presentation of the sex acts, don’t expect anything that could possibly be construed as pornographic. And there are more images of breastfeeding than you’re likely find on a pregnancy website, to the point where the repeated shots of Alanis suckling her baby while on the run eventually bring a smile — a sly, sweet running joke.

Alanis screens at the Digital Gym, March 22 at 6:10 p.m. and AMC Fashion Valley on March 25 at 8:20 p.m.

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