Gente de Bien

This social realist story of a struggling father and son demonstrates why such narratives continue to resonate.
Gente de Bien

Bringing a tale predicated upon societal differences to the screen isn't a rare occurrence. Neorealist and social realism cinema movements have long forged their paths to filmic glory by highlighting plights steeped in class-based hardship, emphatically yet naturalistically expressing the vast chasm between those living lives of perpetual difficulty and those afforded means and agency. Though Gente de Bien also charts this terrain, the familiarity of many of the feature's elements doesn’t render it a mere thematic rehash. Making his first full-length effort after shorts Como todo el mundo and Rodri, writer/director Franco Lolli finds universal importance in a personal account of Colombian life. His vision of struggle and sacrifice might be based on a fictional script co-written with Virginie Legeay (L'heure du départ) and Catherine Paillé (The Good Life), but it is clearly informed by reality – and just as plainly demonstrates why such films continue to resonate. 

Running around the streets playing with his friends, ten-year-old Eric (debutant Brayan Santamarià) is at ease and in charge; at home with his family, he’s distanced, sitting in another room and watching on. In introducing the film’s protagonist, Gente de Bien doesn’t waste any time in demonstrating the distinction between the two parts of his life, just as Lolli doesn’t spare any technique to heighten the disparity. The rough-and-tumble of running free is shown as just that, rendered in warm hues and moving with handheld fluidity. The unease of domesticity is presented in stark contrast, tinted in cooler tones and remaining static, as both the boy and the shots shown from his perspective are framed through and bounded by a doorway. 

That Eric lives within constraints imposed by others, afforded rare chances to find his own way, might be instantly established in the effective juxtaposition that opens Gente de Bien; however the rest of the feature avoids simply repeating this dynamic over and over again. Instead, it parlays the limitations evident in his youthful existence into an examination of the broader borders imposed by his social status. The film evolves from the more innocent dichotomy of a child at home with his contemporaries but left feeling lost with his relatives, to the blatant division prescribed by income and surroundings. 

The catalyst for this contemplation springs from Eric's forced shuffle from his mother to his father, boarding house resident Gabriel (fellow first-timer Carlos Fernando Perez). Tagging along on handyman jobs in houses that may as well be mansions, the boy has his eyes opened to the way the other half lives. Of course, his own restricted reality bears little resemblance to the better-off families that he meets. Entering the domain of wealthy clients such as seemingly caring university lecturer Maria Isabel (Alejandra Borrero, Poker) and her son Francisco (newcomer Santiago Martínez), he is exposed to the injustice of class, with the extent of the boundaries that dictate his days becoming clear.

Lolli's attempts to illuminate the gap between the poor and the rich, and to anchor his study of societal divides in the tale of a wearied but striving father and his son, range beyond the comparisons his work conjures to the likes of Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves. Gente de Bien is not only incisive in its depiction of impoverished actuality, wielding its navigation of cramped and expansive spaces as a weapon, nor is it merely canny in the heartbreaking slices of ordinary life it chooses to use to demonstrate its point — it is also devastatingly astute in understanding that coveting and embracing the advantages of those with bigger bank balances isn’t the solution it seems to be.

In fact, the feature may inspire many of the same realisations and rely upon imparting its story using similar methods – representational performances and style, for example – as its obvious forebears; however it does so with fresh and caring eyes as well as a distinctive voice and viewpoint. It is here that the efforts of young Santamarià prove just as pivotal as the filmmaker's in distinguishing the movie as a textured and thoughtful new addition to the fold. His portrayal is a revelation, the inexperienced actor's expression of the emotions applicable to Eric's burgeoning awareness of his station as adroit as it age-appropriate, and playing well against the narrower yet still as nuanced readings from Perez and Borrero. He makes audiences dwell in the specificity and the delicacy of the details offered, not in the broader commonalities apparent in the overarching predicament, which is where Gente de Bien shines brightest — not as a crusade for a cause or a well-worn coming-of-age narrative in humble surroundings, but as a strikingly intimate portrait of a marginalised existence.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Gente de Bien                                                                             
Director: Franco Lolli
Colombia / France, 2014, 86 mins

Spanish Film Festival

Sydney: 21 April – 10 May
Melbourne: 22 April – 10 May
Canberra: 23 April – 6 May
Perth: 23 April – 6 May
Brisbane: 29 April – 13 May
Byron Bay: 30 April – 7 May
Adelaide: 6 – 20 May
Hobart: 7 – 13 May

Sarah Ward

Friday 1 May, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay