I really wanted to love this movie. Regular readers of this column know I embrace cinema from around the world, for its opportunity to see new places and encounter new ways of living and thinking. What you may not know is that a personal travel highlight is discovering a city’s unique street art, whether an alley of anti-fascist murals in San Francisco, a thorny rose symbolizing heartbreak in Montmartre, or a multi-story fantastical creature in Cardiff.
So I eagerly hit ‘play’ and anticipated great things from Days of the Whale, a drama that hovers around two graffiti artists in Medellín. Unfortunately, this debut feature from Colombian writer/director Catalina Arroyave Restrepo is burdened with weak dialogue and uninspired acting, liabilities outweighing the good in this film.
This is lamentable, because Restrepo is attempting to offer up-to-date social commentary on the city of her youth. Medellín may have survived the era of narcoterrorism, but gangs still render many neighborhoods dangerous places. An opening scene in Restrepo’s film shows Lucas (Carlos Fonnegra), a leader of an artistic cooperative, enduring a shakedown for protection money from a belligerent gang member.
Other members bristle at Lucas’ treatment, including the film’s two main characters, Cristina (Laura Tobon Ochóa) and Simon (David Escallón Orrego). The cooperative distributes a pamphlet denouncing the protection racket, to which the gang responds by scrawling “snitches get stitches” on the wall opposite the cooperative. When Cristina and Simon unilaterally decide to paint over the gang’s warning, they incur Lucas’ displeasure, and it seems just a matter of time before events will come to a violent head.
Set against this depiction of urban lawlessness is more discreet commentary on Medellín’s economic disparities. Simon resides in the gang-ruled neighborhood with his grandmother, while Cristina is a child of privilege, dwelling in a posh apartment building with her father and stepmother as she attends university.
In more accomplished hands, a drama like this could pack a moral wallop. But the wildlife symbolism involving the whale of the film’s title is too distant and gossamer to have real force. More problematic still, Days of the Whale’s dialogue is limp and merely functional, carrying us dully from Point A to Point B.
Without exception, too, the characters are missing an inner animating spark. Some of this may be due to the actors’ inexperience, as only Cristina’s father is played by a regular on Colombia’s big and small screens, Christian Tappan. But even Tappan’s character is gray and bland.
Cristina and Simon are partners in street art creation, and their nocturnal spray can sessions together are the some of the film’s best and most convincing sequences. They’re also supposed to be on-again, off-again romantic partners, but they lack any plausible love chemistry.
There are pleasures to be had in viewing Days of the Whale, however. Scenes of urban life and graffiti artists at work impart a sense of place. But these are regrettably brief, and I was left wishing the camera had lingered on the gorgeously colorful street art (which surely would’ve been possible, as the closing credits thank a plethora of street artists for their support and participation).
Better yet, the film score is varied and vibrant. Tracks run the gamut from Colombian salsa to rock to reggaeton, while the original music by Victor Acevedo is an appealing mix of surf music and long guitar notes, conveying the feel of sunny days and open spaces.
Hopefully, Days of the Whale is a dry run for stronger work from Restrepo, as she’s a writer/director with important things to say. In one of her interviews following this film’s premiere at SXSW last year, Restrepo said her next project is a female coming-of-age tale at a Catholic school. It’s not a novel premise, but one with promise, nonetheless.
(Please support indie cinemas by streaming Days of the Whale from sites like this one.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )