Sundance 2020: “Once Upon a Time In Venezuela”

Once Upon a Time In Venezuela

Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’s documentary about tension in the small village of Congo Mirador is both singular and specific.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

As the night sky shines a modicum of light over the Venezuelan village of Congo Mirador, the heat lighting begins. It’s a regular phenomenon too: a constant cycle of near darkness blinded by strobing curlicues that weave in and out of the clouds. Thus comes our first decent sight of the location. Mirador, located in the country’s northwest Zulian Region, bleeds from Colombia on its west to the Caribbean Sea on its northeast.

The community, however, stands above Lake Maracaibo, which, ranks as one of the planet’s oldest lakes at anywhere from 20 to 36 million years. It’s just recently that citizens have made it work economically and environmentally, but the once-thriving locale has begun to sink. At least, not according to Mrs. Tamara, whose allegiance to the Venezuelan government precludes any real worry about the area’s wellbeing. She sports posters Hugo Chávez on her wall; she collects dolls of the former president and displays them with pride.

An aide to the propaganda machine, she acts as Congo Mirador’s conduit to the national government. She also, despite the plummet of environmental protection and the economic harm that’s followed, pulls strings to further its corruption. The village used to thrive financially and culturally, but with elections on the horizon, it’s up to local teacher Natalie to fend off the state.

Partisan politics have been a major issue for communities around the world and, in spite of their respective specificities, almost always glean something much more universal. Such is the case with Once Upon a Time In Venezuela. Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’s first solo-directed film and first project since 2008 often fits that mold to a tee. It’s a quiet and at times droll look at a village enduring neglect and corruption, but more importantly, it’s also a damning look at the two-party system and its most autocannibalistic tendencies.

By and large, it’s the microcosmic effect that allows audiences to enter this world. The government worship, the nationalism, the regressive thinking that’d be comical if it weren’t so harmful—it’s easy to fall into. It’s also something of a jaunt, what with its 99-minute runtime. Ríos swiftly establishes her motifs and parallels by using government iconography in contexts similar to—but not entirely dictated by—pop culture and the parallels flesh themselves out with ease.

It’s similarly well done in how she and cinematographer John Márquez capture the purgatorial nature of the village. As houses begin to flow away and schools grow emptier, they track the decay without feeling crass or glib. The real success here, however, is how Ríos follows the elections corresponding and informing each side’s respective actions. Laws implicating the village’s economy further implicate the environment just as laws affecting the environment harm the economy.

[T]he movie isn’t unjustly cynical. It can be pessimistic in the philosophical sense, sure, but it also acknowledges how citizens can rebound while avoiding too tidy of a conclusion.

The film—which Ríos shot over seven years—gives its issues time to breathe, and the ostensibly populist outreach of Mrs. Tamara shows the limits to capitalism in both self-sustainability and ethics. And yet the movie isn’t unjustly cynical. It can be pessimistic in the philosophical sense, sure, but it also acknowledges how citizens can rebound while avoiding too tidy of a conclusion.

This ending is what cements Ríos’s decisions as as intimate as they are detached. Her film has some pacing issues and isn’t the most consistent in how it bobs and weaves between the interiors and exteriors at times. It also, as it happens, leaves something to be desired in how it approaches the villagers, but it’s easy to follow. Once Upon a Time In Venezuela deepens its reach into Congo Mirador as it is. It’s overflowing, it’s sinking, it’s purgatorial. It’s also striking and rife with possibilities, sitting firmly on the edge of the unknown. It could go either way at this point—and Ríos loves that as much as she fears it.

Once Upon a Time In Venezuela is playing in the World Documentary section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is to be released by Cargo Film & Releasing.

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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