The striking opening shot of Abner Benaim’s plangent drama “Plaza Catedral” induces slight vertigo. The camera rises on an elevator attached to the outside of a partially built skyscraper, looking out across Panama City’s high-rise apartment complexes, and eventually, at the bay beyond. It should be uplifting, but a chilly, murmured voiceover and the opening drone of Matthew Herbert’s rueful score, are like the rainclouds that edge the blue sky in foreboding gray. The view ascends, but it evokes a sinking feeling.
The voice belongs to Alicia (a strong, subtle turn from Mexican actress Ilse Salas), who introduces herself and speaks elliptically, in her emotionless, removed way, of a loss she has suffered in her recent past, that has put her at odds with the world around her. She is an architect by training but a salesperson for an upscale property developer by profession, hence her visit to this half-finished penthouse, with the young family who are thinking of buying it.
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In the wake of losing her 6-year-old son in a freak accident, Alicia and her husband Diego (Manolo Cardona) divorced. She now lives in a smart, well-appointed apartment on the Plaza of the title, where one day she is waved into a parking space by a rangy 13-year-old who calls her “Boss” and goes by the nickname “Chief.” He is played by a terrifically surly, understated Fernando Xavier De Casta, whose murder mere months before the film’s release is a shattering blow revealed to us in a terse title at the end, and cannot but cast a retroactive pall over the project, even while it stands as a fine testament to his nascent talent.
Chief is an annoyance to Alicia, who is wrapped up in her self-imposed, grief-mandated, guilt-induced isolation. He flings coins back at her when she doesn’t pay him enough, sneers at her as a gringa (she’s Mexican, but not being from Panama apparently makes her foreign enough to warrant the slur) and insinuates vague threats about what will happen to her car if she’s stingy. Alicia, with the grit of the hard-edged urbanite who is just too preoccupied right now to worry about checking her privilege, refuses to be intimidated. They settle into a frosty stalemate, which changes abruptly when one night Alicia finds Chief bleeding from a bullet wound to the stomach on her stairway.
This is the third time a film of Benaim’s has been selected as Panama’s entry for the international Oscar, but the previous two were documentaries (2014’s “Invasion” and 2018’s “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”). This time, in his second fiction feature, Benaim brings some of his documentarian sensibility to bear on a story that might otherwise feel a little schematic. As it is, the entirely convincing snapshot he presents, of a city riven by divisions between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken, comes to glowering life in the gently thawing chemistry between his two protagonists.
And while “Plaza Catedral” never lapses into sentimentality, as Alicia’s unexpected and volatile connection to Chief evolves to provide her with the redemption perhaps even she does not know she is seeking, the truthfulness of the performances renders it moving and genuine, despite the inherent problematics of its focus on the poor boy primarily as an agent of change for the well-off woman.
The actors’ subdued, elegant downplaying is complemented by the cool restraint of Lorenzo Hagerman photography, which is especially attuned to the impersonal, somehow oblivious, coldness of more moneyed surroundings: the expensively neutral upholstery of Alicia’s spacious apartment; the angles and floor-to-ceiling windows of the office where her complacent boss Jack (played by Benaim himself) insists on sharing a celebratory drink with her at 10 in the morning. One shot, of a painstaking scale model of the Panama City skyline which is placed by a window that looks out onto the very same real-life view, is eloquent in its summation of an entire professional elite who literally get to build the world according to their own design — or, conversely, get to look on the real world from a lordly perspective, as though it were their plaything.
It contrasts most markedly with a section toward the end when Alicia finally visits the grubby, ramshackle neighborhood where Chief lives, and of which it’s likely no architect ever troubled to build a model. That Benaim, who also wrote the screenplay, chooses to end his film here, in a moment of sudden violence that is a darkly cathartic culmination for both characters, is poignant in offering the slenderest, faintest tendril of optimism. Which somehow makes that final title, with the news of this promising, charismatic young actor’s horribly premature death, all the more crushing: an example not of life imitating art, but obliterating it.
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