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The Malambo dance is both intense and mesmerising, setting the tone for the tumultuous ride of Karnawal. Inspired by the movements of horses, this folk cowboy dance, inherent to the Northern Jujuy region of Argentina, requires discipline and drive. And Cabra (Martin López) is so determined to be a great dancer that he is willing to do anything to get the money for the knee-length boots needed to dance; including running a gun over the Bolivian-Argentine border.
Karnawal starts right in the thick of things, with the young lad handed the gun in the midst of a celebration, and trying to sneak it over the border on a rickety bus. After narrowly escaping the hands of border police — in intense, intimate scenes shot with handheld cameras — he returns to his mother’s (Mónica Lairana) house, where she lives with her national guard boyfriend (Diego Cremonesi).
The film contains a real appreciation for the customs of the region, as shown by the pre-Hispanic rituals of the Carnaval de Humahuaca — locals dress up as bright devils, letting go of inhibitions to unearth and then bury the devil. These are some of the best scenes in the movie, where the personal interacts with history, showing how difficult it can be to break out of the place in which you’re raised. The narrative of the film maps itself onto and alongside these festivities, as his father (Alfredo Castro) is let out of prison, bringing his son along on an intense journey that combines the slice-of-life family drama with the crime thriller.
Growing up in such a harsh environment, only thing that keeps Cabra going is his love of dance, captured well by cinematographer Ramiro Civita and editors Luz Lopez Mañe and Eduardo Serrano, who know the right time to cut and the right time to let the dancing speak for itself. This leads up to the final competition, featuring a blistering performance by López that recalls the frantic drumming scenes in Whiplash.
Karnawal takes a long time to finally come together, layering on seemingly disparate elements that eventually loop back upon one another. But this ambitious narrative often comes at odds with the film’s thriller elements, stretching out its central themes instead of honing them. While boasting great scenery — including the harsh and rugged mountains of Northern Argentina — and a great eye for local detail, the sense of urgency found in individual scenes doesn’t quite work when viewed as a whole.
Additionally, despite López’s passion and strong dance moves, the young lad often seems like a bystander in his own story, overshadowed by the magnetic performance of Chilean veteran (and frequent Pablo Larraín collaborator) Alfredo Castro. Despite superficial criminal lifestyles, there feels like few similarities between the two characters, straining the father-son backbone of the film when it should be its tightest point. The supporting cast is also thinly drawn, including a mother with a paper-thick personality and an overly stoic step-dad, providing little contrast to the central duo. Debut director Juan Pablo Félix has obvious talent in creating and maintaining a tense atmosphere; here’s hoping his next film is just a little more focused.
Should the Wind Drop plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.