VIAJE: A New Departure for Costa Rican Cinema

By Yoshua Oviedo Ugalde

The effervescence of the emerging Costa Rican cinema is not weakening. As the production expands in new directions, each new film brings forth new formal postures, highlighting the different artistic paths filmmakers are using for self-expression.

Viaje, Paz Fábrega’s second feature film, follows her 2009 debut, Cold Water of the Sea/ Agua fría de mar, winner of the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Her new film, making its international premiere in the official competition at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival this week, makes of its simplicity its greatest strength. A central story, without subplots, that connects with the spirit of current generation.

The film is locally publicized as “the first Costa Rican cinematic love story,” however, that’s not entirely correct. With other parameters and different contexts, films have been made in the country in which a couple falls in love, or one in which the story revolves around a romance. What this new film offers is a realistic portrayal of the effective ties of contemporary youth.

In Viaje, Luciana and Pedro, who after a night of partying wake up together unexpectedly, embark on a journey in which they get involved further than either had anticipated. The film raises a common scenario familiar to the life of many young adults, who without feeling authoritarian or moralistic pressure, journey into self-discovery through their relationships, without necessarily feeling ownership over one another.

Their Eros–filled affair begins by chance at a party, although it could have been in a classroom or at a bus stop. Everything else gives way to their desire. They enjoy the momentary pleasure of their yearning and lack of inhibition. Their future is not planned, but a few hours together become days. The spectator comes to know very little about the characters, one might even forget the name of the protagonists, much like the female lead does. However, Luciana and Pedro are not stereotypes or a failed reproduction of a pretentious reality. 

It’s logical that with such Eros, the action takes place in an Eden, a place where time seems to stop. In the party scenes at the start of the film, the camera is in a fixed position, and only moves vertically as the characters go up or down the stairs. This changes when the action is transported to the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, whose natural exuberance erases the past. The camera is concentrated in the adventure of the present, acquiring greater mobility, closing in on the characters, whose emotions mimic the landscape.

Photographed in black and white, the main characters stay in the foreground in relation to the natural landscape. Fábrega notes that “because it is a movie more about expressions and people, it’s more about the human story than about nature.” The couple is the center of attention when they are exploring the forests or when submerged in the river.

In that Eden, they detach themselves from the rest of the world, living in the present, a detail that can’t be looked over. The fleeting nature of their romance is marked by the constant mentions of the bus that must be taken so Luciana may return to the capital, a sort of expiration date to the moments they share.

Moreover, the question is raised of what isn’t captured by the camera, such as the protagonists’ past, and the city that was left behind.  The Thanatos that ruptures the idealization of the moment is a character that doesn’t appear on screen, as well as the city-destiny that is mentioned but not seen. These elements serve to give a narrative turn to the film, creating a conflict the characters cannot avoid.

In one moment Luciana is alone submerged in calm waters, and her mind imagines an encounter with Pedro.  The director plays with the mise-en-scène with a slower rhythm reflecting the passivity of the situation. Luciana looks toward the left of the frame, Pedro looks the right; however, the editing makes it seem that they are together, looking at each other. Returning from the daydream, Luciana has already reached a decision.

Viaje shows and insinuates, it doesn’t judge or pretend to be moralistic. The narrative structure responds to experimentation and the scenes that emerge at the moment of filming, for what can be considered a more intuitive rather than rational film. And this is reflected, in the life of these two characters, who seem to respond better to their instincts than to logic, or to a conservative and traditional morality.  

Fernando Bolaños and Kattia Gonzalez are credible in their roles in this improbable romance.  The director manages to escape falling into clichés, and manages to create beautifully erotic scenes, with sensibility and genuineness, in which the acting flows in the general context of the film. Excellent lighting and photography also help achieve this effect.

Although there are continuity errors, a lag in the sound mix, and the use of songs with the clear intention to provoke in the spectator a determined state of mind, this does not subtract from the elegant mise-en-scène that in moments, and with an accentuated lyricism, leaves several images burned on the retina.

Yoshua Oviedo is a film critic based in San José, Costa Rica.

Text translated by José Raúl Guzmán.
This text is presented in a collaboration with the Costa Rica International Film Festival "Paz con la Tierra," as part of their Film Criticism Lab. Special thanks to Karina Avellán and Marcelo Quesada.